How Not to Argue about Pope Francis

The last decade or so has not been especially kind to Christian conservatives in the United States. Though they once claimed to be on the side of a “moral majority,” they are now adjusting to a world in which they can’t always get their way. Gays and lesbians are marrying, more and more young people seem disconnected from organized religion altogether, the political party to which many of them had been attached is in disarray, and they increasingly embarrass themselves by fighting rearguard battles to ensure, for example, that the small minority of trans people among us can’t use the public restrooms of their choice.

As they find themselves on the losing end of these “culture wars” at home, the Catholics in this group also are adjusting to a new pope less reliably sympathetic to their preoccupations and priorities. The old days of the Vatican being an ally in their project to make America virtuous again seem to be over, at least for now. In their reactions to these new circumstances, disgruntled Catholic conservatives have produced a raft of strange and angry commentary that finds Pope Francis to be, in Ross Douthat’s phrase, the “chief plotter” in an effort to undermine the Catholic faith.

First Things literary editor Matthew Schmitz is no stranger to these efforts to denigrate Pope Francis. Earlier this year, Schmitz took to the pages of the Washington Post to compare Francis to Donald Trump. They have “much in common,” he told us, somehow finding deep similarities between a bigoted, racist, misogynistic reality-television star and a pope who especially has urged care for the poor and vulnerable. (Given the apparent enthusiasm of R.R. Reno and Mark Bauerlein for Trump—both sit atop the masthead at First Things—it’s possible this was meant as more of a compliment than I realized at the time.) Last week, Schmitz was at it again, asking the following in the New York Times: “Has Pope Francis Failed?

To answer this question, Schmitz begins by deploying, in an odd and misleading way, select survey findings recently released by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Here’s how Schmitz summarizes the findings—which include, to be fair, the occasional hedging and qualifying:

In 2008, 23 percent of American Catholics attended Mass each week. Eight years later, weekly Mass attendance has held steady or marginally declined, at 22 percent.

Of course, the United States is only one part of a global church. But the researchers at Georgetown found that certain types of religious observance are weaker now among young Catholics than they were under Benedict. In 2008, 50 percent of millennials reported receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, and 46 percent said they made some sacrifice beyond abstaining from meat on Fridays. This year, only 41 percent reported receiving ashes and only 36 percent said they made an extra sacrifice, according to CARA. In spite of Francis’ personal popularity, young people seem to be drifting away from the faith.

Francis did not become pope until March 2013, which means that for a majority of the time that passed between surveys—the latest results are being compared with those from February 2008—Pope Benedict XVI actually was pope. It’s not just bizarre, but deeply dishonest, to look at any supposed decline that’s occurred over the last eight years and not talk at all about the man who actually led the church for the majority of that time. (For a full run down of the ways Schmitz misuses this survey date, including the more positive numbers he doesn’t mention, see the reply from CARA here.)

Even more importantly, I can’t fathom approaching these questions with the assumption that any pope, whether Francis or Benedict or anyone else, could undo centuries of secularization or reverse decades of trends in American religious practice during the first three years of a papacy. (In all these matters, I wish more would heed Peter Steinfels’s plea, offered during Francis’s visit to the U.S. last year, to move beyond the idea that the church is “an unquestioning, dutiful force bending to the pope’s will.”) The best justification I can find, then, for framing the article around Francis’s supposed failure is found in this line:

Last winter, Austen Ivereigh, the author of an excellent biography of Pope Francis, wrote that the pope’s softer stance on communion for the divorced and remarried “could trigger a return to parishes on a large scale.”

But if that’s the main hook for writing the article—the exuberance of a few misguided Francis fans—then perhaps it shouldn’t have been written. Surely Austen Ivereigh being wrong isn’t a very compelling reason to unburden yourself in the New York Times.

The real reason for Schmitz to address Francis’s failures, if that’s even what they are, is to make Francis look as bad as possible, and to imply that he’s bolstering his own popularity at the expense of the church he leads. As Schmitz puts it:

Something more fundamental may stand in the way of a Francis effect. Francis is a Jesuit, and like many members of Catholic religious orders, he tends to view the institutional church, with its parishes and dioceses and settled ways, as an obstacle to reform.

It’s important to realize that the “evidence” Schmitz adduces to support this is largely nonsense. Take this claim: “[Francis] describes parish priests as ‘little monsters’ who ‘throw stones’ at poor sinners.” Francis actually did not describe parish priests that way at all. What he did claim is that those guiding and training future priests should be careful to form the minds and hearts of seminarians. “Otherwise,” he said, “we are creating little monsters” (emphasis mine). If you just read Schmitz, you’d assume that Francis believes your average parish priest is a monster who enjoys hounding humble, simple, faithful Catholics. The reality is that, in the context of speaking to a specific audience, Francis expressed his hope that seminaries would train warm, pastorally minded priests. It’s also worth noting that Francis said this in November of 2013, three years before the phrase “throw stones” appeared in Amoris laetitia. Why would Schmitz link them as if Francis used them together? And would Schmitz prefer priests who did throw stones?

Here’s another example of disingenuously using Francis’s words:

He has said that Catholics who place an emphasis on attending Mass, frequenting confession, and saying traditional prayers are “Pelagians” — people who believe, heretically, that they can be saved by their own works.

Francis simply never said this. If you follow the link provided, he did invoke “Pelagians” in a July 23 “morning meditation” that urged the audience to be “Christians of action and truth” and not merely “Christians of words.” At least in the text provided, Francis never mentions attending Mass, going to confession, or saying traditional prayers, let alone stating that those who participate in such practices are Pelagian. Why would Schmitz invent such a claim? It's particularly odd given that Francis began the Year of Mercy calling for Catholics to go to confession:

A special sign of grace in this Jubilee of Mercy is the sacrament of penance, in which Christ invites us to acknowledge our sinfulness, to experience his mercy, and to receive the grace which can make us ever more effective signs of his reconciling love at work in our world.

Francis also has been seen going to confession himself, and it's been confirmed that he's even heard confessions at St Peter's Basilica. Given Francis's central theme of mercy, of God's loving grace toward us, this isn't surprising. "When we go to confession, we feel a bit ashamed," the pope reminds us. "That happens to all of us, but we must remember that this shame is a grace that prepares us for the embrace of the Father, who always forgives and always forgives everything." Does this sound like a pope heckling would-be confession-goers as Pelagians?

By the end of the article, Schmitz finally, if glancingly, raises the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion. He also asserts that Francis is trying to "soften the church’s teaching," presumably on any number of issues. This, I suspect, is what really galls Schmitz. It certainly is true that these matters should be argued about and debated—their weightiness can't be denied. But that's all the more reason to actually address them, to make real, substantive claims about what Francis might intend to do or how he plans on doing it. In other words, to argue in good faith about the dilemmas and choices facing the church. For that to happen, we'll need more than the silly, unserious account of Pope Francis that Schmitz gave readers of the New York Times.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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