When the Vicar of Christ Imitates Christ, Why is it so Alarming?

francis-baby1It now seems so long ago, but just eight months ago Pope Benedict the Beloved resigned the papacy. Catholics had no modern frame of reference for such an event, and many with agendas of their own in the news media, and even in the Church, used our shock and dismay to sow discord and doubt. I can’t help but wonder how much of the alarm circulating throughout the Catholic online world over the words, positions, and demeanor of Pope Francis flows from motives less honorable than fidelity to the Church and tradition. After all, some among us who claim to treasure and preserve the Tradition of the Church can sometimes seem all too ready to suspect and cast shadows upon this Pope, and even denounce him outright. And yet, such a demeanor toward the pope would have been unthinkable in the era of the Church that traditionalists long to restore. Don’t get me wrong on this. I like to think that I am among those who uphold Tradition, but I could never be among those who accused the Pope unjustly.

Among the better analyses of this Pope’s recent interviews was “Pope Francis Shakes Up the Church” by the National Catholic Register Senior Editor, Joan Frawley Desmond (October 6-19, 2013). Ms. Desmond summed up well a recent Shockwave of Pope Francis:

“As Catholic leaders scrambled to clarify Francis’ message to the faithful and a bemused public, they must also address anxiety from believers who have labored in the trenches of pro-life or marriage outreach and seek reassurance, rather than what might be interpreted as a scolding.”

Much of the criticism of Pope Francis is not expressed as a concern about his words themselves, but rather about how he subjects himself and his words to exploitation and misinterpretation in the secular media. To defuse such a concern, the October issue of Catalyst, the Journal of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, published an eye-opening survey of fifteen leading American newspapers and their editorial coverage about the Pope. The news media is hearing Pope Francis more clearly than we think, more clearly even than some in the Church who fear his priorities. Here are some examples:

Kansas City Star, March 13, 2013: Pope Francis will not “waver from the Church leadership’s strident opposition to abortion, gay marriage…”

Chicago Tribune, March 14, 2013: Pope Francis has ”forcefully opposed” such subjects as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2013: Pope Francis is not going to change the Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 14, 2013: “The Pope is no free-thinking reformer”; and July 30, 2013: Encouraged by Pope Francis’ statement about not judging gays, but…the “door is closed” on women’s ordination.

The Boston Globe, April 3, 2013: “No one expects Pope Francis to be ordaining women anytime soon.” In the same issue of Catalyst, Catholic League President Bill Donohue summed up the first months of Pope Francis’ papacy in reassuring terms:

“Not in my lifetime have I seen such an outburst of enthusiasm for a newly minted pontiff. And not just from Catholics: Pope Francis has won the plaudits of everyone, from people of all faiths to die-hard secularists…So far the New York Times has said nothing about our new pope. That will change. Liberal Catholics tend to be happier with Pope Francis than conservative Catholics. That will also change. The Holy Father is just as traditional on moral issues as his predecessors…” (“How’s the Pope Doing?” Catalyst, Oct. 2013)


That subheading was the title of a September 20 editorial by Phil Lawler at CatholicCulture.org. I have not always agreed with Phil Lawler, Editor of Catholic Culture and Catholic World News, especially on a few points about what constitutes justice in the U.S. priesthood scandal. However his editorial at Catholic Culture was a beacon of light and clarity amid lots of public distortion. It reminded me that perhaps I should be listening more closely to Phil Lawler.

Consider this:

“If the pope’s main responsibility is to keep us all comfortable, then Pope Francis is failing miserably…But there’s a precedent for [his] way of speaking. Jesus made people uncomfortable. The Lord’s words and gestures were often misinterpreted, and His critics found it easy to put things in an unfavorable light…Would it be better, really, if the Pope limited himself to statements that could not possibly be distorted? Should he stop trying to make subtle distinctions, or making new observations about controversial topics? That would be a form of self-censorship: shaping the message to suit the media.” (Phil Lawler, Sept. 20, CatholicCulture.org)

Even putting aside the needs of the Church, about the last thing the world needs is another leader whose views accommodate neat, acceptable little media sound bites, shallow and substance free. Pope Francis shakes my complacency too, but I hear something in his words that the Church and the world desperately need to hear. He is speaking as the Vicar of Christ, and in the words of Christ, and it’s alarming with its lack of cushioned and subtle nuance – just as it was alarming for the hearers of Jesus.

As the secular world strikes at the shepherd, Pope Francis strikes at the heart of needed reform. Consider this little “cleansing of the temple” quote from an October 1, 2013 interview of Pope Francis with the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica:

“Leaders of the Church have often been narcissists, gratified and sickeningly excited by their courtiers. [The Curia] is Vatican-centric…I don’t share this view, and I’ll do all I can to change it.”

The Pope’s words about the plague of careerism and narcissism among Church leaders were given a stark example just a day later in a Wall Street Journal article about Catholic Bishop Franz-Peter Tebarz van Elst, Bishop of the Diocese of Limburg, Germany. He has undertaken a major renovation and redecoration of his palatial residence with a scandalous price tag of $42 million while Pope Francis opts to live in a modest Vatican guest house.

I can’t help but wonder about how such priorities form in the mind and soul of a Church leader. About one-tenth of one percent of that bishop’s home improvement bill would see my appeal for justice to its very end. This sort of self-indulgent stewardship might remind Church leaders yearning for less Rome-centered authority that absolute power corrupts absolutely – and it is the Church’s good fortune that we have a Pope who seems to be a glaring exception to that rule.

To the horror of some in the hierarchy, Pope Francis has rightly and justly suspended and removed that bishop. As I wrote in “Pope Francis has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother,” Francis is determined that we will not be a self-referential Church, and our leaders will be servants, not kings. In a comment on that post, Catholic writer Carlos Caso-Rosendi from the Holy Father’s native Buenos Aires, Argentina, had a sobering reflection about the nature of the man the Holy Spirit chose. Among bishops, his pastoral experience with the poor and marginalized have been unique.

The truth is that the Church’s bishops don’t mind seeing the Roman Curia get its comeuppance, and the Church’s priests don’t mind seeing the bishops get theirs. We’re okay with papal correction so long as it’s aimed somewhere else. This Pope has some words for priests and the priesthood, however, that make me squirm, and when he equated the Church with a “field hospital” for the spiritually sick and injured, and alienated, we all squirmed.

In “The Key to Understanding Pope Francis” at Catholic Culture, Phil Lawler framed perfectly the agenda of Pope Francis in a way that spells out how much the rest of the Church has been somewhat behind the curve of late:

“Pope Francis recalled the story of the Good Shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to search for one who is lost. Then he suggested that in today’s secular culture, the shepherds of the Catholic Church confront a very different problem. ‘It’s the 99 who are missing!’ [Pope Francis] said…So he has devoted his first attentions to the outsiders; he speaks constantly of bringing the Gospel to those ‘on the periphery’…” “Yes, the Pope makes me uncomfortable. As well he should.” ( Phil Lawler, CatholicCulture.org, Sept. 20, 2013)

My friend, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus once wrote that the scandals of the Church today are really scandals of a lack of fidelity at all levels of Catholic life. After writing this post, I learned that CatholicCulture.org has published a Review of These Stone Walls that I had not seen until this week. TSW was given Catholic Culture’s highest marks across the board in the area of “Fidelity.” That’s the best that could be said of any of us. That it’s said today of TSW makes even 19 years of unjust imprisonment seem almost worth the effort to endure it.


Father Gordon J. MacRae has served nearly 19 years of a prison sentence of 33½ to 67 years. Convicted of sex offenses, he has steadfastly maintained his innocence, even rejecting plea bargains that would have freed him years ago.

In 2005, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The Wall Street Journal published an account of the travesty of justice by which Father Gordon MacRae was convicted (see “A Priest’s Story”). It is a story, described by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus in First Things magazine, of “a Church and a justice system that seem indifferent to justice.” Fr. Neuhaus, along with the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, encouraged Father MacRae to write. In 2005, Cardinal Dulles asked him to contribute “a new chapter to the volume of Christian literature from believers who were unjustly imprisoned.”

Fr. MacRae’s writings from prison have appeared in First Things, Catalyst, The Catholic Response, online at PriestsinCrisis.com and numerous Catholic blogs, and they are now collected at his blog These Stone Walls. (Fr. MacRae has no access to electronic communication and has never seen his own blog. He communicates online through others who post his writings and deliver comments to him though mail or by telephone.)

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