If the civil new year is an occasion to resolve to Do Better in the future, the liturgical new year, the real new year that begins at First Vespers on the First Sunday of Advent, is an even better moment for such resolutions. So permit me to suggest a Real New Year’s resolution to those who think it necessary to support Pope Francis by rewriting recent Church history: Stop it.
There was an awful lot of this airbrushing before and during the recent consistory for the creation of new cardinals. And I regret to note that one striking example of it came in a Catholic News Service video-interview with Cardinal Kevin Farrell, recently transferred from Dallas to Rome to lead the new Vatican dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. In that interview, the cardinal, who in 2014 was eager for me to give the University of Dallas commencement address in order to commemorate the recently canonized St. John Paul II, seemed to have forgotten that John Paul ever existed.
Thus Farrell, praising “Pope Francis’s great charisma” and “how the people flock to him” and the “amazing” way “he comes down to the people,” finished his tribute to the man who had named him cardinal by saying that all of this was “unthought of and unheard of twenty years ago.”
Was John Paul II shot in his apartment by an interloper who had sneaked past the Swiss Guard? Or was he shot by a would-be assassin standing in the midst of one of the vast throngs the Polish pope drew to St. Peter’s Square for over twenty-five years? Has Cardinal Farrell forgotten that, just before Mehmet Ali Agca’s shots rang out, John Paul had handed a small child he had embraced and blessed back to its mother? That was thirty-five years ago this past May 13. Which means that it’s preposterous to say that it was “unthought-of and unheard of twenty years ago” that a pope should mingle with crowds and embrace the people who were flocking to him. It was happening fifteen years and more before that.
This rewriting of history often goes hand-in-glove with attempts to celebrate Pope Francis’s welcome stress on the divine mercy—another key John Paul II theme—by subtly reinforcing the secular world’s stereotypes of Catholicism’s pre-Francis leaders as hidebound, rule-obsessed reactionaries. Thus Cardinal Farrell worried that “we keep pushing rules and regulations to excess.” Who, one wonders, is the “we” here? And why set “rules and regulations” in contrast to “an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ,” from whom, as the cardinal admitted, “we derive our doctrine”?
Wouldn’t it be better strategy (and better catechetics) to challenge secular stereotypes by reminding the Church and the world that a “yes” stands behind every “no” the Church must say in fidelity to Christ’s teaching? Wouldn’t it make more sense to remember, with John Paul II, that the Christian moral life is intended to foster happiness, and that the magna carta of Christian morality is the Sermon on the Mount, and especially the Beatitudes? By all means, concede that the Church, meaning all of us, sometimes does a lousy job of articulating that “yes” to beatitude so that the “no” can be heard in its proper context: as a warning against acts that lead to unhappiness and sorrow. But please don’t confirm those false and vicious stereotypes of Catholic moral teaching as soul-crushing and freedom-denying, a manual of nay-saying for killjoys.
Finally, may I suggest that Cardinal Farrell and others celebrating what they deem a Franciscan revolution in the Church refrain from the harsh biblical analogy the cardinal deployed when he said that defenders of the Church’s classic teaching on marriage, and on worthiness to receive holy communion, are like the cranky older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son? Some of those defenders may fit that description. But the vast majority do not and it is really hitting below the belt to suggest otherwise.
Pope Francis’s contributions to Catholic life are obvious enough that they needn’t be promoted by falsifying history, playing to the Church’s secular critics, or defaming brothers and sisters in Christ. Neither the Holy Father nor the New Evangelization is well-served by such tactics.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.