Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Francis Effect

Resigned to Resignation

I will always remember the morning of 11 February 2013 as one of wildly varied emotion. It started like any other day at work; I'd just got my mid-morning cup of tea and, as was my habbit, I was going to read the Football Transfer Gossip column on the BBC. When I went to the BBC News page however, what I saw filled me consternation - the idiots at the BBC who couldn't get anything right when it came to Catholicism were reporting that Pope Benedict had resigned!

It was only after checking several other websites that I finally had to admit that I had been witness to two unprecedented events: the BBC had reported a story on Catholicism correctly and Pope Benedict had indeed announced his resignation.

After I accept the reality of the resignation, I am afraid to admit that my first sentiments were those of betrayal. I felt that someone who I dearly loved had abandoned me to great uncertainty. It was as if a magnitude 7 earthquake had shook the foundations of my faith, an indication of the great personal investment I had made in the papacy. I sent exclamatory text messages to Catholic friends seeking solace and understanding.

After riding the initial shock, the second emotion I felt was great sadness. As I looked at the pictures of Pope Benedict been streamed by the BBC, I saw a frail and somewhat failing man and this renewed my faith. If Pope Benedict was resigning, being a man of great integrity and intellect, then it would be for the good of the Church.

As I watched the final moments of Benedict XVI's papacy on television on 28 February 2013, this overriding feeling of sadness remained. As he waved his goodbyes from the balcony of Castle Gandolfo, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a good friend who was moving away, never to be seen again.

Habemus Papam

So it was on 13 March 2013 I came to be watching my second Papal election announcement. I'd gained some kudos in work for suggesting Cardinal Ratzinger would succeed Pope John Paul (more wishful thinking than serious conviction) so when the announcement was made in Latin, I had no difficulty recognising who had been made Pope. With the election of Pope Francis however, I had absolutely no idea who George Bergoglio ("Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem Bergoglio") was.

A cursory look however at Wikipedia and a few articles from various news websites such as the Telegraph [1] filled me with optimism and hope. Our new Pope appeared to be a humble but charismatic man, a resolute defender of church teaching who was deeply concerned with social justice and unafraid to tackle the status quo. In short, he appeared to be the perfect man to ensure that "the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously [2]" and to tackle the most pressing challenges of the Church: reform of the Curia, the preservation of an authentic Christian voice in western society and governance and the continued development of a robust policy to deal with and eradicate abuse perpetrated by its members.

Failure to communicate

It has been almost a year and a month since Pope Francis was introduced to the world as he stepped onto the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica and the most enthusiasm and hope I felt has evaporated leaving confusion and doubt, emotions I am unaccustomed to be subject to when considering the papacy.

My main concerns can be summarised as follows:

1) Mixed Messages

 When one examines Francis' speaches and off the cuff remarks, one could be forgiven for thinking they have two authors. I appreciate that the media has a bias towards reporting stories which they feel will promote their own liberal agenda and seem to have a concerted policy to play Francis off against Benedict * but for every story which appears to show Francis robustly defending church teaching, there is another which casts doubt upon it.

2) Careless Talk

Pope Benedict was very careful with whatever he said but even that didn't ensure that he was (sometimes willfully) misunderstood (e.g. Regensberg and condoms). Pope Francis by constrast seems unnecessarily garrulous, unaware that every word he utters will be dissected and interpreted by all manner of interested parties. What are the consequences of Pope Francis' oratory style? "Who am I to judge?" [3] is fast becoming the banner of dissent (See Fr Z for a plausible take on the phrase [4]) and poor Fr Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, is having to release statements stating that personal and pastoral telephone conversations between the Pope and the faithful do not consistitute an official operation of the teaching authority of the Church. [5]

3) Papal Amnesia
Francis' seemingly careless talk appears to be a consequence of what I believe is an ultimately misguided approach to the Petrine office. As Pope, Francis has frequently referred to himself as Jorge Bergoglio or Fr Bergoglio, as if he can divest himself of his office and then take it back up again. [6] It's possible that in trying to do so, he is forgetting that as Pope, he is no longer dealing with a parish but the worldwide Church. 

Francis has also chosen to favour the appearance of humility over papal custom in his dress (no read shoes or mozzetta) and his desire not to live in the papal apartments. Though humility in office is of course to be lauded, Francis actions are being viewed as a criticism of his "lofty" predecessors [7] and a rejection of church customs which are meant as signs and symbols to the faithful. If Pope Francis appears to undermine the traditions of the papacy, he runs the risk of attempting to be head of the Church via the cult of personality rather than received office.

4) With friends like these

One can often tell much about an individual by the friends one keeps so it is rather alarming that the man dubbed the "Pope's theologian", Cardinal Kasper, is at odds with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. [8] Likewise, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the President of the Synod of Bishops who is charged with arranging the Extraordinary Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization has supported Cardinal Kasper's stance on liberalising Church teaching on remarriage and communion. [9] There's even a suggestion that our own equivocating and faithful bishop blocking Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has the ear of the Pope. [10] Ches over at the Sensible Bond has also noticed a rather worrying intervention in the election of Bishop McMahon as Archbishop of Liverpool, another man who favours altering Church teaching on marriage, divorce and the Eucharist. He goes so far as to suggest "nobody should be in any doubt now about where Pope Francis wants the Church to go on this issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried". [11] At least Papa Benedict still hangs around the Vatican.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

I readily admit that the misgivings I have regarding Pope Francis could be totally without merit in fact. I am, after all, making my observations largely through a media lens which I have stated to be unreliable.

Perhaps there is a method to the Pope's actions? He's certainly got everyone talking - maybe he wants all the cards on the table in order to better prepare the Church's pastoral response to the problems of our age? The recent questionnaire on the family which preceeds the Extraordinary Synod on  the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization maybe an example of this policy. If so, the outcomes of the synod should allow Francis to definitely nail his colours to the mast. James Preece certainly hopes so [12].

Likewise, Francis' Council of Cardinals is also beginning to bear fruit. The first tentative steps towards reforming the much maligned and mired Vatican Bank have been taken and the "C8" will soon wade into the marshland of the Curia. [13]

It seems therefore there is hope after all! Francis hasn't changed one iota of Church teaching or promulgated any new developments of doctrine. 

Maybe the real root of my concern is my own lack of Faith?

Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram ædificabo Ecclesiam meam, et portæ inferi non prævalebunt

Sts Pope John XXIII & Pope John Paul II, Pray for Us!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Luke,

    I'm not only on the same page as you, but also the same paragraph and more or less, the same line as well. Pope Benedict's resignation (abdication?) filled me with deep sadness too - seeing him at the Mass for the canonization of Pope Sts John XXXIII and John Paul II was the most emotional part of that ceremony for me - although I never felt even initially any sense of betrayal. After having read his remarks on the possibility of papal abdication in his interview with Peter Seewald ("Light of the World"), I was sort of primed for this, although the timing took me by surprise. I imagined that Pope Benedict had come to the realization that he wouldn't have been well enough to have flown to Brazil for WYD and this proved to be the last straw, and perhaps, having seen in relatively recent memory the very public physical deterioration of Pope St John Paul II - even though this bore such a great witness to his own papacy - Benedict felt that the Church was urgently in need of strong leadership that could only be provided by a younger and fitter man. I was saddened that his resignation left his anticipated Encyclical on the Catholic Faith, in the Year of Faith, un-issued (even if it were finished), but to his great credit Pope Francis did publish Lumen Fidei in spite of it being largely not his own work - an impressive act of charity, I felt.

    You are perfectly right in saying that Pope Francis hasn't changes any of the Church's teaching or promulgated any doctrinal developments, and I'm very pleased you did so, for it puts everything into perspective as far as things stand at the moment. Nevertheless, let's hope we won't be singing "caught in a landslide, no escape from reality" after the conclusions of this pair of Synods are unveiled!

    God's Blessings to you,