Rationalizing Pope Francis

Greg Popcak has an interesting post explaining, essentially, “how I learned to stop worrying and love Pope Francis.” It starts out well but comes off the rails, and I can concisely explain why and how.

Dr. Popcak appears to believe that God directs the selection of the pope, and therefore seeks to interpret events harmoniously with that belief (cf. my post here about “interest capture”). While he presents that belief in softer, hedgier language, the point is clear: “I believe the Holy Spirit has a great deal to do with who sits in the Chair of Peter. I believe that God knows what he is doing in the Church and even if the papal election is a very human process, I believe that God wants to use whomever is elected to teach us … something important about being Catholic at this time in history.”

But the Church does not teach that she cannot err in the selection of individual bishops (even the bishop of Rome), and experience demonstrates beyond cavil that she can. From Judas Iscarriot on down to —– Cardinal —— (fill in a name of your preference from the current batch), there have always been “bishops gone wild.” And this goes even for the pope; how can this be denied given the Western Schism, in which competing stems of conclaves elected competing lines of popes? If “the” conclave always chose God’s man, the Western Schism would have ended almost as soon as it began. How can this be denied given that a distressingly-large fraction of papal history is sordid rather than saintly? The Holy Spirit offers guidance to the conclave. So does Roger Cardinal Mahony. So, too, does Screwtape. Whose voice is heeded is for the Cardinals to decide.

Popcak correctly notes the ground-level effect of papal scandal, and adds some examples from his own practice (under his sub-heading “But…”). But a scandalous pope is in tension with his ex ante commitment to an infallible conclave, as I think we have to call it. (“Infallible” in the sense that if one believes that God uses the pope “to teach us … something important about being Catholic at this time in history,” one must therefore believe that the Conclave will perforce select the man whom God intends to use “to teach us … something important about being Catholic at this time in history.”) How, one would reasonably ask, could scandal be God’s will?

This creates cognitive dissonance, for both propositions cannot easily be true. What one needs is a way out: A way to conclude that while they look scandalous, Francis’ actions serve a greater good. How might this be done? Well, Popcak does it (under the subhead “Convicted“) like this: “Francis is bringing home the lost children, the lapsed and fallen-away.” (That’s my paraphrase, not a direct quote.) Alas, his own experiences show the limits of that idea. What is step one in recovery? The first step is always (and perforce must be) acknowledging, on a conscious level, that you have a problem. If a lapsed Catholic can take shelter under the rubric “I’m much more of a Pope Francis/Nancy Pelosi Catholic” (that one is a direct quote), then they are even less likely to return home, because they think that they are already home. The prodigal son, if he is to be invoked, was at least in a situation in which he knew that he needed to return. Is Francis “bring[ing your] brothers and sisters home,” Greg? You’ve just told us that you have met people whom Francis is helping to feel more comfortable in their pig-pen! It is certainly true that there will be people who start calling themselves Catholics again during this pontificate, and perhaps attending Mass, but they do so because they (incorrectly) perceive Francis to have declared their heretical position to be within the boundary of the Church, that is no gain—indeed, it is, at least in possibilitate, a loss.

But the fine-grained details that run to the contrary are ignored. Naturally; they are inconvenient. Thus, one might say that while many faithful Catholics have rationalized (plausibly vel non) that “Pope Francis is showing” that the “Church’s teachings on love, sex[,] and marriage are[ ] true,” it requires an exercise in wilful denial to pretend that others—the very “prodigals” whom we are supposed to think are being reconciled—see precisely the opposite: That Francis is tipping his hand that the “Church’s teachings on love, sex[,] and marriage aren’t true.” (Just look at how the New York Times and the National Lapsed-Catholic Reporter is lapping up every word.) The denial must be even stronger when one has personally faced people who are visibly becoming even more entrenched in their pig-pen, becoming visibly less likely to say to themselves “I shall return to my father’s house,” as a result of this pontificate. But such details are an obstacle to the rationalization that allows Popcak to account for Francis within his “infallible conclave” paradigm, and while the race isn’t always to the swift nor the fight always to the strong, that’s the way to bet, and in the contest between ex ante commitments and inconvenient facts, one should bet on rationalization every time.