Sunday, March 4, 2018

Francis and Barack--Graduates of the School of Scolding

Are we really so terrible?
I have been following Pope Francis' pontificate with concern. Mixed messages, strange pronouncements, and troubling encyclicals have been the order of the day. But it was only this morning that I recognized the troubling technique he has been using since being elected pope. Suddenly I saw it standing beside its twin: the dreary specter of America-bashing carried on for eight years by former President Barack Obama.

As I sat reading articles recapping Francis' five years in the seat of Peter, an amazing resemblance to Obama's famous Apology Tour could not be ignored. You remember: the new president went on a tour of European cities, apologizing at every stop for the America he was promising to fundamentally remake. He confessed our sins of aggression, greed, abuse of the planet, egotism, bigotry, etc., etc. A cheerleader for our country he was not. He continued to present this dreary view of his homeland to audiences domestic and foreign throughout his eight years. Inspiring, he was not. But after all, he needed to tell us how bad we were as a nation to convince us that we needed to change and change big. 

Enter Pope Francis, elected to the papacy during Obama's first term. After a truly spectacular display of humility following his enrobement (No, no! I'll go down to the front desk and pay my own hotel bill--I insist!), Francis set about sketching out the "paradigm shift" he envisioned for the Catholic Church. 

One of his first addresses consisted of publicly scolding the cardinals for their poor performance. Then he wagged his finger at the volunteers within parish churches for sticking to their comfort zone, hiding inside the church buildings rather than taking to the streets to tend to the poor. (But wait a minute--do you mean, Your Holiness, the generous, unpaid people who clean the church and stock the candles and usher at Masses and basically keep God's house open and looking beautiful?)

In his first encyclical, issued less than a year into his papacy, he warned against those Catholics who cling to Catholic Tradition and old doctrine rather than opening themselves to "new currents in theology." 

And how can we forget his encyclical on care of the Earth, in which he accused all of us of turning this magnificent planet into a giant trash dump? (But, Your Holiness, what about all the homes that recycle religiously and the strict, expensive pollution controls installed on America's factories and vehicles . . . ?)

Francis and Mr. Obama are simply using a time-honored technique: Preach at decent people that what they are used to doing, even if they thought it was good, is really very bad. Get them to feel ashamed. Then tell them what they can do to redeem themselves. Point them in the new, illumined direction.

Like poor old Toby the porter in Dickens' The Chimes, who wrings his hands after his alleged faults are listed for him by the all-knowing Alderman Cute, we stand ready to confess our offenses if only we could recognize them. "Born bad!" we cry about ourselves, and look around in confusion for a path to salvation.   

What would it be like to have a pontiff who championed Catholic Tradition? Who preached proudly of the industry, accomplishments, and compassion of the Church through history, both within the home and in our many spheres of good works? A pope who understood how heroically Christians have ministered to the destitute, the rejected, the imprisoned? 

Instead, Francis seems at every turn to be saying in one way or another that we have become, well, too Catholic, and must evolve into something more realistic.

If anything, the worst thing that has happened to the Church in recent decades is that it has gotten less Catholic, blurring the beauty of its doctrines and its practices in favor of blending in more with the modern world. Maybe what we need are some red hats with the slogan, Make the Church Great Again.* And make it great not by robbing it of its traditions and sound morals, but by embracing them and broadcasting them as the life preservers they are in a floundering world. 
*With gratitude to the Trump campaign.