Pope Francis has told Catholics that he “wants a mess.” He instructed the assembled masses at World Youth Day in Brazil, “I want trouble in the dioceses! …“I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures.”
If the Church is to get closer to the people, things will get messy. People have baggage. They have sufferings, joys, misconceptions, and sins. They have opinions, too, and these can be the messiest of all.
It can be an unpleasant business, the marketplace of ideas, where good ideas survive and bad ones perish. But through free expression, Western civilization has seen much progress.
Censorship therefore, and all stifling of discussion, must not be entered into lightly. The Catholic Church has always understood that error has no rights, but people do, and therefore the suppression of uncomfortable thoughts should be reserved for the most urgent and certain of circumstances. If we will not hear the ideas we do not like, surely the best unpopular new ideas will be destroyed before they are even examined.
Christianity itself was a wildly unpopular idea. Christ challenged the status quo. Most of the apostles and many early Christians were martyred for their trouble. In the end they prevailed, however, and Christendom became synonymous with the West.
Throughout the history of civilization and the annals of science, we see numerous examples where counterintuition led to important breakthroughs. What was once unthinkable later became established fact. There is a great deal of evidence that we should often be grateful that a different approach was allowed to run its course; that openness — like that recommended by the Holy Father — prevailed.
And yet it cannot be ignored, especially on the important questions of our age, that not a few individuals or groups prefer intimidation to honest debate from those who disagree with them. We see this playing out not only in the angry and vulgar rantings of godless secularists and the blood-soaked free speech reprisals from the Islamic world, but in more than a little of our Christian discourse.
We should aspire to more.
Recently, in an unusually candid critique of the rumored upcoming papal encyclical on ecology, Maureen Mullarkey at First Things offered this bit of mess-making:
In the cap and bells of Flip Wilson’s Church of What’s Happening Now, Pope Francis is readying an encyclical on climate change. He will address the world’s latest mutation of the grail quest: human ecology. Abandoning nuance for apocalyptic alarmism (“If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”), Francis has signaled the tenor of his utterance.
It comes as no surprise. Handwriting has been on the wall along the Viale Vaticano from the get-go. At the beginning of his pontificate, Francis revealed himself to be fastidiously attuned to image. He refused to give communion in public ceremonies lest he be photographed giving the sacrament to the wrong kind of sinner. So, when he agreed to pose between two well-known environmental activists and brandish an anti-fracking T-shirt, we believed what we saw.
It was a portentous image. Press toads hopped to their keyboards to correct the evidence of our lying eyes. Francis was neither for nor against fracking, you see. Nothing of the sort. He was simply using a photo-op to assert blameless solidarity with the victims of ecological injustice. (Both a decisive definition of such injustice and its particular victims went unspecified.)
If that restyling were true, then the more fool Francis. But Francis is not a fool. He is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist. His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical—and now meteorological—thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.
Later this year, Francis will take his sandwich board to the United Nations General Assembly, that beacon of progress toward the Kingdom. Next will come a summit of world religions—a sort of Green Assisi—organized to lend moral luster to an upcoming confederacy of world improvers in Paris. In the words of Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Francis means “to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion.”
There is a muddle for you. The bishop asserts a causal relation between two undefined, imprecise phenomena. His phrasing is a sober-sounding rhetorical dodge that eludes argument because the meaning is indeterminable. Ambiguity, like nonsense, is irrefutable. What caliber of scientist speaks this way?
The intellectual difficulty of refuting such ambiguity, combined with an astonishingly strong reflex action on the part of many Catholics, has made criticism like this a dangerous venture. The tone taken in the cited article is undoubtedly pungent, but it has the odor of exasperation, not malice. Understandable frustrations notwithstanding, there is sometimes a price for taking a caustic approach, and Miss Mullarkey has paid it. The weight of her arguments, which deserved consideration, were lost in the larger tempest of response to how she made them. Her essay was sternly disavowed by her editor. She has also been raked over the coals (rather less charitably) by some of the shrillest voices of the Catholic Internet. (Voices we will not link to here.)
Mullarkey’s is only the latest thrust in a battle that has been going on for the better part of the Francis papacy. This, sadly, is what it looks like when you “make a mess” in the Church – division, bitterness, and venom. Amidst the salvos back and forth between the various camps, however, thinking Catholics are faced with a growing suspicion that the powers in Rome see the Church differently than the rest of us. Rather than an institution founded by Christ to convert the world and bring about the salvation of souls, they seem to prefer that she more closely resemble a trendy social-issues NGO. As our own Eric Sammons wrote last week, what the Church has been doing for the past half century hasn’t worked; the practice of the faith is decimated, leaving only a tiny minority of Catholics embracing their religion in an orthodox fashion. The impression that this is no accident is only enhanced when hand-picked papal advisers support communist, pro-abortion, and pro-homosexual institutions, or simply foment heresy in the pope’s name. Making matters worse, the Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family produced a public work so deviant from Catholic teaching that it caused one bishop to declare it “the first time in Church history that such a heterodox text was actually published as a document of an official meeting of Catholic bishops under the guidance of a pope” and something that “will remain for the future generations and for the historians a black mark which has stained the honour of the Apostolic See.”
There are no signs that this unfortunate direction in Church leadership will soon abate.
Many Catholics are feeling beleaguered and set upon. They find themselves not infrequently in the position of defending the teachings of the Church from those who use the words and actions of their own prelates — and even their pontiff — against them. So why is it, exactly, that thoughtful criticism is out of bounds? Why is it advisable to drown out the voices telling us that there are things happening at the highest levels of the Church that should concern us?
If it can be demonstrated that the voices on either side of our internecine debate are wrong, should that not be a discussion that is heavy on substantive rebuttals and light on vitriol? Why must we assume that those who are most worried about the Church are doing so out of anything but love for their mother and a desire to see her integrity preserved?
It behooves us, as thinking people and Christians, to air these ideas freely, and to seek the truth above our own biases, however inconvenient.
Editor’s note: John Carriere contributed to this post.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.