Within conservative American Catholicism there seems to be a truckload of pessimism at this time. People don’t like Pope Francis. At best they think he’s incompetent and ambiguous. At worst they think he’s a dictator pope, a petty Jesuitical prelate and a maybe a heretic. They’re fed up to the back teeth with the sex abuse scandal, financial scandals, corruption in the priesthood and the gay mafia in the church.

Some are scooting off to traditionalist sects, traveling miles to attend their favorite liturgy, reading books and engaging in heated discussions about conspiracy theories, Freemasons, Communists and who knows what other kinds of vermin who have crawled onto the barque of Peter and are even now hunkering down in the engine room plotting their nefarious deeds.

I have tasted of this and it’s a bitter taste. It’s the bitter taste of pessimism and suspicion loaded with a good dollop of hearsay, gossip and rumor mongering. To be perfectly honest I’m not a particular fan of Pope Francis. I loved Pope John Paul II, but Benedict XVI was really my man. However, the more bitter criticism I hear of Pope Francis the more it puts me on his side. The fact of the matter is, he’s the pope and even if I don’t like him, he’s my pope and I’m going to try to listen and learn from him. If he is coming at Catholicism from a different angle, then so be it.

If he says stuff I don’t happen to like so what? He’s not infallible all the time, but I am sure not infallible myself.

I might disagree, but before I disagree I’m going to continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But there is another underlying problem with the pessimism that is hanging around in some Catholic circles like a bad smell.

Yes, yes, I know they are sticking up for orthodoxy. Like a multitude of little Athanasius’ they are defending the faith.  They are upholding the timeless liturgy, the unchanging faith and all that. Great. Wonderful. Terrific.

But if this is done with a sour attitude, a pessimistic spirit and a disgruntled, hyper critical mentality, it’s not of God. If the criticism is indulged in with a negative, suspicious and angry tone it is simply full of pride. If one is nit picking over fine points of liturgy, appearance at Mass, moral behavior or doctrines with a snooty, self righteous legalism then it’s not the Holy Spirit. It’s another Spirit.

One of the things which is helping me a lot at the moment is re-reading John Allen’s The Future Church in preparation for my current podcast series. 

When you see the big picture that Allen presents, it is perfectly understandable that people are confused, bewildered and distressed at this time. The fact of the matter is, we are going through a huge transition in our human history and the history of the world. We are faced with an enormous and overwhelming burden of change. We get on with our day to day lives, but the changes in technology, mobility, medical science, demographics and thought are vast.

We are caught up in those changes and the Catholic Church is caught up in those changes.

The truth is that the Catholic Church is changing and changing fast.

The church of the twenty first century is already the church of the developing world. Even from the end of the last century Catholics in the global South began to be in the majority. The Church of our age is no longer Eurocentric and the election of a pope from the developing world is a sign of that change.

I am therefore not pessimistic. As I look at the big picture I see that the Second Vatican Council and the revisions of the liturgy were the necessary preparation for what is happening in this century. The new liturgy is uniform where it needs to be uniform in order to preserve unity in the church, but it allows for the diversity necessary for proper inculturation. The dogmas of the church are in place as the structure we need to move forward, but certain disciplines of the church may be altered according to different cultural demands.

Is this is a risk? Yes. A big risk. Is it safer to retreat to a self made sect where we re-create what we believe is the “unchanging church”. Sure. You go for that if it pleases you, but don’t pretend that it is anything other than a church of your own making….kind of like what Martin Luther and Henry VIII did.

Me? I’m not pessimistic at all. I believe and trust in God’s amazing providence. I think he’s in business to bring the good out of the bad. I see that this is his particular genius. We mess up. God fixes it. We do the very worst and out of it he brings the very best.

Was the Second Vatican Council infallible in all things? Of course not. The Fathers of the Council never claimed that. Has the church been infiltrated by gays, feminists, communists, Freemasons, and whatever else? Perhaps. So listen to my other podcast series Triumphs and Tragedies and realize that the church has always been infiltrated with spies, sinners and hypocrites.

God is in charge. His purpose is working out in our human history, but always in ways we cannot expect. He writes straight with crooked lines. While we’re busy fretting over some disaster over here he is over there doing something quite amazing that we do not have eyes to see. While we’re grumbling over some great loss we have experienced he has already prepared something greater for us that we need they eyes of faith to see. While we’re focussing on what we don’t have he is standing there calling us to that greater thing he has prepared for us. The danger is that we will miss his offer, miss the bus, miss what the Spirit is doing because we were so busy with our own pessimism…too busy licking our wounds.

We must remember that God’s purpose is the salvation of souls and the redemption of this world. Is he doing this in all fullness through the Catholic Church? I believe so. However, his grace is not limited by the sacraments. His work is not limited to the formal structures and sacraments of the Catholic Church. The fullness of his grace is found there, but the Holy Spirit’s flight is higher and further than that, and he is doing such great and wonderful things…so much greater than our eye can see or our minds can imagine.

By getting the big picture our narrow vision is widened and by trusting in his providence our pessimism is corrected.

Go here to listen to my analysis of John Allen’s The Future Church.