Oh, Francis!

Pope Francis flew out of Philadelphia yesterday evening, after a grueling week that took him to three cities in Cuba and three in America, an itinerary that would have exhausted a man half his age. He pretty much accomplished what everyone expected that he would: charming crowds young and old – left, right, and center – and all points in between. He also raised more than a few controversies and caused many people to ask, yet again: what does this obviously good and holy man mean to tell us? That, two-and-a-half years into his papacy, despite his considerable ability to touch people in incredible ways, remains unclear. For not a few, the whole subject raises deep anxiety.

He went first yesterday to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary to talk to his bishops assembled from all over the world for the World Meeting of Families. (He had spoken to the American bishops separately in Washington Wednesday). In what was probably one of his most fervent statements of the whole trip, he told them:

As pastors, we bishops are called to collect our energies and to rebuild enthusiasm for making families correspond ever more fully to the blessing of God which they are! We need to invest our energies not so much in rehearsing the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family. Here too, we need a bit of holy parrhesia! A Christianity which “does” little in practice, while incessantly “explaining” its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced. I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle. A pastor must show that the “Gospel of the family” is truly “good news” in a world where self-concern seems to reign supreme!

This is one of Francis’s constant themes and, it bears noting, it’s also one that deeply confuses and upsets many people. There’s no quarrel, or problem, with the active going out to others: indeed, there are any number of groups and individuals who spend their entire waking lives precisely at such tasks. And those very same people often can’t figure out how it is that “rehearsing the problems” or “the merits of Christianity” – even worse, “explaining” its teachings – are somehow opposed to the practical outreach. How do you invite and persuade young people to marry, other than by giving them ideas different than the ones dominant in the culture? By sheer force of personality? But that’s an appeal to emotion, not truth or the word of God. Is that really how Christianity should work?

Situations differ widely around the world, of course, and no doubt some are “dangerously unbalanced” with too much time and effort devoted to explaining teachings, though it’s hard to say exactly where those situations might exist. It’s quite unlikely, at any rate, that most bishops, anywhere, would regard an overemphasis on teaching as one of the major failings of the Church in our time. Indeed, if there’s an unbalance among us, it’s that Christianity has been reduced to a few slogans like “love one another,” or be “tolerant and open,” current shibboleths that the secular world doesn’t much need the Church to tell it.

The pope departs
The pope departs

Further, this fed into a, by now, common complaint that one hears from many of the most faithful and active Catholics in our parishes and dioceses: why does the Holy Father seem so often to be criticizing us while he praises the slightest evidence of virtue or right action by people outside or even opposed to the whole Catholic thing?

In the afternoon, after one of his remarkable personal encounters, this time at the Curran-Frommhold Prison to meet with ninety-five inmates, the pope’s homily at the concluding Mass seemed to be a programmatic prelude to the Synod on the Family. As with the address to the bishops earlier in the day, he scolded – no other word will do – those whom he regards as rigid followers of rules, and not the Spirit. He did this last year prior to the 2014 Synod when, in a homily, he criticized those who, like the ancient Pharisees, follow hundreds of minute precepts – something Our Lord told them they should not deviate from by one jot or tittle, but must also fulfill the weightier matters of the Law.

It’s best to speak of precisely what the Holy Father said in this context. Towards the end of his homily, in his somewhat vague way, he again advocated care for our common home, his environmental theme, but also recognition of the need for an openness to life, that “invites all those who want to share the prophecy of the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God!” In other words, he reflected the full Catholic position, something that has both liberal and conservative elements, as those are understood in current American culture.

It was what he said earlier, in his reflection on the Gospel – where the apostles are worried about healers who are not among the formal adherents to the Lord – that Francis expressed a radical view that may well tell us what will start to happen at the Synod on the Family next weekend:

Moses and Jesus both rebuke those closest to them for being so narrow! . . .For them, his openness to the honest and sincere faith of many men and women who were not part of God’s chosen people seemed intolerable. The disciples, for their part, acted in good faith. But the temptation to be scandalized by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Mt5:45), bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence it must be vigorously rejected.

There’s much to be said against rigid institutions that betray the freedom and action of the Spirit, but much also to be said in favor of those institutions, and the good and faithful pastors who run them, that support us all through the many twists and turns of earthly life, which cannot solely be met with spontaneous recourse to the Spirit, but must also engage the dumb practicalities of daily life.

Sharp criticism of the Churchmen who try to serve the people. High praise of those outside the Church who may be following the Spirit without knowing it. And all this in a homily during a Mass supposed to be the conclusion to an international meeting to help affirm and promote the family.

Even a sophisticated Catholic cannot help but find this quite unsettling. We know and agree up to a point with what the Holy Father is saying. But there’s much else – much that seems far more urgent – challenging our societies. Perhaps the Synod on the Family, which begins this week, will enlighten us.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.