Two days ago I ordered for my living room a framed portrait of His Holiness Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome, Sovereign of Vatican City, and 226th Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. It is evidence of what strange times we are living in that my decision to hang the pope's picture, once a staple of dining rooms and parlors the world round, will be regarded by many of my fellow Catholics as a regrettable home décor move at best.
I am not one of those ultramontantist Catholics who pretend that every word that falls from the papal lips is a piece of heaven-sent wisdom to be cherished, but I do believe that the pope is Christ's Vicar on Earth and that he deserves our affection every bit as much as he demands our obedience. We call him by the familiar title of "Papa" because he is our spiritual father; dumping on your father in public is not a good look.
This is not to say that I am not concerned about the well-being of the Church under Francis. So far from feeling sanguine, I believe that the Church is more than half a century into her worst climacteric since the Reformation, a period of doctrinal chaos and pastoral uncertainty comparable to the Arian crisis of the fourth century. I also maintain that this crisis is the direct result of the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass, which I hope to see disappear in my lifetime and replaced with the old Roman Rite of St. Pius V in its ancient fullness. I am not, in other words, a happy-clappy liberal Catholic.
But neither is Pope Francis.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that both of his predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, had more of the saccharine "Spirit of Vatican II" about them than Francis has. The current pope is a hard-headed practical man, with no illusions about human nature. Nor is he much of an intellectual, though his environmental encyclical Laudato si' is one of the most important pieces of theological writing to have appeared in my lifetime.
His is a decidedly peasant spirituality of intense Marian devotion. He loathes pomposity with the fervor of his ascetic namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. While he is famous for not getting on well with mainstream traditionalists like me, the so-called rigorists and doctors of the law whom he has subjected to endless (and sometimes deserved) ridicule, he clearly has a soft spot for the much-maligned Society of St. Pius X, whose founder was shamefully — and perhaps invalidly — excommunicated by John Paul II. His gradual reintroduction of these battered and pious misfits into the wider life of the Church is the answer to many prayers.
Much of the opposition to Francis is ostensibly a response to another of his missions of mercy, namely his streamlining of the annulment process, and what some consider his loosey-goosey views about admitting Catholics who have been civilly divorced and remarried to Holy Communion. I agree that in the hands of unscrupulous bishops in Europe and parts of the United States Francis's earnest entreaties for pastoral understanding of difficult situations could be used to justify sacrilege. But I am also realistic. Outside the neoconservative diocesan enclave of Northern Virginia where many of the pope's American critics live, the reality on the ground in many parishes in this country already resembles their fever dreams. At the parish in rural Michigan where my family attended Mass when I was in middle school, the lector most Sundays was a divorced and remarried Freemason. No one attended confession. Virtually everyone receiving the sacraments did so illicitly, with the full encouragement of the pastor. The worst has already come to pass, yet the Church somehow survives, just as Our Lord promised St. Peter it would.
These concerns about sacramental discipline would also be more credible if they were not accompanied by a frenetic, omnidirectional antipathy to Francis the man. Ostensibly traditionalist Catholic journalists subject the pope's every utterance to a kind of graspingly paranoid scrutiny; the most innocuous line from a homily is taken as evidence of a sinister mission to undermine and ultimately destroy the Church. Meanwhile, an eager chorus of anonymous whisperers echo their delusional claims and flatter them for their keen faculties of observation.
Far and away the worst piece of Francis baiting I have encountered so far is The Political Pope: How Pope Francis Is Delighting the Liberal Left and Abandoning Conservatives, a new book by an American journalist called George Neumayr. Crude, feverish, vague, poorly written, full of tabloid speculation, and hysterical prejudices with no basis in Catholic doctrine, this thinly sourced fire-breathing manifesto is, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the most absurd books I have ever read. Set aside for a moment the ludicrous conceit of treating the affairs of the Church in the crudely reductive categories of American politics as interpreted by talk radio (is Tim Kaine really "the left"?); the whole idea of a layman writing a book-length attack on the pope is ridiculous on its face, no matter how subtle its method. What could be more loathsome in the mouth of a Catholic than to repeat slanders of His Holiness made by Rush Limbaugh, a four-times-married childless serial philanderer who believes abortion is a states-rights issue?
The painful but delicious truth is that it is Neumayr and his followers who must answer to the charge of liberalism. It is they who believe that the clichés of the Republican Party have a higher claim on their consciences than the words of popes and bishops and that the hideous sorcery of neoliberal economists invalidates the Church's immortal teachings about usury, the just wage, the maintenance of the poor, and our duties to be prudent stewards of God's creation. That old saw about the mote in thine own eye has never been more appropriate.