Three Things I Would Do Differently
It’s hard to bring people to Truth (To Jesus, to the Church), especially today. Pope Francis is trying hard to get people to Truth, but a lot of Catholics—myself among them, at times—are bothered about how he’s doing that. He is often accused of trying to reach people by watering down the faith to make it more appealing to modern people. I understand where that perception comes from but, as I see it, the Pope is only trying to make the Church/Faith appear more attainable to people rather than a hopeless reach. He’s trying to present the faith in a way that’s not less challenging but rather less intimidating; not easier to swallow so much as easier to reach. Like many others, I sometimes get frustrated or annoyed with how he does that. If I were Pope, I’d do three things differently.
Speak more clearly and with greater precision.
Do you remember the famous “Who am I to judge” line?
“If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing (sometimes translated as “has goodwill”), who am I to judge that person?”
Most Catholics are not familiar with the technical function of that key word “goodwill” or “willing,” To seek the Lord with good will means to have a well ordered will and intent to align one’s life with what God asks of us. Obedience to his law and the call to “repent and believe in the Gospel” is part of that, because it’s impossible to have goodwill if the will is ordered away from the Good. But most people took his words as an invitation to seek out the Lord without being concerned about things like repenting and living the Gospel or obeying divine law.
This demonstrates the lack of clarity and precision that has been an ordinary characteristic of Francis’ pontificate. It’s an obstacle to my work as an evangelizer because the Pope, for many, is the Catholic Church, and everything he says, as far as they’re concerned, is infallible Catholic teaching. Correcting their misunderstanding and misinterpretation introduces an unnecessary and not insignificant complication to the work of evangelizing persons “from the ground” rather than from a microphone or pulpit. It doesn’t help that the media over report his loose statements while being mute on his more direct statements on subjects such as abortion, sin, repentance and so on.
If I were the Pope I’d brush up on my rhetorical skills and re-learn how to communicate effectively. Fulton Sheen was a master Rhetorician and I think his example is a good goal to set. When the whole world is listening to you it’s important to be more careful about the words and phrases you choose, and make active efforts at precision in speech. Failing all of that, just stop giving impromptu interviews and press conferences altogether.
Truth with Charity, not Charity with Truth
There is a recurring flaw in the Holy Father’s rhetorical style in that he often puts Charity in front of Truth, where those two elements should be ordered the other way around. Truth should predicate Charity because Charity comes from Truth. Yes, God is love, but He is love because He IS. And I’m a man because I am primarily a human being.
Rhetoric in the modern Church is frequently obscured as a result of this flip-flop of those two key elements of evangelization. People frequently put Charity ahead of Truth, allowing Truth to be guided by Charity where Charity ought to be guided and informed by Truth. Truth is foundational, whereas Charity is dynamic. Charity needs to proceed from Truth; otherwise, it flies every which way, including the wrong way.
Putting Charity in front of Truth isn’t always necessarily a bad strategy. Sometimes that’s the only way to get your foot in the door of some people’s hearts. But it shouldn’t be normative in Catholic evangelization or catechesis. Put Truth ahead of Charity.
Don’t Go Full “Gomer Pyle”
This is not a critique of the Pope’s physical appearance. But just roll with me here. My first thought when the new Pontiff walked out to greet the world for the first time on the night of his election was, “He looks like Jim Nabors!” You’d have to be blind (or unaware of who Jim Nabors was) not to see it. I’m not criticizing the Pope’s appearance, but using a metaphor for how the holy father often removes some of the majesty from the “look” of the Catholic Church. It didn’t start with him, but I feel he advanced it a lot. He doesn’t like the traditional trappings of the Church. He’s been that way since he was elected.
Jim Nabors played Gomer Pyle on the 1950s TV show “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C” He was a sweet and good-natured kind of guy but also an odd and slightly dopy character. Due to his behavior, speech, simple personality, and his appearance Private Pyle didn’t recruit much confidence in those observing him. His character is a stark contrast to Gunnery Sergent Thomas Highway (“Gunny Highway”), played by Clint Eastwood in the movie Heartbreak Ridge. You wouldn’t see Private Pyle and think, “Thank God, the Marines are here!” But were you to see Gunny Highway coming to rescue you, you’d know that your life was as good as saved. The fine line between “We’re screwed!” and “We’re rescued!” is that Gomer Pyle appears a fool while Gunny Highway looks and acts like a god of war. One recruits confidence on sight while the other does not. Which of those two marines takes themselves seriously? Which of them has the chops to get a job done? Which of them will you want to run toward and hide behind when the going gets tough? Your eyes and a moment of observation will be the first to provide the answer for you.
Appearances aren’t everything, but they do mean something, and it isn’t always about vanity. The appearance of things shapes our perception of those things. The Pope tends to over-casualize certain aspects of what used to be distinctive Catholic Church culture. And when we lose the trappings and pomp that are so classically “Catholic,” we go progressively more “Gomer Pyle,” where we should be driving on the “Gunny Highway” (see what I did there?).
I’m personally not too concerned with what the Catholic Church “looks like.” I’m a simple man, and I value simplicity. But I feel like the Church has lost a lot of its visual identity or the outward appearance of its interior dignity in some ways under Pope Francis and I think people in and out of the Church need to see those things. People need to see a Church that looks like it takes itself seriously, not just in the behavior of its members but in its outward appearance. People need to see “Gunny Highway” when they look at the Church today. They need to see the field hospital (as the Pope beautifully refers to it) and exclaim, “We’re saved!” not “We’re screwed.”