Monday, October 26, 2020

What Will You Do When Things Don’t Change?

What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun! (Ecclesiastes 1:9)


Talking with another Catholic blogger/meme creator, I was asked, “What will the Pope’s critics do if his successor teaches the same things that the Holy Father currently does?” It is a good question. After all, what Pope Francis has been teaching was taught by his predecessors, and the problems he faces were faced by his predecessors. The only difference is that technology means misinformation spreads faster.


What we tend to forget is, what his predecessors taught on unpopular issues have been quietly ignored in favor of the soundbites that said what critics want to focus on. So, these critics will gleefully point out that Leo XIII condemned socialism and Pius XI condemned communism. They label Pope Francis’ teachings as “socialist” and argue a contradiction exists.


The problem is, critics forget the fact that his predecessors also condemned the abuses within capitalism that made those systems seem appealing… because those abuses that run counter to the teachings of Christ. So, critics might invoke St. John Paul II in opposing Russian communism and contrast him with Pope Francis but at the time, they ignored—or derided as naïve—the saint’s encyclicals on social justice, using the same arguments. St. John Paul II was derided as being economically naive because he came from Communist Poland and didn’t understand capitalism. Similar arguments are used about Pope Francis coming from Argentina.


Another thing to remember is the argument that we never had confusion about what the Church meant before Pope Francis, so the confusion must be his fault. I don’t intend to be sarcastic, but when I hear that I am left wondering if they slept from the 1960s rebellion through through the present.


Prior to the pontificate of Pope Francis, we had the confusion caused by those who misinterpreted or misrepresented the teachings of Vatican II and the counter protest of radical traditionalism, both claiming that the Church had gone wrong and only their way could set it right.


Confusing gestures? There’s nothing that can compare to the Pachamama, right? Wrong. Remember St. John Paul II kissing the Quran? He thought it was merely being respectful (a human error). In comparison, the so-called Pachamama wasn’t even a pagan idol, let alone that particular being... “Pachamama” being worshipped in the Andes, not the Amazon.


Praising someone who turned out to be a heretic or a morally bad person? When they complain about bishops appointed today, the critics seem to to forget when they raged against Cardinal Mahoney and Archbishop Niederauer, when they used to use “2011” as a mantra… 2011 being the year that the problematic bishops of that era turned 75 and needed to submit their resignations. And it isn’t even a Vatican II phenomenon. I’ve personally read letters from St. Leo the Great and St. Augustine where that happened.


Even if they concede that the media got it wrong, they claim that since this never happened before, Pope Francis must be the cause of it. But even that doesn’t work. What gets forgotten is that, prior to Benedict XVI, Popes did even not give interviews. Prior to St. Paul VI# they didn’t even give weekly audiences. But people did misinterpret or misrepresent what Popes said. We have centuries of anti-Catholicism which bear witness to that.


I would say that the meteoric rise of misinformation came with the internet age, especially with the smartphone. A large portion of the West had instant access to information, and media rushed to be first with whatever they thought was “breaking.” The problem was, the reporters were religiously illiterate and did not know what the Church taught in the first place. So, when they heard something that didn’t square with what they thought Catholicism was, they thought it was a “change,” rather than an opinion or a new way of formulating a teaching. Beginning in 2010*, we saw Benedict XVI constantly portrayed as “changing” Church teaching. The most infamous was the claim that the Pope was allowing condoms to be used in the face of AIDS. But there were others. They thought Benedict XVI’s words about unions in Caritas in Veritate was a change based on the assumption that the condemnation of radical 19th century unions still held force against 21st century unions that weren’t radical.


So, what is the point of all this? My point is, whoever succeeds Pope Francis will teach on the same matters he did, and be taken out of context when he speaks because the Catholic teaching will not go away depending on whether the future Pope is considered “conservative” or “liberal.” Nor will future Popes cease to have personal opinions. I doubt they will stop having Wednesday audiences or giving speeches that will be misconstrued (remember Benedict XVI at Regensburg?), and might continue to see interviews and press conferences.


The reader might be tempted to look at the pontificate of Pope Francis and agree with this sentiment§:


“Rome, Rome, where are you? What has happened to your voice that gave courage and woke the slumbering? Today all they will say is ‘Give in’. Pray, pray for the Church! Surely she will not perish! But why must we remind ourselves of this so often and so bitterly?”


But you should be aware that the person who wrote it (Lamennais, in 1828) died estranged from the Church. If we focus solely on what we dislike within the Church, we risk winding up like him. But if we remember that God is in charge despite the flaws of His shepherds, our faith in His Church will not be shaken by the problems that will come.


So every Catholic needs to ask themselves what they will do when things don’t change under the Pope’s successor. Authentic Social teaching will continue to sound like “socialism” to those who don’t know Christian obligation. Insistence on some sins being always evil will continue to sound “heartless” or “out of touch” to the person who thinks it should not be a sin. And in both cases, love of sinners will continue to look like one agrees with the sin, even though Christ Himself set the example.


It is possible we might see guidelines—taken from what we have learned about media reporting—established in the future that gives the Vatican more control over what the Press can report. But the problems we face here neither began with Pope Francis and will not end with him either. Besides the fact that Popes are finite men, we will still see religiously illiterate reporters passing on much of the news, and so the problems that critics think are the fault of Pope Francis will continue in the pontificates of his successors.


If we expect the next Pope to be perfect, we will be disappointed. But, if we recognize that the next Pope will be a sinful man in need of salvation like the rest of us, then let us give Pope Francis the same consideration. Otherwise, we might find that we separated ourselves from the Church while believing only we are true to it.




(†) Crossing the Threshold of Hope, by St. John Paul II was based on a planned televised interview that fell through. The Pope answered the provided questions anyway, and it was published as a book.


(#) On his first audience (September 6th, 1978),  John Paul I said


Just a month ago, Paul VI died at Castelgandolfo. In fifteen years he rendered enormous services to the Church. The effects are partly seen now already, but I think that they will be seen especially in the future. Every Wednesday he came here and spoke to the people. At the 1977 Synod several bishops said:


“Pope Paul’s Wednesday addresses are a real catechesis adapted to the modern world”. I will try to imitate him, in the hope that I, too, will be able, somehow, to help people to become better.


St. John Paul II initially referred to them as continuing the unfinished audiences of John Paul I. Now they’re an institution.


(*) It’s easy to forget about the problems of past pontificates. Even I—a bona fide theology nerd—can forget about the past scandals until I come across something that reminds me. So I’m not surprised that people forgot about the criticism St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI faced. But we should at least remember there is nothing new under the sun.


(§) Quote taken from von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, p. 109


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