What we talk about when we talk about the Pope

David Mills, at Ethika Politika, writes “The Bitter Sons Speak,” a piece criticizing some the Holy Father’s critics. His point?

Francis can be criticized and criticized strongly. The critics I’m talking about distinguish themselves from other critics by reading Francis as unscrupulous prosecuting attorneys, who care only to get the conviction and the maximum sentence. They say nothing in his favor, unless they say it as the beginning of a sentence that ends in a sharp criticism.

Words they would have quickly posted on Facebook had Benedict said them they leave unreported, because those words would disturb their narrative about Francis. This is true of some of the more moderate critics, who protest their loyalty to the pope. The “presence of an absence” suggests what they really feel.

Nothing he can do, short of saying what they would say were they him, will change their minds. I was wrong to hope that they might grow out of it.

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink omitted.) For our part, we think that some of the Holy Father’s critics do go far too far. Asserting that the Pope is a Peronist economic dilettante bent on the destruction of the capitalist West goes too far. (For one thing, such an argument assumes that the capitalist West, which has taken every available opportunity to toss Christ and His Church out of public life and replace them with disordered individualism, is good in and of itself. A highly debatable proposition at best and flatly false at worst.) Likewise, there are some commentators who are, probably, inflexibly opposed to the Holy Father, or at least inflexibly reflexively suspicious of him. This is all true, and we have not found such commentary to be always spiritually improving. Or even merely spiritually non-harmful.

We have written here previously that it is pretty obvious that the Holy Father does not especially like traditionally minded Catholics. If his public statements are to be credited, it seems to us that he seems them as rule-quoting scolds who do not always (often?) mean well. Father John Hunwicke has wondered whether this is simply the Holy Father inviting traditionally minded Catholics to a rough-and-tumble debate, where, after some stringent language, everyone goes out together afterward for cocktails and laughs, or whether the Holy Father is putting everyone on notice. Perhaps that explains it. However it is clear that people speculate on why the Holy Father expresses himself this way. Likewise, instead of criticizing these critics as “bitter sons,” Mills ought to ask why they feel the need to express themselves this way.

We think there are fundamentally three reasons:

  • One, the internet breeds flamboyant, hyperbolic expression. This is so obvious as to require no further comment.
  • Two, in any small, ideological community—and traditional Catholicism is at least that—there is an impulse to make ever more hyperbolic declarations of orthodoxy, either to be heard among people who all think more or less the same way or to fit in with the group. Call it a positive feedback loop.
  • Three, people are really scared right now.

Mills goes on to say,

The critics don’t speak as disappointed or worried sons. They don’t read the pope with deference and humility, as an adult son listening to his father. My own father rarely gave advice, but when he did, I listened to him carefully. I stifled my desire to object or contradict and even when after much thought I still disagreed, I tried to find ways in which he was right, because he was a wise man who loved me. He was not infallible, but as I look back now, he was right more often than I saw then.

Even Francis’ bitterest critics should speak of him the way one speaks of a father when one has to be publicly critical, which is far less often than his critics think: To say what you have to say but not more, and certainly not bitterly, and to say the hardest things in a way to protect his good name. What you say of him you say of yourself and your family and for that family’s good name you are jealous. That is especially true when that family is the Church, into which you want others to enter.

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink omitted.) Fair enough, for people motivated by the distorted sense of liberty that the internet provides and for people who are simply proving that there is no more more traditional than they this side of Cardinal Ottaviani. But not so fair for people who are genuinely worried—genuinely afraid—of what they see in the Church today. Maybe some of those fears are unreasonable, though it is fairly clear that Francis personally likes the Kasper proposal, whether or not he feels free to implement its strongest form, but that’s a different conversation than the one Mills is having.

And as long as we are lecturing the critics of the Holy Father for their lack of charity, perhaps we should also be charitable toward the critics.