At a church gathering the other day, I quizzed a conservative friend about one of Pope Francis’s latest media bombshells. My friend is a good and cheerful Catholic, but he thought for a moment, then smiled and said, “Every day I pray for the pope…then I ignore him.”
His response reflects a growing discontent with Pope Francis in conservative circles. Anti-Trump protesters wave signs reading, “Not My President.” Perhaps conservative Catholics will soon march on the Vatican waving signs reading, “Not My Pope.”
The reality is not too far from the fantasy: last month Rome itself was plastered with posters picturing a disgruntled Pope Francis. Written in local Roman dialect, the signs charged that the pope had “removed priests; decapitated the Knights of Malta” and “ignored Cardinals.”
The critics are not only wild-eyed right wing conspiracy theorists. Respected journalist Phil Lawler regards Francis’s papacy as “disastrous.” Rod Dreher has joined the chorus of those who not only question Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia’s involvement with a homoerotic mural in a church, but also his appointment by Pope Francis as president of the Pontifical Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.
Meanwhile, The Times of London has reported rumors that a group of cardinals now regret the election of Francis and want him to resign, and last summer conservative columnist Adam Hall called for the pope’s resignation.
Conservative Catholic websites and bloggers criticize the Francis papacy for fostering confusion regarding marriage discipline, being doctrinally fuzzy, unpredictable and autocratic. They accuse him of promoting the gay agenda, praising Protestants, downplaying doctrine in favor of political correctness, and being more worried about saving the environment than saving souls.
Is the criticism justified? Can you be a faithful Catholic and criticize the pope? If you’re unhappy with a pope should you fire up your fingers, tap out some scorching criticism, take to the internet highway, Facebook, Tweets and the streets?
Should unhappy Catholics stop fuming and start marching while waving “Not My Pope!” signs?
I think not, and here’s why.
We should ask what protests actually accomplish. When there is true oppression and dictatorship, a grassroots revolution sometimes works. The Solidarity movement in Poland and the “soft revolutions” in Eastern Europe which helped bring down communism were effective.
However, history shows us that most protest movements are either ineffectual or destructive. The protest rarely brings about regime change, and often only brings resistance, reinforcement and further repression by the powers that be.
Furthermore, the dialectic of protest is not the Catholic way. It might work in certain political circumstances, but the Catholic path is not one of revolution, but reform.
A good historical comparison is between St. Francis and Martin Luther. Both men were sincere in their love for Christ and his gospel, and both men were faced with a church led by men who were corrupt, venal and immoral. Luther protested and brought about a terrible schism. St. Francis re-built and renewed Christ’s church through evangelical poverty, humility and the fiery infilling of the Holy Spirit.
This does not mean conservative critics should simply shut up, pray, pay and obey. The church is a big Italian family, and big Italian families have noisy arguments. Debate and disagreement in the church is nothing new, and although it feels bad, it is not always destructive.
In the cut and thrust of vigorous argument, new viewpoints are often opened up and fresh ways forward are discovered. Conservative critics should speak their minds with reason and respect, and they should be heeded.
Pope Francis is clearly no Pope St. John Paul II, nor has he the intellectual acumen and accomplishment of Benedict XVI, but he brings other gifts and capabilities to his office. His simplicity, heart for the poor and obvious devotion to the gospel is inspiring and genuine.
He’s the pope, and all Catholics should honor and respect his historic office even if they have sharp disagreements with his personal policies and preferences.
If some Catholics are not huge fans of Pope Francis is that such a bad thing? There were plenty of Catholics who were not keen on John Paul II and Benedict XVI. So what? If Catholics are unhappy with their pope, it might be a sign that they were investing too much in the pope in the first place.
The office of the papacy is vital to the Catholic Church, but Christ’s church is bigger than the papacy, and it is certainly bigger than any man who occupies the office.
Discontent with a particular pope might just have the salutary effect of re-focussing their devotion to their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Pope Francis himself has downplayed the dominance of the papacy, and tried to shift our attention to the task at hand in our own parishes. We should listen to his advice.
A bit less of an obsession with the pope and the politics of the Vatican might help Catholics focus on their call to roll up their sleeves, preach the gospel and do the work of God where they are with what they have.
Maybe we need less worry about the pope and more worry about our needy neighbor. Maybe we should read our Bibles more than the internet gossip about the pope, bishops and cardinals. Maybe there should be less paranoia and more prayer.
Finally, for those who would cry “Not My Pope!” the stark question arises, “If this is not your pope, who is?”
This was the dilemma that faced the Protestant revolutionaries. When they got rid of the pope they didn’t like, they had to choose another authority.
When they got rid of the pope, they didn’t have no pope.
They became their own pope.