How Pope Francis Challenges the Catholic Right

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I looked at three ways that Pope Francis challenges the Catholic Left. Today, I would like to examine three ways he challenges the Catholic Right. Both commentaries are undertaken with a view towards the Holy Father’s upcoming visit and, so, focus on the situation of the Church and socio-political reality in the United States.

We saw, yesterday, a criticism of the left that the Holy Father delivered in his closing address to the synod last year. The first item on his list of problems, however, pertained to the right. He said he detected in the synod discussions:

a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

Here, the issue is not an alien ideology being placed in competition with the Gospel, but the Catholic faith itself being turned into a kind of ideology. The Christian faith ceases to be an ecclesial faith, lived and therefore changing, but is instead a relic placed upon the mantle and invoked as needed, or an old book, strongly bound, to be dusted off and consulted as necessary. Inflexibility is worn as a badge of honor and scrupulosity is understood to be a virtue. This type of traditionalism is profoundly un-Catholic, displaying a certain fundamentalism that is also terribly slothful: We have all the answers and there is no work to be done reconciling what is, in fact, a varied and rich tradition, still less mining that tradition for new situations and new promptings of the Spirit.

It is no surprise that the Holy Father delivered this criticism when he did. How often did we hear from those opposed to the +Kasper proposal, which seeks to find a penitential path back to the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, that the Church’s teachings on marriage have never changed, which would be news to the fathers at the Council of Trent who were well aware they were changing the Church’s teaching on marriage. How often did we have Luke 16:18 thrown in our faces: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Earlier in Luke, at Chapter 9, verse 60, we read that Jesus also said, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Yet, the Church continues to perform funerals and even considers the burying of the dead to be one of the corporal works of mercy. Why? Because we are not fundamentalists who turn to the Scriptures for proof texts to make a point already arrived at. I am not saying that we can, or even should, ignore this hard saying of Jesus about divorce. As a general rule, the hard sayings of Jesus are the ones that should make us test ourselves, as we heard this past Sunday in the Gospel. My point is only that the opposition to +Kasper has often been precisely the opposition of those who invoke tradition and Scripture in a puerile manner.

The second challenge to the Catholic Right is even deeper, not merely his opposition to creating an ideology of the faith, but his challenging the Right on precisely what the Gospel is about. C.J. Reid, of the University of St. Thomas, hit the nail on the head when he said the Catholic Right’s response to Pope Francis resembled nothing so much as the attitude of the older son in the parable of the Prodigal. Conservative Catholics in the U.S. in recent years have reduced the Christian faith to moralism for years. This was one of the principal unintended consequences of the Reformation detailed by Brad Gregory in his book of that name: If dogmatic claims were a source of seemingly endless and insurmountable friction in political life, the role of Christians in the public realm was contorted into that of an ethical authority. But, such contortions, over time, affect one’s self-awareness and Christianity became confused with a specific moral code when, in fact, as the parable explains, the Christian faith is about how God’s mercy is so great, it can reach past the demands of mere justice.

Regrettably, “mere justice” was not even the morality to which most conservative Catholics reduced the faith! It was a personal piety, and personal, largely sexual, morality that was turned into the modern day equivalent of the older son’s claim to justice. It was this, a sexually pure life of rectitude and perhaps some personal charity thrown in, it was this that earned us the Father’s love. This is the Pelagianism of the right and it developed a variety of spiritual life that we could call “checklist spirituality” – do these ten things every day for the rest of your life, and don’t do these other ten things, and you will be a saint. No! shouts Pope Francis. We are all sinners, all in need of God’s mercy, and it is a greater sin to stand in judgment over others, claiming as our own what belongs to God alone, than to commit any sin of the flesh. That was the import of his famous statement, “Who am I to judge?” He was not denying there will be a Judgment! He was not invalidating the Church’s teachings on human sexuality. He was telling us that the heart of the matter for the Christian is to accept the love of a merciful God and recognize our need, day in and day out, for that mercy. That is the Gospel.

That is also what does not sell well in our protean age. Which leads to the third challenge the Catholic Right faces in Pope Francis. We Americans hold ourselves in high regard, we thinks ours is the greatest country in the world, we tend to ignore or whitewash out those parts of our history that inconveniently paint a different picture, the exploitation of labor in developing countries, the arms sales, the wars. With our great power goes great responsibility, and we do not like to hear about the ways that responsibility has been poorly exercised. We are the greatest country in history. Indeed, with our triumph in the Cold War, history was supposed to end. Remember that? We may be going through some hard times, but Donald Trump will fix all that. He is going to make America great again!  

It has been over a century since Leo XIII condemned “Americanism” in his Apostolic Letter in 1899. It was termed “the phantom heresy” but if it was then, it is not now. It is not merely the Donald Trumps of our time who expose the heresy. We have for too long failed to ask foundational questions about the structure of our economy, celebrating “success,” while worshipping a crucified God. For too long we have failed to ask foundational questions about the potential for self-interest, even enlightened self-interest, to form the basis of our government. For too long, we have equated “the American Dream” with materialism and its rewards, being sure to donate to charity, but never wondering if our economic well-being has any claims upon it by those who are excluded by the same system that makes us rich. For too long, we have thought consumer consumption was a path to happiness, not a step on the road to true serfdom.

These last two challenges to the Catholic Right combine to a degree within a certain sector of the Catholic leadership and commentariat. Some of our friends on the right thought they had a lock on the narrative of the Church. Remember George Weigel’s “The End of the Bernardin Era”? I do. They just knew that the decline in attendance at weekly Mass was the result of a pernicious strategy to sideline the Church, undertaken by the forces of secularism, which had nothing to do with materialism, but were concocted in late night strategy sessions in the Obama White House. They frowned when he won the first time, and fretted when he won again – what would happen to the Court! But, at least they knew that the Church was theirs. Even when the cardinals stunned the world by electing Bergoglio pope, they knew that this was part of a plan to finally settle the one piece of unfinished business from the previous papacies: You needed a Jesuit to tame the Jesuits! The sense of entitlement found in the older son in the parable of the Prodigal combined with the belief that America, at least God-fearing America, was God’s chosen instrument of salvation.

Alas. Pope Francis is coming to America and the verse of Scripture that comes to mind as I think about how he will challenge the Catholic Right is found in the 21st Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.”


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