Recently Pope Francis suggested that portions of Catholic media—and by extension the Catholics on blogs and social media who link these things about—are too rash in their judgments. “I worry that compassion is losing its centrality in the church….In some Catholic communications media, there is no compassion, [only] schism, condemnation, malice, fury, self-aggrandizement (and) the denunciation of heresy.”
What His Holiness says is true, but it’s not new. Human beings have been pointing a finger and shouting “j’accuse” (or “heretic”) for thousands of years, and humanity is as well-represented in Catholic media as anywhere else.
Concurring with His Holiness, Andrea Tornielli, the editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication, added, “One must not think this…is a transitory phenomenon tied only to the daily criticism of the current pontiff.” He suggested that it also has to do with such writers thinking “each day my identity requires me to pick an enemy I can pounce on, someone to attack, someone to condemn, someone to judge as a heretic.”
Heaven knows, Tornielli is not wrong, but as Christians it’s worth considering that some of the kneejerk daily outrage is rooted less in malice than in fear. Out of love for a Church charged with the responsibility of teaching unchanging, seldom-popular truths, people fear any suggestion of change. Some become overtaken with an anxious dread that tomorrow the Roman Catholic Church will suddenly be indistinguishable from some Lutheran or Anglican variant.
Even though nothing this pope has said or done suggests that he is about to change one dot of doctrine, when the pontiff convenes a study or a synod they imagine the worst and fret that a “watering down” of our teachings is about to render them meaningless.
Francis has changed no doctrine. He has, however, suggested that the best way to evangelize—to bring people to Christ—is to lead with mercy, and worry later about justice.
And this is simply the way of the missionary: to first affirm human dignity—first see the person before you as a created creature, beloved of God; then tend to the creature’s wounds; then invite them to reconciliation.
Were I to go out walking in a storm, arriving at your doorstep a saturated and shivering mess, the first thing you would do is pull me in out of the rain, get some towels and blankets; you’d see to my needs and likely give me some hot tea or soup. Then, when I was warm and dry and fed, you’d be able to say to me—with some justice—“That walk in the middle of a storm wasn’t a great decision, was it?”
And I might be recalcitrant. I might sneeze and cough and then jut up my jaw and say, “I like the rain.”
Then you might say, “I like the rain too, but nearly drowning in it has not been good for you.”
To which I might admit, “Well, no…” And if I were feeling clever, I might add, “but it did bring me here, where it’s warm, and the soup is good.”
And from there, evangelization could move forward. A new understanding about how to better live amid the continual storms could be imparted to me. I might stop being defensive and come to accept that my behavior, even if it seemed innocuous at first, could end up destroying me.
And then, observing that it is better to live away from whirling winds, fed and sheltered within the Church—I might seek reconciliation, wishing to learn what the Church teaches and work to conform my life to it as best I could, with all of my wounds and scars, because I would have come to understand that the Church is the sheltering bulwark against the storms raging all around, and saturating so many souls, so completely.
And with that understanding I would cling to Christ, present within her, grateful to be saved from it all. Amazing grace.
This is how a missional Church begins to gain the attention and trust of a society that is either loagy with distraction or so addicted to rage it can barely function. The storms of social revolution have been blowing for decades; a lot of people have chosen to walk about in them—even to drenching, wretched excess. Many souls are utterly saturated with the prevailing culture, and they’re getting spiritually sick. In fact, they’re dying.
Some of them are on the steps of the Church, reaching out for a rescue that must begin with getting warm and dry, and fed something spiritually nutritious—but in small bites at first, so it might remain within them and not be lost. The first step toward saving souls must be the merciful one. It must be the one that says to the wind-tossed wanderer, “It is good that you exist” and “You are worth saving.”
We who love Christ, and who believe that he wants us to bring him souls so he can heal and save them—and he is the one who does that, not us—cannot let anxiety about the future overwhelm the need for effective evangelization right now. We mustn’t be in too much of a defensive state to save some souls by saying “We are happy you are here” before saying, “Now, go to confession.”
War veterans will tell you, that rescues during fierce conflict are seldom perfect or pretty, but they don’t have to be. The priority is to pull people out of danger and get the wounded seen to. Debriefing happens after the bleeding has been stopped and the stitches have been sewn, not before. In a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, the less-than-ideal rescue comes first, with delicate surgeries and authentic healing to follow.
Considered in this way, Pope Francis and his predecessor could not be more right about the need for a merciful encounter with Christ being the first step toward redemption. Scripture bears it out too. No one was kept from seeing the merciful rabbi. Jesus of Nazareth, because she was too dirty, or he was too ill.
But yes, some Catholics are anxious. And I do wish our Holy Father would speak to that anxiety, and say something like this:
- Do not be anxious that someone, once rescued and treated, might not be properly debriefed. Everyone is, eventually, and by higher authorities than you and me.
- Don’t be anxious, because your anxiety feeds fear, and fear feeds the conceit that we, puny as we are, know more than God knows about human nature and the world.
- Don’t give in to worry, because we live and serve in the midst of things visible and invisible, and at any given time, we are only getting glimpses of the whole.
Let’s not be anxious, period. About anything. It betrays a lack of trust; it tells God that we think we can handle everything, and get it just right, by ourselves, thank you very much. Scripture bears that out too: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof” (Matt 6:34).
In my book Strange Gods I describe anxiety as an idol, “lying coiled, like a snake in the mist, hissing of threats to everything familiar, sure and safe, and playing to our naturally protective instincts.”
Some of these folks who reside in the place of daily outrage need to rescued as much as anyone else. Rather than giving them the back of the hand, tempting as that may sometimes be, it might help to acknowledge and address the fear behind their anxieties. Humans want to protect ourselves, our families, our world, and our Church, and because that’s true, we become balled-up; our worry becomes an idol that we over-serve until—like all idols—it consumes us, and we lash out at other Catholics while wholly incognizant of our own possessed state.
We are to prefer absolutely nothing to God, not even our anxiety. We are to place no strange gods before him; to have no strange gods stand between us and I AM—not even the strange godling formed by our own love and concern for his bride, the Church. She is the Bridegroom’s to preserve and protect, even in the midst of the constant and invisible war between darkness and light which exists within our Church, the keeper of the True Light.
Pope Francis has called the Church a “field hospital” on this battlefield. We are all medicos. Our job is full of risks as we help others find the safety of her keeping. We can’t scare anyone off by showing our own trembles. Likewise, we can’t leave anyone behind simply because the rescue seems like a rough one requiring more bandages and resources than we feel confident about expending on uncertain outcomes or people we just don’t like.
None of us are permitted to write off any other and just leave them there in their weakened state, especially not our co-religionists. We don’t have to like everyone. But we do have to go into the field and pull them out from where, whether out of too much fear (or for that matter, too little), they’ve they’ve gotten stuck.
The work of love is the cost of war.