The Panic About Pope Francis

By Chris Sparks

More and more, there are many Catholics who speak as though the Holy Father is an enemy of the faith.

Look at the confusion that surrounds him, they say. Listen to how unclear he is. He wants to change the Church in ways that would break it. He wants to deny the teachings of his predecessors. He’s a dangerous theological liberal, inviting bad teachers and sinful clerics into important positions in the Holy See. He’s a maverick. He’s a rebel. He’s destroying the Church. It wasn’t like this under St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Oh, how quickly memories fade. Let’s look back on papacies past to get a sense of how the present pontificate stacks up.

Look at the post-conciliar confusion that we’ve been wading through ever since Vatican II, a confusion that comes from embracing a too-accommodating “spirit” of Vatican II or a refusal to accept that the doctrine or practice of the Catholic faith can ever develop; a confusion fostered by failing to ground our life of faith again and again in the magisterial documents of Vatican II. Look at the Lefebvrist schism that set in during the pontificate of St. John Paul II, and the many complaints about his teachings, ministry, and choices from the radical traditionalists and sedevacantists. Look at the many, many times the media misreported what popes have said, or failed to focus on the truly important content of their teaching because the media understands politics and economics, not spirituality or culture. Look at the media-driven controversies of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, of the violent reactions from some Muslims to media coverage of Benedict’s Regensburg lecture and the Protestant outrage over media misunderstanding of a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on the definition of the theological term “church.”

And take a longer view: Look at the whole history of the Church, for Pete’s sake!

Look at the earliest days, when most of the popes were martyred, one after another. Take a look at some of the truly awful popes we’ve had, some of the shocking sins that have been perpetrated by the occupants of the See of Peter, especially in the ninth and 10th centuries. Look at the Great Western Schism, the times when there was pope and antipope, and even saints were divided as to who was who. Look at the many issues plaguing the Church preceding and during the Reformation. Look at the invasion of Rome by Napoleon and the two successive popes he held in captivity. 

No, compared to the great tempests and trials of Church history, the barque of Peter right now is sailing along relatively steadily, relatively quietly at the moment. And even if we were to be in a storm as great or greater than any we’ve ever faced, still the paradigm for our life of faith should be when the Apostle Peter saw Christ walking to him across the storm-tossed waves and called out that if it was the Lord, then let Peter come to him on the water. And Christ said to come, and so Peter walked on the water (see Mt 14:22-23).

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Or consider the other story of the apostles in a storm-tossed boat, when the Lord lay sleeping. And they panicked, and woke Him, and He rebuked the wind and the waves, and all fell still and calm. And He told them they had little faith (see Mk 4:35-41).

Be at peace. We are not now faced with anything worse than the Paschal Mystery; indeed, matters are much, much better and easier than that. Further, as St. Faustina Kowalska shares in her Diary, we have remedies for the problems of the Church: the Chaplet of Divine Mercy; veneration of the Image of the Divine Mercy; the 3 o’clock Hour of Great Mercy; the annual Feast of Divine Mercy; and the Novena of Divine Mercy.

We face trials, yes — as it ever was and ever will be till the end of time. The Holy Father is human and may make mistakes in many areas, all while still being protected by the charism of infallibility from ever teaching error on matters of faith and morals when he’s teaching ex cathedra (“from the chair”), using the full power of his office. Pray for him, that he have an abundance of the natural and supernatural virtues.

Out of everything Pope Francis has done and said, if I had to pick out what I thought was substantively different from his predecessors, my list would be limited to a few crucial facts.

He is from Argentina, from South America.

He is a Jesuit.

He holds impromptu press conferences and offers reporters unvetted interviews.

Next week, I’ll take a closer look at each of these things in turn.

Chris Sparks serves as book editor for the Marian Fathers. He is the author of the Marian Press title How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question.

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Pray the Our Father with Pope Francis on March 25, and watch his extraordinary Urbi et orbi blessing March 27.