the imaginative conservative logo

pope francisSir,

You are an American whom I have always admired, and for whose Presidential campaign I had the good fortune of working thirteen years ago. Rarely have I come upon a book, essay or thought of yours with which I could flatly disagree, though of course there is much over which to polemicize. However, your recent article, indicating alarm at the direction Pope Francis is taking the Catholic Church, is the first time I find myself if not in disagreement, then at least of a very different mindset.

I am likely the most unqualified of Catholics in our Church to question your view on this matter. You have been a Catholic all of your life. I, although baptized Catholic, had my first Communion and Confirmation only two years ago, after a year of study and preperation under the watchful eyes of a jesuit order. As such, my experience with the Church is infantile, yours mature. As is often the case with such things, the wisdom of experience and age may well be in the right. Perhaps in my youth and inexperience, there is much I do not grasp. Mindful of my shortcomings, I dare not disagree with your view starkly, but I hope to question it.

First, you write with alarm of Pope Francis not wanting “cultural warriors” and “ideologues”, citing the choice of social worker Archbishop Kurtz over evangelist Timothy Dolan to head the US Bishops’ conference despite the latters’ valient resistence to provisions of the Affordable Care Act which violates the religious practices of Catholic hospitals. Far be it from me to opine on the matter of who should head the US Conference of Bishops, as I am too far away and uninformed. Nevertheless, I suggest that no student of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk ought to be alarmed to hear that Pope Francis does not want ideologues. Ideology, irrespective of its surface postulates, which can be laudable, stands in stark contrast to the calm, thoughtful recognition of the chasm dividing the City of God from the City of Man. It is the recognition of this division which gives Catholics that special understanding and ability to work for the good where it is necessary and inglorious: amidst the bad.

Secondly, you note with alarm that

“His Holiness seeks to move the Catholic Church to a stance of non-belligerence, if not neutrality, in the culture war for the soul of the West. There is a small problem with neutrality. As Trotsky observed, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” For the church to absent itself from the culture war is to not to end that war, but to lose it.”

I submit that the culture war for the soul of the West is already lost. In my estimation, it was lost on November 11th 1918, a day Americans celebrate as Veterans Day, Poles celebrate as Independence day and Europeans in general are oblivious to. As an avid historian, you know I speak of the date ending World War I and prefacing World War II: the day that would lead to the Versailles treaty going into effect. While some noble ventures to restore Western civilization have been made following that day, in which you played no small part, all of them, by definition, only underscored that Western civilization was dead by failing to make permanent their gains. This was no failure of political will, but of political culture. You may not agree with my placement of the date that Western civilization died, but you agree it is dead. Your own, oft repeated words, that we require a St. Paul, not a Reagan, testify to it. It thus appears to me that our Pope is working to restore, not defend the West. To change a decayed society and decaying world, not to defend a good one. Pope Francis cannot comport himself as a Catholic king fending off barbarian armies in defense of a tolerable Christian order. He is more like Jesus who came unto a world that knew all things good and evil, but did not know Him. The usefullness of “cultural warriors” presumes a culture. Contemporary society is less a culture, more a fragmented, broken puzzle. We need men of letters to ponder and slowly pick up the pieces.

Third, you note with alarm that rather than moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, which he refuses to judge, the Pope wishes to call attention to things like youth unemployment. As to the statement “who am I to judge”, Pope Francis qualified it with an important “if”. Regarding a focus on youth unemployment, I find no cause for alarm, because for the vast majority of young people, whose conscience is dulled and whose moral compass is corrupted by poor education and impoverished culture, the only real moral affliction known to them is youth unemployment.

Abortion is an abstract ill, and same-sex marriage relatively as meaningless as traditional marriage. It is this meaninglessness of marriage in general, demonstrated by the high divorce rates amongst heterosexuals, that fuels acceptance of homosexual marriage. After all, if Catholics themselves are at pains to distinguish sacramental marriage from civil marriage, if they find little cause for fidelity to their own sacraments, it is no wonder why the culture at large would cease treating marriage as anything special and definite.

Poverty on account of unemployment, on the other hand, wounds our youth with an urgency that they, progeny of materialist culture, understand more clearly. If Pope Francis believes this matter to perhaps give our Church a better chance at gaining the ears of the youth, why find fault in this? The work of the Catholic Church in the field of the economic impact of the minimum wage, which you ironically suggest is neglible, is likely as neglible as the work of the entire economics profession. None of the Western institutions, religious or secular, have much credibility anymore. I suggest that the only way to restore their credibility is for people of good faith and high intellect to do the necessary work in all fields, whether the hierarchy or the voting public listens or not.

You rightly suggest that feeding the soul was always more important than feeding the stomach, but Pope Francis himself told us already that the Church cannot become a charity for this very reason, that faith must be central to all of its’ works. The problem is that the Mass Media is intent on painting this Pope as making a radical break from our last, who himself was portrayed not as the humble man of piety and intellect he was, but as a caricature of a grumpy, prejudiced old man. The media, and the Marxists you correctly blame for the effects of their “long march” would like nothing more than to divide the Church into factions. Pope Benedict XVI, who I believe to have been the greatest and most unique Pope of my short life time, was not Pope many centuries ago, but just recently. Can we really say that the Church that lifted up Benedict is now a completely different Church because it has now lifted up Benedict’s friend? If anything, those of us who cherished the example of Benedict, his quite, powerful intellectual scholarship and patient faith coupled with obedience to the Father, his willingness to be a humble worker in the Lord’s grapeyard, should emmulate his example.

Finally, you note with apprehension that atheists applaud Francis, and that Jesuits were made of sterner stuff long ago. The Jesuits who guided me to the Church were not lacking for stern stuff, nor do I think Francis to be lacking for a respect for Catholic tradition. Jesuits now, like the ones you praised from long ago, prostelytize fearlessly where it is most difficult: on grounds sceptical and ignorant. Do Jesuits in the West, now, have an easier time of things than the ones you cite, who came to the Mohawk? Have we not become as alien to Christ as the Mohawk were? That Jesuits depart from time to time from very recent tradition does not signify a departure from the profound traditions of the Church. The Jesuit Francios Varillon, writing of tradition in his Joi de Croire, Joi de Vivre, noted that we must take care not to think of Church tradition as being the things our grandmother believed. The Church is much older than our grandmother, and Nature and Nature’s God older still. Pope Francis is simply reaching for a different aspect of that tradition and refining it. Another Jesuit, Nuno Tovar de Lemos, wrote in ‘O Príncipe e a Lavadeir’ that those athiests who confront him and say “I do not believe in a God who lets the innocent suffer” are right, and that the true Catholic also does not believe in such a God, nor in any God but the One who is Love.

Given that so many atheists attack a God which, conceptually, has nothing to do with Christ, certainly it is only natural that the Pope should make Love the central principle of his advocacy. This is not done in order to depart from the hard moral teaching of the church, but to awaken the conscience of a lost and unreflective world. If the conscience which resides in each of us is awakened, then it will not take long for a culture of life and of respect for marriage to reemerge. Benedict strived to awaken conscience through excellent scholarship and intellectual rigor. Yet we live in a world that no longer reads. Francis is apparently pursuing this goal using other means, means that may not appeal to us, but should not offend us either.

I admit that you may be right, that this path chosen by Francis may fail. Certainly those who hate the Church will only exploit his statements to discredit and divide the Church. This is why we should never let the media image of the Pope, nor the public statements of the clergy obscure the power of the Eucharist. Bill Maher, the perfect lapsed Catholic, remarked once that his parents stopped attending Church over a sermon about anti-conception. If such temporal and minor matters as a bad sermon are essentially more important for a Catholic than the Eucharist and a life of Communion with God within the historical Church, if holding opinions becomes more important than developing habits which accord to faith, we may say this Catholic is lost already. Really, religious piety ought not be based on one or two good or bad sermons. The Church cannot become a slave to the media cycle, cannot adjust the liturgical calender to fit into the prevailing public debate, especially a debate so purposefuly vulgar as the current one.

The Church must not be something people see and read about on TV and then “have an opinion” about. It must be a living force in their daily life. Human life is not an endless debate about condoms, gays and abortion. These matters actually preoccupy cultural Marxists, feminists and gender ideologues. Catholics, I would hope, are too busy with nurturing their loving marriages, enjoying their families, renewing their cities and deepening their understanding of God. To reduce Catholic dialogue to the issues preemminent in the minds of cultural Marxists is to surrender the culture to them.

In the end, we are, for now, only deliberating about the media image of Francis, which we should take care to be equally skeptical of as the media image of Benedict XVI. Already, some of the clergy wage battles amongst themselves over an image, neglecting their duty, which is to obey. The lay ought to be wiser than them. Rather than worry about what good or bad things the press and the atheists are saying, I would focus on Francis’ books, homilies and speeches, as well as (and especially) the life of our local parish and community. If ever there is some aspect of the Church or the Pope we disagree with, if we find ourselves saying “I wish Catholics were more like” some idyllic vision, then it is my view we should get to work making that vision a reality by trying to be the kind of Catholic we think the Church and the world require.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
7 replies to this post
  1. Another fine piece, Mr. Rieth, for which thanks! Quite unintentionally, our media has become blinkered by ideology and rendered itself quite evil. It can no longer be consumed without awareness and even precautions.

  2. I am so happy to have found and read your piece. Before i read it, my thoughts were similar to Mr. Buchanan’s. It is easy to be alarmed by analysis that says the Church is not standing for what it has always stood for. Great reminder that to take “as Gospel” anything proposed by today’s media is foolish. Stay faithful and calm and carry on.

  3. “Abortion is an abstract ill, and same-sex marriage relatively as meaningless as traditional marriage” – sixth paragraph from the top.

    J. Alejandro Amoros is correct to question this point; I did a poor job explaining this, focusing instead on homosexuality and marriage. I meant only that for a materialist, self consumed youth culture, the moral dilema raised by abortion is an abstraction, while unemployment and poverty are by definition felt ills; real problems faced by people who, for want of a more sensitive culture, understand their poverty to be an ill, while believing abortion concerns to be abstract.

    This is not meant as a vindication of this sort of thinking, but as a vindication of Pope Francis’ approach. To get people thinking higher, you mist sometimes go to where they are, even if that place is lower.

    The issue is more complex, I realize, but the point is that de-emphasizing concerns with abortion does not imply a change of teaching, only emphasis. I am sorry if I sounded as though I was trivializing the matter of abortion.

  4. Mr. Rieth:

    I appreciate your enthusiasm in defending your perception of the Pope’s approach. However, I must say I am much less sanguine than you. As a cradle Catholic I see nothing in the Pope’s approach that has not been in effect since the late 1960s (in the West, at least). My experience with “going to where the people are” has been a disaster. Once the Church sends out the field hospital medics there is no radical tranformative evangelization, instead there is a therapeutic effort to absorb the afflicted, and the Gospel message becomes ameliorative, The Church as an agent of a technological society, not as representaive of the Transcendant. I have been much impressed by the vision of Jesuits like von Balthasar and de Lubac, who once saw possibilities for the “going to where the people are” approach, but became less optimistic during the 70s. I have seen nothing in Pope Francis’s approach that points toward the all important transformative second step that must follow the outreach. Cheers!

  5. “As a cradle Catholic. . .” I hear this phrase all the time, and am somewhat bemused by it, for I have a feeling that most Catholics who were really placed in cradles as babies are older than I am, who was born in 1945. On the other hand, we never hear about “bassinet Baptists” or “perambulator Presbyterians”.

Leave a Reply