I enjoyed reading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation yesterday. I read it in chunks in the midst of a busy day as a parish priest.

I was going to put down my assessment, but Carl Olson has already done so here at Ignatius Insight.

The good parts were encouraging but unremarkable. The teaching on the beatitudes and the homely examples of down to earth holiness were accessible and to the point.

I do wonder, however, why the Holy Father feels he has to keep scolding certain types in the church. When I got to the part where he scolds the uptight, legalists who fuss over liturgy and those who like silence, I kept wondering what church Pope Francis (or his ghostwriter–probably Fr Spadaro) occupies.

In the Catholic Church I have come to know there are, of course, some fussbudget priests who obsess over maniples and missals and Latin and lace. Yes, there are some stern, sourpusses who judge others with a puritanical hauteur. Yes, there are some who retreat into their cave of private devotions, novenas, holy books and adoration.

So what?

The Catholic Church is a big family. Surely we have room for the eccentric aunty in her chapel veil, the curmudgeonly grandad, the bookish, prissy nephew and the gormless girl in sensible shoes. We are told constantly that we must welcome the other nephew who has a boyfriend and wears a rainbow badge, the other niece who is a vegan lesbian and the divorced and remarried aunt who hates the March for Life but goes on the Women’s March.

Are we to welcome the flamboyant gay but not the faithful guy? Shall we welcome the trangendered but refuse the traditionalist? Shall we embrace the queer but exclude the quaint?

We are told that holiness is “being who we really are” but what if what I really am is a rather correct young man who wears tweed jackets, parts his hair, smokes a pipe, wears wing tip shoes, reads Evelyn Waugh and likes the Latin Mass?

Surely those who exhort us to tolerance should practice what they preach?

Furthermore, it seems to me that the Holy Father keeps attacking precisely the wrong problem.

In the Catholic Church I have come to know, the problem is not punctilious observance of the liturgy and laws. This, it seems to me, makes up a tiny minority of Catholicism.

I have fair experience of the Catholic Church in the USA, UK and Europe and it seems to me that there are far more Catholic priests who celebrate the liturgy badly in brutal buildings with ghastly music and horrible preaching who pay no attention to the liturgy at all.

Harsh legalism? Yes we have some Pharisees, but there are far more Catholics who completely disregard all the rules and regulations of the church than those who are harsh, strict and legalistic.

The problem with the pope’s scolding is that it is counterproductive. The good things he has to say and do are forgotten or lost in the scolding, and that undermines his teaching and the authority of his office.

As I see it, there are five problems with the scolding:

  1. It doesn’t work. When you scold the self righteous they either deny that they are the ones to whom you are referring or they stick out their jaw, fold their arms and hunker down. The truly self righteous are impervious to criticism. So just smile and let them stew in their own juices and move on.
  2. It furthers division in the church. Guess what? The self righteous you shall have with you always. Its a personality type. They’re wired that way. The more you poke them, the more division you stir up.
  3. It feeds the self righteousness of the other side. When you scold the self righteous, legalistic, punctilious types all the easy going liberal types stand up and cheer. Great. Now you’ve not only divided the church into tribes again, you’ve fed the self righteousness of the other side too.
  4. It cheapens the office of the papacy. Really? You’re the pope. Rise above it all. Do you have to lower yourself and get involved in this petty bickering, insults and name calling?
  5. The name calling and generalizations don’t work. Maybe Father Maniple who may be a bit fussy liturgically turns out to do marvelous work in the local soup kitchen and has a great ministry with the Hispanic immigrants in his parish. Maybe Mr Latin Missal is also one of the most warm hearted and jovial people you know and who is a visitor in the local prison. So superficial judgements don’t help.

I’ll stop by encouraging readers to actually read the pope’s exhortation. Most of it is good, faithful teaching about the universal call to holiness. Read his scoldings too with an open mind. If you are of a traditionalist preference and temperament be humble enough to take criticism, and if you don’t happen to like the present pope, give him the benefit of the doubt as you would wish him to do for you.

Most of all, pray for the pope and the church, then get on your knees and roll up your sleeves and get busy on the road to being a saint and like he says, be joyful about it!