Francis: style, substance, execution

I have written very little about Pope Francis since he was elected to the See of Peter 18 months ago. I, like so many others, have been and remain somewhat confused. There are already so many things written about him, what he has said, what he has done and what he is trying to do. There should be little to add – except, that so much of what has been said is so terribly contradictory.

How to make sense of it all? I propose, gentle reader, that it may be helpful to understand the Holy Father in a framework of three areas: style, substance and execution.

Style

Obviously enough, every pope has a different personal style. These are very different men with different backgrounds, education, experience and focus. Recent popes in particular have also been from different cultures and native languages. Except for a very small handful during the Middle Ages (less than 10 “bad popes” – out of 266), the Church has been blessed by extraordinary, but of course imperfect, men.

I do not believe for a second that Pope Francis is more humble, or cares more about the poor, or wants to center the Church on Christ even one iota greater than his predecessors. When I read anything that suggests that, I know it is not only completely wrong, but incredibly insulting to previous popes and thus the Church herself. I understand how some people, particularly the media, twists things in this way to further their own agenda.

That said, I believe that the Holy Spirit may have given us Pope Francis as the pope we need at this time. His style is suited well to highlighting what I believe are two areas in which we collectively need to rededicate ourselves.

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Pope Francis asks us to look outward, renewing and reinvigorating our mission. He wants our message to be one of peace and joy in Christ, which is sometimes lost when we lead with rules, liturgy and the like. The Holy Father is right! We are well advised to keep this foremost in our evangelism efforts.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

The second area in which Pope Francis wishes to strengthen is our commitment to the poor. That is, the second part of the Greatest Commandment: “love your neighbor.” In our relatively comfortable lives, the needs of the poor can seem distant. The Holy Father reminds us that the poor are always with us and of our responsibility to these brothers and sisters.

The Holy Father’s “messaging” centers around these two areas. We do well to listen, reflect and act accordingly.

Substance

Pope Francis describes himself as a “loyal son of the Church.” Put another way, the pope is a faithful Catholic. Duh.

There is absolutely no chance whatsoever that the pope will change doctrine. This will (eventually) come as a shock to the politicized media, to some non-Catholics and to poorly catechized Catholics.

Even if Pope Francis wanted to change doctrine, which he certainly does not (and would be heretical), he could not. Nor is he free to play games with it like keeping certain doctrines “technically on the books” but diminished and ignored in practice. These are revealed truths from God (ref: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”). The Church protects the truth, does not “evolve” it, and exists to change the world, not be changed by it.

Execution

Unless you believe there is a brilliant, intricate, long-term plan to which virtually the whole world has not caught on — then you would have to concede that there have been serious problems in this area!

The Holy Father has often spoken vaguely leaving us confused with what he is trying to say. Knowing he is a faithful (orthodox) Catholic, we put a meaning on the words such that they are consistent with doctrine and 2,000 years of Magisterial teaching. The media and heterodox Catholics assign a completely different, often opposite meaning. It seems that the pope has a policy never to clarify what he meant. Confusion reigns.

Another problem area is some in his “inner circle” who claim to be speaking for him, often with alarming pronouncements. This too seems to be tolerated without any objection from the Holy Father or requiring any retraction. Confusion reigns.

Another area is seemingly intractable systemic problems, such as the string of translation “errors” and unapproved, highly slanted information releases. These lapses always tilt toward the heterodox, seem to continue unabated and…   confusion reigns.

Finally, there is the issue of discipline. Those proposing and promoting heterodoxy, from all appearances (which admittedly could be misleading) are usually tolerated. Those affirming orthodoxy appear to often be unjustly disciplined (again, appearances could be wrong). Cardinal Burke’s reassignment may be one such example. The extremely severe treatment of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate may be another. There are plenty of other examples. How much Pope Francis is involved in these matters or how much he defers to that inner circle is unknown. The result is chilling however to many faithful Catholics.

The Future

A tremendous amount of good can come from Pope Francis’ pontificate. Fallen away Catholics and non-Catholics could be brought home. The mission of the Church to save souls could be fulfilled to the highest degree possible.

Alternately, a lot of bad could result if doctrine, while left “technically” unchanged, is diminished, reworded, reinterpreted or otherwise skirted to give heterodoxy a place in the Church. Scandal, by definition, does not save souls but leads them away from Christ. Only truth sets one free.

Frankly, it is unclear to me which path we are on. We must continue to pray for Pope Francis, his intentions and his leadership. May he one day be known as Pope St. Francis the Great!


UPDATE: A recent piece in the Catholic Herald by William Oddie quotes Cardinal Francis George expressing a similar perspective. See The Pope really needs to answer Cardinal George’s questions.

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