I was accused of being a rigorist last night. I didn’t know this about myself. Simcha Fisher accused me, and a group of other concerned Catholics on Facebook discussing Pope Francis’s ardent defenders, of having this disposition. Apparently that’s what you call Catholics who think that Pope Francis’s words of late have been utterly reckless, theologically misleading, and borderline heretical.

Now, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m no rigorist. If anything, I’m a laxist. By nature I am a lazy hedonist. I find the motto, “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you may die” far, far more appealing than “Turn the other cheek” or anything you find in the Beatitudes. I have no interest in the trite niceties of religion. I struggle to care sufficiently about the poor. I hate praying the Rosary. I’d far rather have an acid tongue than a charitable one. When I read the lives of the Saints, I often think that they sound like impossible caricatures which only mean I am more damned than I ever could have thought, because how could I be that good? I am much more inclined to pursue wine, women, and song than I am the Cardinal virtues. I am a sinner first and foremost, and my selfishness is almost limitless. I have yet to reach a point in my life where my sanctity might inspire the heathen, though I count myself fortunate to know that my words have helped to bring about conversion. Anything that I can count in my favor on Judgment Day, I’ll cling to.

No, I am no rigorist. I am simply a man who needs boundaries, who knows that the (apocryphal) Dostoyevskian adage, “If God is not, then everything is permissible” would apply only too strongly in my own life if I were to try to live without Him.

The Catholic Church was, for the better part of 2,000 years, the one place on Earth where such boundaries were set in stone. So despite my empiricist inclinations and occasional flirtations with atheism, despite my immense struggles with believing in or perceiving a personal God who loves me, I had the law and intellectual tradition of the Church to fall back on. I had Pascal’s wager, much as it always irked me. I have spent many years of my life studying theology, and I have always found comfort in knowing that if I want to know what the Church teaches, I can look it up. Because it’s written down somewhere. Somewhere like this:

catalog544But beyond the words and the laws of theology written in the books were the rubrics of liturgy, sacred art and music, church architecture, adoration, Eucharistic processions – in short, a tapestry of creative genius, pietistic impulse, ritual actions, the collective obeisance to the transcendent through work and worship that is and has been, in point of fact, enough to inspire the heathen. As a little card in my uncle’s bathroom reading rack used to say, “The Catholic Church: Never Popular, Always Attractive.” These things appealed to my aesthetic impulse, to the part of me that seems unable to disbelieve that truth and beauty are two facets of the same gem.

Catholicism was, historically, a magnificent thing. It was grandiose, majestic, and inspiring. It was always greater than the sum of its parts. There is no more profound feeling than entering the Vatican grounds or walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, but for an understanding of the absolutely astonishing peasant faith that built the great European Cathedrals, one needs to look at, for example, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux in Normandy:



This amazing structure, dedicated in 11th century (in the presence of William the Conqueror!) absolutely TOWERS over the surrounding homes and buildings, even to this day. An edifice such as this can be seen for miles, and it tells the visitor that God, not man, is the most important thing to the inhabitants therein. Think of the work, the toil, the craftsmanship of the common that went in to building such a structure year after year until its completion is truly humbling. It speaks of something far greater than one can find in the mere treasures and pleasures of this world.

Catholicism in its greatness was always a religion that inspired and demanded the best from its adherents. It was a “stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” It made protestants uncomfortable by its very nature, its liturgy was steeped in tradition and mysticism, and its armies fought off the Muslim hordes. It brought kings low and made emperors do penance. The traditional burial ceremony of the Hapsburgs gives me chills, when the only entrance to the church that is permitted to those of royal blood is not their impressive list of earthly titles but the statement, “I am a poor mortal and a sinner.”

Belloc said that “the Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith” because the history of the two — and really, of Western Civilization — were inextricable.

And the Church’s claims on exclusivity left no doubt as to the seriousness of standing outside her gates if one wished to attain salvation. Pope Eugene IV laid this claim on the line in the Council of Florence in 1441, when he proclaimed:

The Most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews, and heretics, and schismatics, can ever be partakers of eternal life, but that they are to go into the eternal fire “which was prepared for the devil, and his angels,” (Mt. 25:41) unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this Ecclesiastical Body, that only those remaining within this unity can profit from the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and that they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, almsdeeds, and other works of Christian piety and duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved unless they abide within the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.

The Church is attractive because she is beautiful. The Church is appealing, despite her many rules and requirements, because she alone claims fullness of truth. The Church is inspiring because she is noble, and her traditions and customs give witness to her profound sacramental beliefs.

Much of this, perhaps even most of this, has been lost since Vatican II. The Church has become an instrument of compromise, of syncretism, and of mediocrity. A bourgeois, bubble gum-chewing religion of suburban good cheer. Her architecture has become banal, her music profane, her liturgies humanistic. She no longer challenges the world with witness to Christ Crucified, but instead tells the world that there are many paths to heaven for people of good conscience.

For the life of me, I can’t fathom why anyone faced with the Church of 2013 would choose to convert to Catholicism. For fellowship? I can get fellowship from the local MegaChurch, with far fewer impositions on my personal liberty. For the sacraments? But most Catholics don’t even believe in the Real Presence, most parishes have no adoration or Eucharistic devotions, most priests offer an hour or less per week of confession time on the parish schedule.

I was drawn to Catholic tradition and the Old Latin Mass not because of some nostalgia, or even a predilection for dead languages. I’ve never taken a day of Latin class in my life and I still don’t understand it. I love traditional liturgy and theology because they mean something. Because they show me my place in the cosmos. Because one can’t help but notice the absolute seriousness and importance of what is going on up at the altar when one isn’t dodging giant puppets and felt banners and Eucharistic ministers and guitar-strumming minstrels and the tinkling of glad tambourines. Because traditional Catholic piety and worship give rise to a feeling that this religion I have been a part of all my life ACTUALLY ACTS AS THOUGH THE COMPLETELY FANTASTIC THINGS IT CLAIMS TO BELIEVE ARE TRUE rather than perpetually undermining its own teachings with watered-down “worship spaces” and infinitely regressing theological nuance.

Catholicism is a “Go big or go home” religion. Catholicism is radical. It is radical in its claims, in its demands, in its beliefs, in its scope, and in its trappings. When it ceases to be radical, the whole enterprise becomes significantly less credible. It becomes merely one choice among many in a spectrum of religions all more or less following the natural law. It ceases to be the fulfillment of a covenant with a chosen people, and instead becomes a lifestyle choice.

So back to Pope Francis. What is my problem with him? Well, let me start by saying that I had hope for the papacy that followed Benedict XVI. I had an inclination that maybe he really knew what he was doing with his abdication and that something was coming that the Church needed. And yet, when I saw Francis that first moment as he stepped out to face the massive crowds in St. Peter’s square, I found myself filled with inexplicable dread. I had no idea who the man was or what he was about – I had never even heard his name before that moment. But there was something in his face, in the deadness of his eyes, that inspired in me a feeling of revulsion. I have always had a strong ability to judge character, but I tried to suppress it. I attempted to find ways to give the benefit of the doubt. I could not discount a successor of St. Peter because of nothing more than a feeling. But that feeling was strong, and I have never been ill-served by listening to my feelings about people.

Then he started speaking. And the statements he has been making are intensely problematic. Are they explicitly heretical? No. Are they dangerously close? Absolutely. What kind of a Christian tells an atheist he has no intention to convert him? That alone should disturb Catholics everywhere. Many of his other statements, by and large, are less egregious, though they are still quite problematic. They are open to wildly varying interpretation because they are made without context, thus leaving it open to the will of the interpreter to apply it. And look at the sort of context one can apply:


Or how about:


Or perhaps:


It only takes the barest scraps of creativity and one can apply his words — which on the surface seem simply gentle and eminently reasonable — to whatever situation one wants. Which is why I’m not the only one applying his words to unintended situations. It is the reason why this happened:


In a world where the pope speaks like Eugene IV, or even Benedict XVI, this kind of thing doesn’t happen. A pope who knows Catholic doctrine and hews close to it in his public statements does not provide opportunities to be co-opted by some of the most evil people on the face of the planet. You want to blame NARAL? Go right ahead. But he’s the one who said we talk too much about abortion. And when you combine that with statements about the greatest evils in the world being unemployment or the loneliness of the old, I can’t see why they wouldn’t thank him. It’s a dream come true for them. They were on their heels, and the greatest single point of opposition to abortion in the world — the papacy — just decided to let up when momentum was finally building.

There are a lot of Catholics out there – good ones, probably far better ones than I am – trying to put a positive spin on every foolish thing the pope says. They don’t like it, not one bit, when other Catholics say things like, “Hey, what this guy is saying doesn’t sound at all like the Catholicism I’ve lived and studied MY ENTIRE LIFE. It sounds like something far different. It sounds like something intended to change the way Catholics believe.”

I can’t say I blame them. It’s tough when you find out that the pope isn’t doing things in the best interest of the Church. I remember how I felt when I first discovered that during my study of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent liturgical revolution. I was a JPII-We-Love-You Catholic with my BA in Theology from Steubenville, of all places, and a life spent in the Novus Ordo Missae. I wanted to find the flaws in the traditionalists’ arguments, because I couldn’t wrap my mind around what they would mean for the Church. Instead, I found myself agreeing and then ultimately joining their cause. C’est la vie.

I don’t think Pope Francis’ defenders are insincere. I don’t think they’re saying these things just because they want to continue their working relationships with the mainstream Catholic publications they write for. Working for the Church, in whatever capacity, is one of the quickest paths to financial insolvency, and it’s hard to lose that income. I’m glad I don’t depend on my Catholic writing gigs, because I’m finding it very hard to publish anything positive about the Church right now. But that doesn’t make them opportunists.

I like Simcha Fisher. I think she’s a good person and a faithful daughter of the Church. She has a lot of kids and she’s trying to raise them right and she is, often as not, more sensible than many others when it comes to her take on issues in the Church. Hell, I’ve sided with her on more than one occasion. Even on the issue of (gasp!) women wearing pants!

I don’t have any ill-will for Catholics defending the pope, but I do wish they would stop already. He is doing a lot of damage. He is muddying the already unclear theological waters and making it very, very easy for a world hell bent on seeing Catholics as the bad guys to misinterpret things until we have no chance of having an honest conversation about anything anymore. They’re already using “but the pope said” arguments against people out there defending the unborn and arguing against gay marriage. It isn’t going to stop. So while there may not be malice at work, I think these papal apologists need to step back and ask themselves if they’re maybe, just maybe, being a bit willfully obtuse.

Not all popes are chosen by the Holy Spirit, folks. Not everything a pope says is infallible, either. Heck, most of it isn’t. It’s OK to distance yourself from a dangerous pope. You don’t need to keep saying that things he said or did are being taken out of context, or that he didn’t contradict doctrine. The pope is not the faith. Eastern Catholics have been getting along fine without much input from him for millennia.

History shows us the truth of this. Pope Stephen VI wasn’t taken out of context when he held the cadaver synod. Pope John XII wasn’t misunderstood when he was committing adultery and murder. Pope Urban VI wasn’t being taken advantage of by the media when he tortured members of his curia who opposed him.

And none of these popes contradicted doctrine. They were all real popes. Valid popes. They were all protected by the Holy Spirit from promulgating doctrinal error in an official capacity, and that guarantee worked out just fine. But they were all asshole popes. Terrible, lecherous, murderous people. May God have mercy on their souls.

The thing they couldn’t do that Pope Francis can do? Give interviews that can be read by a global audience. Talk about doctrine in a non-doctrinal capacity in a way that gets everyone all confused. You can argue that they were worse while they were bedding women and killing enemies and digging up the corpses of their predecessors, but I honestly find that a lot easier to deal with. Nothing like, as Nancy Pelosi likes to say, a “Wolf in wolf’s clothing.” I like an enemy I can see.

No, what’s worse is when the enemy speaks in half-truths. When they veil themselves in cryptic language that can be taken to mean one thing by the orthodox and another by the progressive. When they speak in code that tells their brothers in the revolution that the fight is still on, that the 1960s aren’t dead yet and getting better. When they say nothing at all that can be definitively denounced as heterodox but everything that can be embraced by the heterodox if they so choose.

Stalin had a word for the people who sympathized with the Soviets in the West: useful idiots. This papacy is looking to be a continuation of the revolution that began before Bl. John XXIII invoked the council. This is a battle for the soul of the Church that is happening within the boundaries of papal infallibility, but make no mistake – a lot can go wrong without changing a single doctrine.

If you love Catholicism, take some time to read up on what it teaches. Or, I should say, what it taught before the second half of the 20th century. Understand the continuity that existed between popes in the past, and compare that to what you’re seeing now. You might be surprised.

If you want, in charity, to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt, you have every right to do so. But I urge you to ask for discernment. To question with boldness whether your benevolent papism — an entirely noble but ultimately unnecessary aspect of the life of faith — is enabling something that will damage the Church’s ability to evangelize for years to come.


UPDATE 11/10/13: If you are arriving through various links, or the New York Times article itself, I have written a followup to this post that helps answer some of the questions that have arisen in the comments.

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