In the aftermath of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, friends often send me “whatcha think?” links about the direction Pope Francis is likely to take in the coming year. It’s a hard situation, because a lot of what is out there is negative about the Holy Father: “He botched the Synod,” “He is out to get conservative Catholics,” “He has a radical agenda of reform,” and so on. As a Catholic one wonders how to navigate the conversation.
Based on recent exchanges, I have worked up a few rules of thumb for myself that others may find helpful as well. When I consider how I should react to the situation Pope Francis faces, there are three things to consider: (1) the situation, (2) Pope Francis, and (3) me.
Rule of Thumb #1: Focus on the situation
This is conflict resolution 101, really. It is rarely helpful to talk about motives or speculate about events unfolding far away, but it is always helpful to talk about the reality right around you. And the reality around us is that people are confused, despite any pretense to the contrary. So while I will not say, “Pope Francis intends to do this” or “Pope Francis is to blame for that,” I will say, loud and clear, that people are confused and agitated after the Synod.
During the Synod there was a wash of helpful and unhelpful commentary online. Unhelpful commentary dwelt with anguish on the bold and impious motives of this or that key figure in the drama, while helpful pieces gave factual information about the unfolding events and offered a frank assessment of the resulting situation in the world. It was not angry or bitter to say that people were afraid of a harmful relaxation in the Church’s practice; it was not harsh or hurtful to say that many Catholics took scandal at the appearance of political maneuvering. It was just stating the experience of Catholics as a reality. So long as the focus stayed on the situation and off the dramatis personae, it was a true exercise of the prophetic charism every Catholic possesses in virtue of Baptism.
Focusing on the situation not only keeps us from saying potentially unjust things about Pope Francis but also keeps us focused on what the Holy Spirit is asking us to do. We know that the Holy Spirit guides the Church and will ultimately preserve her from ruin, but this principle tempts us to look far away at things outside of our responsibility and trust the Holy Spirit wa-a-a-ay over there. “Gee, it looks like the Pope is doing X or Y, but I know the Holy Spirit is taking care of things. Wow, it looks like the bishops are saying A or B, but I know the Holy Spirit is taking care of things.” As long as we focus on the Pope, we forget that the Holy Spirit is also working through us, right here. Focusing on the situation at hand reminds us that we need to stop wringing our hands about what happens in Rome and start looking for what the Holy Spirit wants to do right under our noses.
Rule of Thumb #2: Balance realism and reverence
Of course, we can’t just avoid all conversations about the Pope. People will ask us what we think, and anyway we should pay enough attention to form specific prayer intentions for him. So what do we say if asked point-blank about the Pope’s intentions or culpability or whatever?
First, we have to be realistic. There have been truly rotten popes in the past, and there may be truly rotten popes in the future. The Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church does not give her immunity from all bad leadership. We need to get familiar with some Church history so we can offer people this context, because if people are not realistic then they will be lazy in prayer and more easily scandalized if things do turn bad.
Second, we have to be reverent. The fact that the Pope is a public figure does not make him fair game for any unfeeling remark; on the contrary, his office demands respect. When we see certain facts reported in the News or the blogosphere, inevitably the facts will admit of a range of interpretations from best to worst, any one of which a reasonable person could hold. To my mind, realism means admitting that this is in fact the range of reasonable interpretations while reverence means that we choose to believe one of the better interpretations until coerced by contrary evidence.
The very nature of the current crisis calls for reverence in speaking about the Pope. What one side wants and the other side fears is calling into question the Church’s teaching authority, saying that her doctrine is always revisable no matter what a pope or a Church Council may have said. Even if the man who happens to be pope were himself contributing to an erosion of the world’s opinion about his authority, we the faithful need to make sure that reverence for the office doesn’t go out with respect for the man. Trash talking the Pope because we thought he was undermining the Church’s teaching would be a classic case of sawing off the branch we sat on.
We might take inspiration from David’s dealings with King Saul. Saul was in fact a bad man, and David had been chosen by God to replace him, and yet out of reverence for the king’s office David would not take up arms against his enemy: “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed.” (1Sam 24:6) Given that the Pope is a good man, and I have certainly not been chosen by God to replace him, how could I take up the slings and arrows of outrageous rhetoric against the vicar of Christ?
Rule of Thumb #3: Fix the problem at home first
There are some people whose jobs put them close to the Pope, and those people have a moral obligation to speak to him and warn him if he goes off the rails. I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of those people are reading my blog, so I’m going to assume that you all are like me, far from the Pope and without any real ability to influence a Synod. So what do we do, right here where we are?
If the problem is that people are misguided and confused, then the solution is to fill the atmosphere with good guidance and clear teaching. Practically, that means that we each need to be well-informed and vocal, and in that order. How we are vocal depends on our situation: I don’t see lots of people, but I write; one of my friends doesn’t write much, but he spends all his days in conversation with important Catholics. The key is to look for your opening and take it.
But how we are well-informed is the same for all of us. Even if you think of yourself as pretty much conversant with the Church’s teachings on marriage and family, take the current situation as an occasion to re-read some old things and to take on some new things. As Cardinal Burke suggests, we should all study the Catechism as a starting point. You could follow the footnotes from there, but if you’re looking for a short and informative read, take up John Paul II’s Letter to Families next, and after that Pius XI’s Casti Connubii. I would be happy to suggest a reading plan, but you get the idea.
Here is the key: seize your chance to be vocal, you need to tell people that they should read up on marriage and family. And to tell them they should read up, you need to convince them by example, by talking about what you read just recently. It doesn’t matter how much you have read, so long as every time you talk to someone you can say that you read something helpful just the other day….