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Misreading Pope Francis

August 4, AD2016

pope francis, pope, papal, papacyEver since Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis three-and-a-half years ago, the mainstream media (MSM) has pulled out all the stops in an effort to paint a picture of Francis as a progressive Pope. The Left wanted Francis to be one of its own in the worst way possible.

Every utterance from Francis that sounded the least bit progressive has been touted by the Left. Some of Francis’ statements have even been twisted or taken out of context, such as his “Who am I to judge” remark, all in an attempt to convince Catholics (and everyone else) that Francis is a Pope who backs the progressive agenda.  And they did one heck of a job.

One of the many reporters spearheading the effort was the AP’s Nicole Winfield (who seemingly has never met a pejorative about the Catholic Church she didn’t like) with stories like “Pope maps out personal (and progressive) policy.” Fox News even picked up the story, but there really wasn’t anything in the story that indicated Francis was mapping out any kind of progressive policies. But since many people only read headlines the message had been delivered.

The Left propagandized so well that conservative economist Thomas Sowell finally wrote an essay last year entitled “The Left has its Pope.”  “Pope Francis is part of a larger trend of the rise of the political left among Catholic intellectuals. He is, in a sense, the culmination of that trend” Sowell said.  I usually like what Sowell has to say, but I think he got it wrong on this occasion.

The Right’s Mistake

While I would expect nothing less from the Left, I was and have been more than disappointed by how many of the conservative commentators have reacted and by how the whole of the conservative media (including conservative Catholic websites) has treated Francis. Rather than actually reading and analyzing Francis’ statements, all too often conservative commentators seemed content to accept the Left’s pronouncements of Francis’ statements and writings and then criticized Francis based on what the Left said Francis said.

As a Catholic, I took umbrage at how the Pope was being treated and I said as much in more than one essay for American Thinker.  For the first two years of Francis’ papacy, however, I felt a bit like St. John the Baptist, a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

The Narrative Changes

But then slowly the narrative began to change. Maybe conservative commentators were finally catching on to the game the Left was playing.  Or maybe they finally realized that while Francis was prone to making confusing remarks he was not actually changing Catholic Doctrine.  Or maybe the news cycle had just shifted and the 2016 presidential election had suddenly become more important.

Whatever the case, stories like “A “Son of the Church,” Francis Confounds Both the Right and the Left” slowly began to appear, mainly on Catholic websites. But the Left was not giving up on its quest to have a progressive pope and sow more confusion within the ranks of the Catholic faithful.  In March, just before the release of Pope Francis Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation AMORIS LÆTITIA, the news agency Reuters came out with yet another progressive pope piece entitled “Three years on, pope leaves Catholic conservatives feeling marginalized.”

And then Amoris Laetitia was released – and Catholic Doctrine had once again not changed.  The bulk of the exhortation was a wonderful, even beautiful treatise on Marriage, but Chapter Eight and Footnote 351 were problematic, and the nitpickers came out in force.  But as Edward N. Peters wrote at Catholic World Report, “Bottom line: sacramental rules are made of words, not surmises. Those who think Amoris has cleared a path to the Communion rail for Catholics in irregular marriages are hearing words that the pope (whatever might be his personal inclinations) simply did not say.”

Not surprisingly much of the MSM ignored Amoris Laetitia since it did not support any progressive policies and strongly defended traditional marriage.  Anyone not reading any of the print or online Catholic publications or watching EWTN might not have even heard about its release.  Slate, of all places, did run a piece on it, but the tone of the piece seemed to be finally facing reality as it was one of frustration: “For liberals, at least, the document represents everything both inspiring and infuriating about the current pope.”

Explaining Pope Francis

So I was somewhat gratified when I read Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas homily given at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City, reprinted at Catholic World Report, “12 thoughts on the papacy and life in the Church today.”  In his homily, Father Stravinskas echoed some of the remarks I’d made either in writing or personally, to friends and family, regarding Pope Francis and the papacy.  He summed things up in one sentence: “Unlike many of his modern predecessors – and especially his two immediate predecessors, who were truly extraordinary – he is not particularly endowed with gifts of culture, languages, and broad horizons; nor was his philosophical and theological training very profound.”

Pope Francis is the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church.  Out of so many popes maybe only a dozen have been as outstanding as the likes of Pope St. John Paul II or Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  But even the great Popes had flaws.  Some popes were even downright clinkers, but most of the popes during the first two millennia probably had a difficult time trying to fill the shoes of the fisherman, to say the least.  Even Peter himself got it wrong when it came to the gentiles and St. Paul had to straighten him out.

As Catholics, we believe the Holy Spirit guides the Church and so too, the College of Cardinals when they are in Conclave selecting a new Vicar of Christ. But Cardinals are human beings as well as clerics so, yes, it’s possible that some Cardinals failed to heed the Holy Spirit’s counsel during a Conclave now and then.

Whether or not the required two-thirds majority of Cardinals in the Conclave ignored the guidance of the Holy Spirit during the selection of the 266th Pope, I do not know, nor does anyone else.   I do find it hard to believe, however, that the at least two-thirds majority of the 115 Cardinals who selected Jorge Bergoglio ignored the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  I also find it hard to believe that Jesus Christ would allow someone who was not worthy in at least some small way to head up His church.

So maybe it really was God’s will that Jorge Bergoglio should become the latest Bishop of Rome.  And since God does work in mysterious ways it’s quite possible that Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis for a reason that will forever be unknown to us.  Perhaps Francis is exactly the Pope we need today despite his apparent shortcomings.

He Is Not Perfect

Do some of Pope Francis’ remarks cause confusion? You betchya!  Have his Apostolic Exhortations been less than scholarly and maybe not 100% theologically sound?  Yep!  Does he have the same kind of scholarly theological background as his two predecessors?   Nope.  Has he said or written anything that contradicts Catholic Doctrine?  Absolutely not.

Is Francis a pious and humble man? Yes, he is.  Does he care for the faithful and is he concerned with our salvation?  Without a doubt.  Is he trying to help everyone become more Christ-like?  Absolutely.  Is he doing his best to guide the Church?  No doubt about it.  Does he have a preferential option for the poor and does he believe in mercy for sinners?  No question about it.

‘Uber’ Catholics, as Fr. Stravinskas called them, and maybe even some not-so-uber Catholics, have to get over the fact that Francis is not Benedict or John Pall II. Francis is also from Argentina, a country that does have a Western Culture but with a whole lot of salsa thrown in.

Cultural Factors

For the last 75 years, Argentina has been both politically and economically unstable. Despite having achieved independence in the early 1800s Argentina is still classified as an “emerging market.”  Its economy has been marked by periods of high economic growth followed by severe recessions.  While the country has a very high literacy rate, only 18% of Argentinians over 15 years of age have completed high school.  Some 92% of its 40 million inhabitants live in cities, but 52% of this urban population does not even have access to sewerage infrastructure.

The rich in Argentina are very well off while the poor there really are dirt poor. Some 15,000 – 30,000 people “disappeared” during the Dirty War.  In recent decades poverty has increased, and the kind of capitalism practiced there is often corrupt, as is law enforcement.  This is the country Jorge Bergoglio grew up in.  Is it really that hard to see why Pope Francis is so concerned with social issues and the poor?

But Americans tend to view life through an American lens. So when Francis speaks out against crony capitalism or says people need to be more concerned about the poor or the environment, we Americans think his remarks are aimed directly at us, even though the situation in his home country may be uppermost in his thoughts.  And the MSM does its best to foster the illusion that his remarks really are aimed at America and at ‘us.’

My Take

I tend to think that Francis’ shortcomings are those described by Father Stravinskas. Along with these shortcomings,  he may also be just a bit too affable.  At the same time, I think that the Holy Spirit has blessed Francis with what St. Paul says is the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 13:13) – the virtue of charity.  He seems to truly and sincerely love everyone, especially the poor, for the sake of God.  He recognizes that we are all sinners – just like him – and he wants to help everyone he meets.  I think his remark that the Church should be like a field hospital sums up his views.  In a field hospital, those who are suffering the most are cared for first.

So everyone who has called Pope Francis a progressive, a heretic, a socialist, a communist, a liberation theologian, or worse, should maybe just lighten up. Perhaps it would also be a good idea to stop reading, watching or listening to what the MSM says about him.  Listen to what he says, read his actual words, and for heaven’s sake don’t try to read between the lines.

I could be wrong about Pope Francis, but until I am proven wrong I will give our Pope the benefit of the doubt, continue to pray for him, and take him at his word – that he is a loyal son the church.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Gene M. Van Son is retired after spending 35 years in the automobile business working for two of the Big 3 Automakers as a writer and editor, and then as a project manager in the areas of satellite communications and wireless technology. Originally from the Chicago area he has now resided in the Detroit area for more than half his life. He is a cradle Catholic who attended a Catholic grade school, high school and university. He has been married for 42 years to the love of his life, who is a certified Catechist, and they have three sons. He is now putting his BA in Journalism to use researching and writing about topics and issues that interest him. In addition to writing for Catholic Stand he has also had articles and essays published at www.AmericanThinker.com and at www.crisesmagazine.com .

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