Pope Francis has perplexed many devout and ardent Catholics in the United States and around the world by his apparent de-emphasis of struggles against abortion and same-sex marriage, struggles to which these Catholics – who may with justice be described as the most Catholic of American Catholics – have devoted their time, energy, money, work, and prayers. But the pope, not long after becoming head of the Catholic Church told us that we shouldn’t “insist” on or “obsess” about these things.
While of course not approving of abortion or homosexuality (he hardly could, given the age-old Catholic teaching that these are great sins), the pope himself certainly doesn’t seem to have an anti-abortion or anti-homosexuality obsession. If the pope has any obsession at all, it is an obsession with poverty and unbridled capitalism.
Not long ago, Francis confirmed the worst fears of many orthodox Catholics by discouraging the Latin Mass in his motu proprio Traditionis custodes – a form of the Mass favored and supported by laypersons who appear to be far above average in their commitment to Catholicism and its beliefs and practices. Further, Francis seems, at least to the very orthodox, to be “soft” in his belief in the indissolubility of marriage.
Many old-fashioned Catholics suspect, and not a few of them are absolutely convinced, that Francis is that horrible thing, a liberal or progressive Catholic. André Gide once wrote a novel (Les Caves du Vatican, in English Lafcadio’s Adventures) – a novel that was by turns comic and serious – in which many pious French Catholics were persuaded that the Freemasons had managed to remove the real pope from the throne of Peter and replace him with a Freemason who pretended to be the pope. Not many pious Catholics today have a great fear of the Freemasons (although I am personally acquainted with one such person, a devout Catholic woman). Apparently, such persons still exist even in the post-Vatican II Church, and they may be more numerous than suspected by simple-minded persons like myself.
This de-emphasis on the fight against abortion and same-sex marriage, combined with his economic critique of unregulated capitalism, and further combined with his enthusiasm for protecting the environment, has made Pope Francis very popular with precisely those Catholics who had no use for his two immediate predecessors, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. At the moment, the pope’s biggest fans are found among theologically liberal Catholics (many of them persons of doubtful orthodoxy) and among outright atheists and semi-atheists.
“Doesn’t the pope realize,” many ardent Catholics ask one another, “that abortion and same-sex marriage, in addition to being intrinsically evil, are being used by the enemies of God to undermine and destroy the Church? Doesn’t he realize that a failure to fight against these evils will lead to the defeat of our religion?”
And they sometimes add, “If Francis has a truly Catholic mind, how could he have appointed Fr. James Martin, SJ to an honorable post at the Vatican?”
Now I am in sympathy with these ardent Catholics, but I think there is method in the pope’s apparent madness. To explain what he is up to, I offer the following hypothesis. Please note that this is a very tentative hypothesis – in other words, while I think I’m correct, I’m not willing to bet a lot of money on it.
From the beginning of his tenure in the Chair of Peter, Pope Francis has decided – despite all the talk of evangelization – that Catholicism is pretty much a lost cause in those countries in which the highly secularized culture of modernity has prevailed, i.e., the European continental countries and the English-speaking world. Catholicism will of course survive in those places. And qualitatively speaking, it will be an excellent kind of Catholicism, for Catholics in those places will be those who adhere to the old faith through choice and conviction, not merely, though, through a kind of family inertia. But quantitatively speaking, Catholicism will be a minor thing in those places, something like the Coptic religion in Egypt. The dominant “faith” in those highly modernized countries will be secular (or atheistic) humanism.
The pope has further decided, I suggest, that the quantitative future of the Catholic Church lies in places like Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and even India. And in those countries, the greatest danger to the faith is not abortion or homosexuality (wicked as these may be) but poverty and the maldistribution of income and wealth. For if Catholicism can do little or nothing to ameliorate the material and temporal condition of the poor, the poor will abandon the Catholic Church. And thus the Church, if it is to flourish, must be the Church of the poor and the great champion of social justice.
And so the pope will not object if we American Catholics continue to fight against abortion and same-sex marriage. God bless you in that struggle, he’ll say. Such a fight (which is not over here as it mostly is elsewhere) will serve to purify American Catholicism as it moves in the direction of its ultimate destiny, that of a “saving remnant.” But the real future of the Church is in the Third World, and that’s what Pope Francis – and his successors as Bishop of Rome – will have to attend to above all.
A century or two from now the headquarters of the Church may not be in Rome but in Nigeria. However (and here is the good news!) the artistic treasures of the Vatican will be left behind for the delight and edification of cultured Anglo-European atheists. Better still (because of being more democratic in its appeal), St. Peter’s will be converted to one of Europe’s great sports arenas.
I think that’s what’s in the mind of Pope Francis. Is he correct in his assessment as to the future of the Church? Ah, that’s another question. I don’t know the answer, but time will tell.
*Image: Pope Francis waves during the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Pope Francis Oversteps the Papal Office
Brad Miner’s Francis Fatigue