The pope’s critics seem to have settled into permanent opposition. Francis is the enemy (if he actually is the pope) and they will go on with their lives ignoring his announcements as much as possible. This seems to me part of the spirit of the schism. Worrisome to me, but not to them.
His critics weren’t wrong to worry about the way Francis frames the questions. His is a high wire act. He speaks about mercy without setting out the reasons we need it. He wants people to come to Jesus, rather than run away. He begins with “God loves you,” not with the possibly more traditional “You’re an unworthy sinner.”
“Let us not reduce the cross to an object of devotion, much less to a political symbol, to a sign of religious and social status” – Pope Francis
The risk is justified, and often very much needed, but also riskier than the pope may realise, not living in the world with the rest of us. The secular media and dissenting Catholics will twist what Francis says to their own purposes. When he spoke about the responsible use of marital sexuality, he said that “in order to be good Catholics,” we didn’t need “to be like rabbits.” A sensible point, which the secular media and dissenters took as a rejection of the Church’s teaching on contraception. Very conservative Catholics will do the same thing. Misreading Francis serves their apocalyptic sense of alienation. They read him as if they were unscrupulous prosecuting attorneys.
But it seems the pope still has the power to upset them. The latest upset was in response to Francis’s comments in Slovakia about the Holy Cross. “Let us not reduce the cross to an object of devotion, much less to a political symbol, to a sign of religious and social status,” he said in a homily. It’s not “a flag to wave, but the pure source of a new way of living.”
This is standard teaching. He made the point clear. The Christian “views no one as an enemy, but everyone as a brother or sister”, he said, preaching in Slovakia on Tuesday. We don’t always do that. Sometimes, “we long for a Christianity of winners, a triumphalist Christianity that is important and influential, that receives glory and honor.” We like to display the Cross, to claim it for ourselves and our causes, but “What good is this, unless we stop to look at the crucified Jesus and open our hearts to him?”
It’s hard to see why anyone would object to the pope’s words. But still, some Catholics leapt up in outrage. For example, a Facebook friend shared tweets with quotes from the pope’s homily. A political conservative, he mostly posts political stories and light items about bicycling, food, cats, and Catholicism. The reaction from his friends was telling. “It is truly an insult to the Church to call this man ‘pope,’” said the first one. “Leftist mush,” said another. One said “Every word that comes out of this man’s mouth is more idiotic and blasphemous than the last!”
An American traditionalist leader declared “Let’s be done already with this pontificate.” A scholar I know from our days among the conservative Episcopalians, said, “To hell with Red Francis.”
A few comments were unhinged. One commenter called the pope “a heretic in the service of Satan.” Another said, “He is not legit, he’s an apostate pretender.” Several others made the same claim. And then there was this: “Rabbi Bergoglio strikes again. His Masonic masters must be very pleased.”
Whatever political side you’re on, you will have seen your Christian opponents try to out-Christian you. They will beat you with the Cross.
You get the idea. Angry people on the internet, but representing a significant number of Catholics. Very few bothered to understand what the Holy Father said or give him credit for the way he spoke about the beauty and glory of the Cross. When St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were pope, they insisted Catholics must defer to papal teaching. They’ve forgotten that.
I sympathise a little. I wouldn’t endorse everything Francis has said, nor the way he has said it. He can be unhelpfully careless or provocative. But his enemies almost always harshly over-react when they needn’t. Whatever political side you’re on, you will have seen your Christian opponents try to out-Christian you. They will beat you with the Cross.
My free-marketing friends, for example, feel constantly annoyed by liberal Christians who take Jesus’s and the Apostles’ demands to help the poor as a simple and obvious demand to expand government social spending. It isn’t. The question is much more complicated. Moral conservatives find people pointing to Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross as a reason for relaxing the Church’s rules about our sexual lives.
Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow Him. As Francis knows, we can also take up the cross and smack others with it.
David Mills is a Chapter House columnist.
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