Notice the Washington Post-ABC News poll on Pope Francis. The results indicate that people over here love him. He throws open doors too long closed. “He’s calming, he’s relaxing, and he’s reassuring,” says one Catholic quoted by the Post. Another — a sociologist at Catholic University — says, “He talks like a person who actually knows something about human life.”
Then notice something else: the disconnect, as identified in the poll, between admiration of the pope and renewed or strengthened commitment to the church of which he is head.
“Nearly 3 in 4 Catholics,” says the Post, summarizing the poll, “hold a strongly favorable view of the pope, and 47 percent hold a strongly favorable view of (the church itself). Even among Americans with strongly unfavorable views of the Catholic Church, Francis is seen positively by 50 percent.” A Notre Dame University scholar, Kathleen Cummings, attributes Francis’ celebrity to his focus on social problems. He glows with love for the poor and downtrodden. When he turns to economic policy, he sometimes comes off like Elizabeth Warren or the new, ideologically enhanced Hillary Clinton. Take that, Wall Street! He presses the case for action against what the media call “climate change.”
Says Kathleen Cummings: “Francis focuses on what the church says ‘yes’ to before all the things it says ‘no’ to. And in this country, for the last few decades, we heard a lot first about what the church says ‘no’ to.”
A yes-saying church, after all — the kind of church for which many fallen-away Catholics yearn, one with moral-sexual shackles eased, and with women and laity more thoroughly incorporated into leadership roles — would be a very 21st century kind of church, ever on the alert for new insights. Would it be a real church, possessed of authority and spiritual understanding, readier to lead than to follow, with eyes pointed upward rather than darting right and left to see what gives?
It is not for non-Romans, such as my fellow Episcopalians, to prescribe for the Holy See. On the other hand, anybody with one eye half open cannot fail to discern in many of Francis’ fans and upholders the desire that Rome should function chiefly as a social welfare agency. Said fans and upholders know exactly what the church should do: attack poverty, break down so-called male dominance, agitate for the redistribution of wealth and stamp out colonialist remnants.
Anything the church, from a bit higher up, might emphasize — namely, the reality of sin, the need for repentance, the contingency of earthly projects, from the right or the left — amounts in the eyes of too many Francis fans as mere naysaying. This is notwithstanding that the Gospel message is incomplete without proclamation of God’s supremacy over the world and human affairs.
Or so the church, without reference to public opinion polls or the comments of Catholics who let on they’re waiting for the church to come around, has historically taught.
That’s against the modern style, to be sure. In our century we like to tell the church what’s important rather than wait to be told no, or even told yes.
Unfortunately for us humans, being told no is a necessity. Truth, if the word has any meaning, isn’t negotiable. It’s a point particularly at odds with the notion that secular agencies can, practically without warning, give new answers to the big human questions — life, death, the ends for which humanity was created.
The fans and upholders of Francis aren’t wrong about the duties of Christian belief — service, love, care and concern in accordance with Jesus’ teachings. The fans and upholders become, shall we say, dangerous when they assert the duty of the church to fall in line with every secular obsession.
The chair of Peter — the furniture that Francis occupies temporarily — exists to make sure heaven gets the hearing it deserves, in preference to the Supreme Court or the United Nations. Heaven has a prior claim on us. We tend to forget. But popes, including (I shouldn’t wonder) Francis himself, tend to remember — respectfully and tenaciously.
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