The crisis of leadership that has unfolded in the Catholic Church over the last six months continues to shock and rock the faithful.
Books like The Dictator Pope, Change of Church and Lost Shepherd have very gravely undermined Pope Francis…and not without cause. His handling of the abuse crisis has been not much more than a game of dodge ball. Lurching from one attack to another, and with serious stories about his own bad handling of abuse cases in Argentina, the pope is increasingly unpopular everywhere.
There have been at least five reactions to Pope Francis: wild enthusiasm, tepid support, showcase support, quiet opposition and loud opposition. The wild enthusiasm, when it was there, was unfortunately mostly from non Catholics. Liberal secularists believed they had a pope who would help promote their agenda. Even those voices have now gone silent. No one, it seems, apart from one or two faithful toadies, can summon enthusiasm for Francis. Those who offered tepid support have moved to showcase support–outwardly maintaining a facade of obedience and loyalty while privately expressing dismay and alarm. Among those in opposition more are moving from the silent category to the loud.
So what’s an ordinary Catholic to do in a situation where there is so little enthusiasm and support for a pope?
First, we should step back and try to analyze the situation calmly. Some of the pope’s critics not only dislike and misunderstand Pope Francis, but they also don’t want to like him or understand him. This is because they are driven by their own right wing, conservative agenda. They’ve cast him as the bad guy and everything he does will be seen through their paranoid spectacles. While listening to the more extreme critics, we should also weight their opinions with more balanced voices.
Second, we should take time to read church history. One of the ways to brush up is to listen to my podcast series Triumphs and Tragedies. Its not perfect and I’m not professional historian, but it gives a good overview and reminds us that there have been many popes who were lazy, venal, incompetent, narrow minded and some who were downright hellishly wicked. This helps in several ways. First, it reminds us that things have been worse and the Holy Spirit still worked in the church during the bad times at the local level–renewing, restoring and building the church at the grass roots. Second, doesn’t mean we make excuses or let the church leadership off the hook–it just means we are more aware that in every age we have struggled with the same human weaknesses, vice and corruption that we face now.
The third springs from the second. With a better understanding of history we can also re-assess the proper attitude we should have towards the pope. Within recent history we have been blessed with some amazingly heroic popes. Not only was John Paul II a world class superstar of a pope, but Pius XII and Pius X were global papal heroes. Benedict XVI and Paul VI were quieter, but also good and faithful popes–knowing their weakness but striving on. This, combined with a natural tendency to hero worship and hang on every word of a celebrity has not always been a help to the office of the papacy. When you add to that the instant global communication of every word that drips from the popes lips, the present focus on the papacy becomes un real and un natural.
Catholics should examine again what the office of the papacy really is. Bottom line. The bottom line is that the pope, in concert with all the bishops, defines and defends the Catholic faith. He is also the Chief Shepherd–a figurehead for the church. He may try to flex his muscles and change the church’s teaching, but he will soon founder on the rock that is Peter. The present pope’s failures prove the point. The manipulated and stage managed synods, the shoddy public relations exercises to dupe the public and the backroom croneyism will only lead to further failures. When we see this happen we should simply observe that this is what happens whenever anyone tries to use an office that is greater than they are to advance their own agenda.
While they’re at it, Catholics should also examine their attitude to the bishop and clergy. The clericalism is too often supported by the faithful who lapse into a kind of childish dependence on the priest and bishop. Calling us “Father” doesn’t help, and the downside of expecting the priest and bishop to fix everything and be your big sugar daddy who will make everything good for you is that when it goes sour you blame them for your own problems. Grow up and have an adult relationship with the clergy. Most of them will thank you for it.
Fourth: when conspiracy theorists spout their wild eyed prognostications I usually listen, then ask, “So what are you going to do about that?” They glare at me and say, “You mean you don’t care if the moon landings were faked?!!” The fact is, no I don’t care because I can’t do anything about that one way or another. If you are a Catholic who is concerned about the present state of affairs in the church I would have some very simple, common sense advice: “Mind your own business.”
If your business is to report on the Vatican because you are a journalist, writer, broadcaster or blogger, then mind your own business and do your job well and truly. I mentioned in the title of this post the word “militant”. If you are a Michael Voris and your version of “militant” is to be a sort of Savonarola of our day–hurling invective and breathing fire–then go for it. That’s not my style, but that’s ok. I think there are other ways to be faithful soldiers true and bold and I expect Michael would be the first to agree that not everybody needs to be a firebrand.
If you are a bishop or priest, then mind your own business and run your diocese or parish as a servant of the servants of God. If you are a religious then mind your own business, say your prayers, study, write, serve the poor, fulfill your charism as you can. If you are a lay person do your work, love your family, serve your parish well and truly with dignity, strength, fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ and don’t forget to do so with good will and a sense of humor.
Part of being faithful is being a faithful steward of your resources. If you want to protest by with holding your money then do so thoughtfully and carefully and inform the bishop respectfully what you are doing and why. If this is your course of action remember a couple of practical points: if you simply stop giving to your parish, then the good work of your parish is hindered. It is true that if you give to your parish a percentage of your gift must go to the diocese, but remember the bishop also has to keep the show on the road. That percentage helps keep the diocese afloat. If you want to hold back your gifts then you should find ways to make designated gifts to your parish or decide not to give to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal, but remember if you do that, in many dioceses the bishop will still demand that the parish meet its “voluntary target” forcing the parish to pay.
Fifth, I would say don’t give up on your parish priest and bishop. Most of them are good man who–just like you and me–have human frailties and faults. Pray for them and support them in their efforts to fix the current mess. If you think your particular bishop or priest are contributing to the mess, then express yourself respectfully and factually. Angry letters from spit flecked, red faced furious Catholics don’t really help….and they won’t really make you feel better either.
Some will say I am counseling you to put your head in the sand and ignore the problem. I’m not. I’m simply pointing out what I have said and written before–that each of us must do what we can with what we have where we are. This is not only common sense, it is also aligning ourselves with the way the Holy Spirit works in the world. The Holy Spirit alway starts small, starts local and starts with individuals. Read the lives of the saints. They all worked like this. They all began with the gifts they had, rolled up their sleeves and did what they could with what they had where they were. They did not expect their bishops or superiors to fix everything, neither did they blame their bishops or superiors for everything. They accepted their humanity and the humanity of others, then they got on and overcame tremendous obstacles, endured appalling hardships, went forward on their knees and served God with beauty, truth and singleness of mind.
So if you are a disgruntled and disappointed Catholic right now, man up, cheer up and move forward. Pray for your bishops and for the pope in Rome. Give him a cheerful nod, commend him to God then get on with the work of being a faithful, joyful Catholic in your own way and according to your own calling.
Does the battleship barque of Peter have some leaks? Sure. We knew that already. Does it seem in danger of sinking? Don’t worry. It will sail on. Is there trouble in the engine room? Probably. The chief engineer is already down there fixing things.
Have faith. Have hope and most of all have charity
Finally, I ask, What did you expect when you signed up to follow Jesus Christ as a Catholic? A walk in the park? It’s a battle. Put your armor on, but fight with a spring in your step and a laugh on your lips.
What I mean is that we should never battle with bitterness, anger and resentment. Instead we do battle with confidence in Christ the King and therefore with kindness, tolerance, acceptance, dialogue, listening and understanding, and we can add to all that mushy stuff a bit of swordplay with the wordplay. It’s okay to speak truth sharply. Iron sharpens iron and it doesn’t hurt to duel as well as dialogue.
All in a jaunty and cheerful manner of course. Remember St Therese dressed as Joan of Arc and crying, “Sanctity! it must be won at the point of a sword!” Remember St. Reepicheep the Valiant, the old fool Don Quixote and the noble Cyrano de Bergerac. They joust with a jest. They fence with a sense of humor. They don their broad brimmed hat, engage in battle and all the time, like the playful Chesterton, they wield the sword of truth with the sweep of love and courtesy.
PS: My book Romance of Religion has a fair bit to say about being a noble and cheerful warrior.
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