Pope Francis Is a Nightmare (But Whose?)

Why Pope Francis May Be a Catholic Nightmare“,which came out on Slate the day the Holy Father was elected, seems laughable today. Thank God that Michael Dougherty missed the mark when he conjectured that Pope Francis would be:

…one more in the pile of recent Catholic novelties and mediocrities…

And again:

An older pope who does not know which curial offices and officers need the ax…

And worst of all:

…the sudden spotlight on his reign may reveal scandal and negligence…

But let’s not be too hasty. Some Catholics (liturgical traditionalists like Dougherty) might not want the pope on the cover of Rolling Stone, contrasted strongly with his more traditional predecessor. In the Rolling Stone article, Benedict XVI is described like Freddy Krueger. The author, Mike Binelli, opines that obviously the leader of a religion founded by hippie Jesus should not live in a palace.

Binelli misses the point that a truly humble prelate of the Catholic Church allows himself, in essential aspects, to be objectified. The Church dresses up its backyards and altars and cathedrals and bishops to honor God. It takes humility to be a human Christmas tree. So much for Benedict’s humility.

Pope Francis’s call to simplify the Church (a poor Church for the poor) is also traditional. It is an impulse dating back to the Cistercians of the 12th century and the Franciscans of the 13th century. At these moments in history, it appeared as if the splendor of the Church distracted Christians from proper worship or ministering to the poor.

Francis is driving the Church towards the new evangelization. In other words, he is following the “policy” of his predecessors (Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI) to find a way to proclaim the Gospel to the vast incredulity of the modern world. But traditionalists worry that he has sacrificed another “policy” of his predecessors in the name of the new evangelization. Francis has shifted the emphasis away from dogmatic uniformity.

Francis’s strategy of simplifying the Church in order to promote the new evangelization has had palpable results: “the Francis effect“. The Church must proclaim its message to the world entire, not simply those in the pews already. Some of its adiaphora (red shoes, ermine cloaks, gold crucifixes, etc.) have gotten in the way, and must be discarded if the Church is to achieve the mission she has received from Jesus Christ.

For some “traditionalist” Catholics, Pope Francis’s success is a nightmare. (Only in the Catholic Church could “Traditionalism” refer to a relative novelty, i.e. a 19th century attachment to a 16th century Tridentine liturgy.) Traditionalists worry that abandoning certain externals waters down the Church. They need to wake up. Even if the Church is supposed to be an anti-modern “sign of contradiction”, it must signify something to incredulous moderns rather than a baffling baroque edifice.

In the kerfuffle over his challenge to “trickle-down economics” in Evangelii Gaudium, Francis’s rebuke to traditionalist Catholics in pars. 94-95 may have gone under the RADAR. (The fact that many traditionalist Catholics were more concerned with the papal criticisms of lassiez-faire capitalism is interesting… but I’ll leave that for a later Marxian observation.) Francis criticizes a spiritual wordliness that has seeped into the Church. He devotes most of the paragraph to lambaste

the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.

Catholic traditionalists, liturgical purists (you’re in the next paragraph), and neo-Thomist rigorists, beware. You may be “promethean neopelagians” with a bad case of “anthropocentric immanentism”. That is my kind of papal condemnation!

This insidious worldliness is evident in a number of attitudes which appear opposed, yet all have the same pretence of “taking over the space of the Church”. In some people we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time. In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece or something which is the property of a select few. In others, this spiritual worldliness lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain, or pride in their ability to manage practical affairs, or an obsession with programmes of self-help and self-realization. It can also translate into a concern to be seen, into a social life full of appearances, meetings, dinners and receptions. It can also lead to a business mentality, caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations whose principal beneficiary is not God’s people but the Church as an institution. The mark of Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, is not present; closed and elite groups are formed, and no effort is made to go forth and seek out those who are distant or the immense multitudes who thirst for Christ. Evangelical fervour is replaced by the empty pleasure of complacency and self-indulgence.


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