Category Archives: Visit

BREAKING: Pope Francis not a “cafeteria Catholic” either.

Remember when I said that whether you considered yourself a conservative Catholic or a liberal Catholic or a (any other adjective) Catholic, eventually the gospel would make you choose whether you were more loyal to the descriptor or the Catholic part? 

Suppose you are Pope Francis, and you believe in the entirety of the Catholic faith. You know that in America, some elements of social doctrine that appeal to conservatives are being highlighted to the point that they are preventing others from seeing the Church as a messenger of Good News. Other points of doctrine are being minimized or ignored. You believe that changing doctrine is not your mandate — but you know that there is a grave need to refocus on the central message of love, grace and mercy and also cast a light on other parts of doctrine that are critical for this time and, because the American Church has shifted politically to one side, are not getting the attention they need. What do you do?

Turns out, you do what Francis did. You show with your actions and emphasize with your words the core gospel message. You use policy speeches to shine a light on immigration, inequality and climate change. And you acknowledge the other elements of doctrine that have turned into weapons without giving their wielders more oxygen.

Francis defended a pro-life position, even as he accented the anti-death penalty elements of that position.

Francis defended religious freedom in general speeches, while meeting off the public schedule with the Sisters of the Poor who are suing the Obama Administration over the ACA’s contraception mandate, and apparently meeting secretly with Kim Davis. On the plane ride back, he spoke specifically about the need to respect the right of conscience even for public officials without discussing Davis’ case specifically.

So no, it turns out that Francis is not the liberal pope a divided America thought. He’s the pope, period, and he’s threading a needle to add weight to the port side of a listing American Catholic ship without throwing overboard anything on the starboard side.

His hope, I suspect, is that enough people turned off by the Church’s overemphasis on culture war issues will see his embrace of prisoners, homeless, immigrants, children and reopen their ears to the good news. His calculation is that the loud voice on those issues the left embrace would better establish in the political mindset that these are issues of Catholic doctrine, and his all but tacit acknowledgement of issues of the right would signal that he is not changing course while also not feeding the too hot flame.

If you are a liberal first, the Davis meeting probably makes it hard for you to gloat. If you are a conservative first, the fact the meeting was held in secret (and was not immediately acknowledged by the Vatican) probably makes it hard for you to grandstand. And if you are a Catholic first, you remember that neither gloating nor grandstanding attracts people to the God of love, and that a faith that doesn’t unsettle us is probably a faith with blind spots.


No analysis. Just an invitation.

Pope Francis has left the country. Commentators will spend a lot of energy talking about what his visit to the US meant, what changes might happen, and what’s next. The pope returns to the Vatican to prepare for a synod of bishops on the family that is expected to be a significant event that will make its own headlines. Most normal people will go back to their regularly scheduled programming.

But before you do, let me make a couple of points that may be relevant to you. I saw many ex-Catholics and non-Catholics attracted to this pope’s spirit – his message of love, mercy, Grace, and concern for the vulnerable, through his heavily accented words but far more through his clear actions. I heard lots of versions of the same thing: “I’m not/no longer/never considered being Catholic, but I’m impressed by this guy.” And here’s what I would point out:

  1. He was made this way by his faith within this Church. Before his visit, Time did an excellent story on then-Father Bergoglio’s transformative moment, when his strong-willed divisiveness led to his exile from leadership, which built his new, humble, loving character. It was prayer that shaped him, but prayer grounded in a religious order and Church to whom he committed himself in obedience. When his vision and style led to conflict with others in his order, he didn’t write them off or plot their takedown. He obeyed them, and in that process of putting his own will beneath a larger Church he became the man you were attracted to.
  2. He is attractive not only because he embodies character traits you think all leaders should have, but also because those are traits you wish you had more of, too. As evangelical pastor Kyle Idelman spells out in his book not a fan., living a spiritually informed life isn’t something we are meant to watch; it’s a participatory sport we are meant to live. Whether it’s Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, or your neighbor down the street, when you see someone living in peace with themselves, their God, and their world, it’s a reminder that that should be you.
  3. You won’t get there on your own, and it’s the jerks that help you the most. In our consumer society, we are used to being choosy, and Gen Xers are particularly wired to think you are on your own. We can look at any faith, and any institution, and find doctrine we don’t agree with, history we wouldn’t embrace, and people we would rather not associate with. And that’s part of the point. By encountering other people who are as imperfect as we are but in maddeningly different ways, we learn that true love doesn’t always mean true like. By struggling to understand a doctrine that just doesn’t make sense to us, we learn a lot more about what our own hidden agenda might be, and we come to value a perspective that isn’t naturally our own. I would not blame anyone who left the Catholic faith during the scandals of recent years, but by sticking around I have shared the pain of family betrayal and hoped for rebirth, and that has made me a more compassionate person.

To my non-Catholic friends intrigued by the pope, I’d say come closer. You will find bishops, priests, and fellow travelers who are as inspiring as Francis in their own ways (and yes, you will also still find some jerks). If you are more at home with another faith tradition you’ve drifted from, give it another look with fresh eyes. But pick a team and get in the game. That guy in white you saw in the Fiat? He’s not so different from you, other than his life of commitment to his faith and his church.

And to my Catholic friends, I’d say remember. Remember that the core of our faith, that which attracted these people to Francis, is what we should lead with: love, mercy, peace, humility, joy. Save the rules, apologetics, and traditions and devotions for later in the relationship.

The serious theological discussion about politics and economics that we won’t have on this papal visit.

No “Home Alone Francis” on this one.

Real quick: Maybe I can expound later, but there are two key theological points that undergird the angst around Pope Francis and his social teachings. Look for them deep in the arguments you hear pro and con about whatever he says in the US this week:

  1. Theological anthropology and the power of sin: In short, historically, Protestants have been stronger about the degree of brokenness that sin leaves in humanity. In a fundamentally evil and sinful world, free market economics are valuable as they leverage and limit our innate greediness to bring a greater good for all by aligning individual goals (profit) with common benefit through competition. Similarly, a primarily sinful world needs more limits, whether through penal or military power constrained by balanced opposition and constitutional limits. Historically, Catholics (since Aquinas) see the original goodness of creation redeemed by Christ in our world today, and with it a need not to be content with a sinful balance of power. At the end of the day, the grace of God allows us to aspire to better than an existence rooted and greed, and the hierarchy of divine majesty inspires us to order our society towards a better end. So you get more internationalism and more critique of capitalism. 
  2. Church as hospital for sinners or museum for saints. This division isn’t across denominational lines, I don’t think. Since, I don’t know, the Manicheans and Gnostics in the Church’s first few centuries to today, there is a strain of belief that says that a select few are “it”, and the role of the Church is to separate them and protect them from being spoiled by the world, which is irredeemably broken. Against this, and aligning with the older Christian tradition that has been muted in times when Christians have power, is the strain of belief that says that we are all fully broken, and all redeemed by grace gradually and partially, as we help each other. The only difference between the Church and the world is the recognition of grace. While the first strain seeks to build an impenetrable wall between us and them, the second strain sees no difference but a joy of realization and a desire to invite others into the celebration.

Anyway, gotta run. But watch, you will be able to roll these two dynamics out at your pope-watching party and look super smart.

Pope Francis Blowback, Part 2: the George Will edition

This was a tough week. An idol of sorts got knocked off his pedestal, and really just about defenestrated.

When I was in seminary, I had to defend my honors thesis to a committee, which is nothing unusual. What was, in retrospect, funny, was that the highest compliment I got from the committee (other than that they passed me) was a statement from probably the most liberal member of the panel about my style: he said that I speak with a reasonableness, stability, a can’t-we-all-agree-that-this-is-common-sense-ness that he could only compare to conservative columnist George Will. It’s not that I set out to be like George Will, but I admired his style and his content a great deal, and I really appreciated the comparison.

Until this weekend, when the local paper printed the total hatchet job by Mr. Will on Pope Francis. 

It’s not at all disconcerting that Will disagreed with Francis. It’s that the George Will I remembered, the George Will I emulated, never resorted to cheap ad hominem attacks, because he could rationally lead you to his point of view. Not this time.

I will admit that I don’t read him as often now, so I can’t tell whether he has migrated toward this cheap and easy belittling of opponents along with the rest of the political pundit culture. But whether this was an off day or a slow decline, it hurts no less than watching Willie Mays in 1973 with the Mets. The Kid has lost more than a step when he resorts to name-calling. Sanctimonious? Shrill? Wooly? Vacuous? Will labels the pope with all four in the first two paragraphs alone. He tries to frame Francis for not footnoting the science behind his arguments (while coming from a position that belittles the consensus of the overwhelming majority of relevant scientists). He then takes potshots at the Catholic Church and equates the pope’s positions as a dying brand trying to adopt the latest fad to maintain relevance. I absolutely honor Will’s right to dissent, but it still seems like a cheap shot. More, it seems much less than I would expect.

The George Will I looked up to not only wrote voluminously on baseball but made cogent points about the positions he advocated. He would have invited Pope Francis to consider the power of free-market capitalism to lift billions out of absolute poverty (a pitch he waves at and fouls off.) He would have shown not only that we have fought back successfully against environmental degradation but that a free market is essential to spur the sort of innovation it will take to do so this time (again, he gives just a feeble swing, which in the process acknowledges human agency in climate change). He would have invited Francis to embrace the greater lights of the Catholic tradition by encouraging systems that capitalize on the divine spirit that lies within our agency. Instead he dismisses him as a neo-Peronist. Strike three.

Say it ain’t so, George.

A Catholic Congressman is Boycotting Pope Francis. Let me count the reasons this saddens me.

As Pope Francis prepares to make history by becoming the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, one Congressman has made news by declaring he will boycott the pope’s visit, because the Congressman believes the pope is going to focus on climate change (which is probably a fair bet) instead of other Catholic social teachings.  The Congressman goes on to outline all the Catholic doctrines he believes the pope is ignoring – like defense of religious liberty, advocacy for Christian refugees, defense of life – and states he cannot as a good Catholic and American leader allow the pope pass on this misguided agenda. I linked to his words, so you can read them for yourselves.

American liberals are loving this. After years of being labeled “cafeteria Catholics” for picking and choosing what elements of church doctrine they chose to embrace, they are reveling in the Schadenfreude of turned tables. They are hoping for a counter-push in which the new pope demands conservative Catholics embrace the more liberal elements of Church teaching or be turned away at the Communion line. (Digression: has The Onion done the story on the Midwest archbishop who warns Francis not to come to communion in his diocese for risk of being spurned?)

Not me. Here are five reasons why the Congressman’s decision brings me nothing but sadness:

  1. He ignores the pope’s records on the issues he cites. If there has been a more vocal defender of persecuted Christians (and other religious minorities), or care for refugees, I can’t think of who it would be. He has been consistent in defending the Catholic defense of life from conception to natural death, and I would be shocked if, during his discussion of the”throwaway culture” of the developed world he didn’t clearly reference the unborn and unwanted in multiple settings. To object on grounds that he hasn’t done enough on those issues requires a willful ignorance or a concerning lack of information.
  2. He ignores the continuity of Francis’ statements with Church teaching. If he read even just my blog, he would know that Francis’ encyclical actually plows very little new ground.
  3. He missed the real issue. I mean, I know climate change is the hot button, but Francis will say much more about inequality and the defense of the poor. Which, again, draws on doctrine central to Catholic teaching since at least 1891. If you’re going to boycott a pope, it seems like you ought to do it based on his primary disagreement with your policy, not a down-ballot issue. (More on this in the next post.)
  4. He made the most common choice that leads us astray. Look, for all the “Jesus, meek and mild” images, there is a disconcerting theme that runs through the Gospel about how Jesus and His message ultimately divides us from each other by forcing us to choose if we are with Him or with something else. Whether you are a liberal Christian or a conservative Christian or a (insert descriptor here) Christian, the sword of the Gospel will eventually cut through the word you put before “Christian” and make you choose. “Which is it?” And most of us, at least those of us who live in societies where Christianity is socially acceptable, will probably choose the adjective over the noun at the end of the day. This should be to our shame, but we usually wrap it around us as a prophet’s mantle of defending the true faith, because the alternative is to be exposed as selfish, idolatrous, wrong. It’s not an epic fail but a depressingly mundane one. Gloat only if you are blind to the ways it could happen to you. Feel the sadness Jesus feels when the rich young ruler fails to answer the bell.
  5. Boycotting shows how dysfunctional our political culture is. We knew this, of course. But when a member of Congress proudly proclaims that the way he treats people he disagrees with is to boycott them, to intentionally and publicly refuse to engage them in an encounter (to use a common Francis term), it acknowledges painfully and publicly how horribly off-course our non-discourse is. Disagree all you want (more on that in the next post), but really? Turn your back on people you disagree with, even if they lead the Church you attend? How effective can a legislative body, or a nation, be that embraces that as a tactic for dialogue?

Here’s what I hope Pope Francis does. I hope he gives the speech he planned to, and then, as quietly as a pope in DC in the social media world can do, I hope he seeks out this Congressman, embraces him, and tells him that, even if he is not ready to embrace the entirety of truth, he can join the rest of us imperfect sinners, Francis included, in a journey together.

Welcome to America! Let us shower you with unrealistic expectations!

Apparently, Pope Francis is coming to the United States. Because this pope has been so surprising, so candid, and so open, just about everyone has some sort of expectation of what he will do and say – in his unprecedented address to Congress, in his White House visit, in his time in Philadelphia coinciding with the World Meeting of Families, in his address to the United Nations, and in all the time in between.

Virtually none of those expectations will be met. For those expecting him to embrace those on the margins in some shocking and meaningful way, I’d make an exception; this is a pastoral pope who wants, it seems, more than anything to communicate to those on the world’s fringes that they are loved by God and the Church. He will walk through a bad neighborhood. He will embrace the homeless. He will visit prisoners. If that’s what you expect of this pope, ok, I’d wager you see a poignant image that underscores that this is what he is about. 

But for those of you enmeshed on either side of the culture wars, I have my doubts. 

Actually, from the sheer number of presentations he will make in politically relevant arenas, I take it back. If you filter through everything he says, I suspect you will be able to pull out a few tweets worth of quotes that underscore your predisposed point. But only by missing the rest of what he says.

Recently a Vatican Radio story reported on a meeting of Catholic legislators from across the world and included an interview with a U.S. Congressperson. Amidst the fawning praise for Francis, the Congressman was asked about the refugee crisis in Europe and, by extension, the implications for the US immigration debate. (N.B. Vatican Radio has been covering the refugee crisis for months. If you want a different perspective on international news, subscribe to their podcast.) After going on about the horrible situation in Europe and the need for authorities to respond, he said, matter-of-factly and without elaboration, “Of course, in the United States, the issues are completely different.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who pays attention to America’s fractured politics. Those on the right will hear Francis defend the unborn and the elderly, mourn threats to religious freedom, and call for a greater respect for the traditional family. Those on the left will hear Francis call the US to task for its contribution to climate change, inegalitarianism, and a lack of support for the disadvantaged while preaching love and mercy for those whose lifestyle doesn’t square with church teaching.

And, I expect, both sides will hear correctly, but impartially.

Here is my unrealistic expectation, flying in the face of diplomatic convention: that the pope be explicit about what applies to us, so that nobody can say “The issue here is completely different.”

If religious freedom’s defense applies as much to nuns being forced to provide birth control as to Coptic Christians being be headed for confessing their faith, say that.

If the defense of life on the margins impels people of faith to protect the unborn, the elderly, the economically disavantaged, and the immigrant regardless of status all equally to the point of revamping our economic and social structures, say that.

If being a poor church for the poor requires Americans to change the way they consume, the way they treat the environment, the way their countries treat others, say that.

If supporting families means asserting a superiority of the sacramental understanding of marriage over all other configurations, say that. If it means loving and encouraging all forms of loving family, even those past Church leaders have deemed “disordered,” say that, too.

Because of his willingness to surprise and the evolution of social communications, no pope, perhaps no person, will have had the attention of this nation as thoroughly as Pope Francis in his first visit here. My unrealistic expectation is that he will be specific enough in his comments to prevent anyone from saying credibly, “He wasn’t talking about us.”