Published September 7, 2023
Much has been made of the remarks Pope Francis recently made about “backwardists” in the United States who have replaced the faith with ideology. The Holy Father did not say who, exactly, he was speaking about, but plenty of commentators have been happy to fill in the blanks for him.
Some Catholics of a more conservative bent, convinced the Holy Father is speaking about them, feel aggrieved by the Holy Father’s words, as any child would be when a father accuses him, behind his back, of some infidelity or rebellion of which they are innocent.
Some more progressive Catholics have responded gleefully to the pope’s criticisms, finding in the pope’s words a convenient weapon to use against their fellow Catholics with whom they disagree on various matters both ecclesial and political.
With regard to the former – those aggrieved conservatives – it’s worth admitting that some of the criticism leveled against Pope Francis, particularly in the mud pits of social media, is undoubtedly tainted by ideology. In ecclesial circumstances as contentious as ours, no one should think himself completely immune from such tendencies, especially if it involves publicly criticizing the pope.
An honest examination of conscience is never a bad thing, even if the prompting is unwanted or thought unwarranted. It is good to be corrected in our error just as it is good to be confirmed in our rectitude. A thorough examination of conscience accomplishes both.
Now, if the shoe fits, wear it. But if words of criticism do not apply to me (or you), then there is nothing to be gained from insisting they do. If one insists on wearing ill-fitting shoes, one is only going to end up with blisters.
Still, we should not simply dismiss the Holy Father’s comments, particularly since this is not the first time that he’s directed such words toward the Church in the United States. It’s one thing to hear such words and say, “I am not a “backwardist” or “restorationist”; these words don’t apply to me.”
It’s another thing to ask, since he keeps saying such things, “Whom does the pope have in mind?”
Writing in The Washington Post, David Gibson was happy to suggest an answer to that question. According to Gibson, John Paul II and Benedict XVI spent 35 years “pushing the U.S. hierarchy in a conservative theological direction.” With the election of Francis, Gibson continues, everything changed. “Suddenly, the Vatican, with Francis at the helm, began pushing Americans to be more flexible, more pastoral, more inclusive and less doctrinally rigid.” Francis shifted emphases, Gibson says, to issues like the environment, economic injustice, care for migrants, and access to health care.
Surely Gibson is aware, though he fails to mention, that the American bishops have been championing all of these issues for decades. If Francis has called for even greater emphasis on some, on none has this renewed emphasis required anything like a reversal from the American bishops.
As for the need to be “more flexible, more pastoral, more inclusive and less doctrinally rigid,” the American Catholic Church has proven to have many weaknesses and faults in recent decades, but to list a lack of pastoral flexibility or a rigid devotion to doctrine among them is laughable.
Gibson gives the game away when he insists: “Much of American church leadership, meanwhile, remains focused on a ‘pelvic theology’ and is captive to the culture war mentality of today’s political conservatism.” The Church’s teachings on sexual morality have been under constant and open assault for decades, from within and without, and some people still insist the Church is the aggressor.
The problem with Gibson’s just-so-story is not so much the progressive worldview that underlies it, as the fact that it relies on a highly tendentious retelling of the American Catholic life in the post-Conciliar era.
Was it doctrinal rigidity that fostered widespread dissent from those same doctrines? Was it a lack of pastoral flexibility that led to the collapse in sacramental practice and discipline? Or to a loss of a sense of sin and the desire to seek God’s mercy?
Was it the insistence that a life of prayer and obedience to the moral law are the surest paths to freedom and charity that led so many to see the Church (in Pope Francis’ phrase) as little more than a “compassionate NGO”?
Was it a “reactionary” mindset that drove academic theology ever farther toward ecclesial irrelevance?
Was it a widespread opposition to the Second Vatican Council that sapped Catholic belief in the Real Presence and the centrality of the Eucharist to Christian life?
To believe Gibson’s story, one would have to answer all of these questions in the affirmative. But to do so, one would also have to be completely mistaken about how American Catholic life has played out in recent decades.
Few American Catholics are interested in a return to the pre-Conciliar Church. This is especially true among the American bishops. But neither do they wish to return to the tepid, low-stakes Catholicism that decimated the American Church in the last half-century. That way has been tried. It has failed everywhere it has been tried: both here in the United States and abroad, both within the Catholic Church and across other Christian denominations.
The question remains: Is the view of the American Catholic Church that Gibson lays out really the view held by Pope Francis? It may be, but one hopes not.
As Pope Francis frequently points out, it’s not helpful to insist on doctrine and call that evangelization. The truth of the faith is best conveyed through witness. I don’t know anyone who disagrees. But the Church can only bear witness to the truth if she remains faithful to that same truth, cherishing it, rather than treating it as an embarrassment.
Fudging truth in the name of being “pastoral” is a short road to disaster. That’s a lesson the Church in the United States has learned the hard way. Then again, maybe we haven’t.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.