The hyperbolic and exhausting papacy of Francis

A reasoned and thought provoking article from Carl Olson at The Catholic World Report (

My impression is that many Catholics are weary of the seemingly constant addresses, homilies, interviews, texts—many of which read like lectures—that come from the Holy Father

Earlier this week, the Catholic men’s reading group I’ve been meeting with for several years discussed Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si'”. There were fifteen men in attendance, including three priests, and while not everyone had been able to read the entire encyclical, it was a lively and compelling discussion. On a couple of occasions I was reminded of my October 2013 editorial, “Pope Francis: The Good, the Baffling, and the Unclear”, because it was quickly evident that the men thought the encyclical had good doses of all three stuffed inside its some 40,000 words. Many of them—including myself—thought that the strongest parts were the overtly theological and spiritual sections, notably paragraphs 228 and following. We generally agreed that the criticisms of technocratic visions of utopia, scientistic agendas, and consumerist societies were excellent. Surprisingly, most didn’t seem too put off by the passage on climate change, perhaps because it was essentially old news; they might not agree, but they weren’t too worked up over it after hearing about it ad nauseam for many months, if not longer.

Some wondered why the more theological and evangelistic sections didn’t appear earlier in the text (as they had in earlier drafts). Some questioned the pope’s understanding of markets and related matters. While I cannot speak for the entire group, it seemed to me that many of the guys were most deeply annoyed by the tone and style of the encyclical. Descriptives such as “hyperbolic” and “over-the-top” and “scolding” were used. “He repeatedly tells nations and leaders and individuals that they ought to do this, ought to do that, ought to do, do, do…” said one man, “It’s exhausting!”

Returning home, I had an e-mail from a colleague with a link to Elizabeth Scalia’s post, “Catholicism’s Future: Love and Mercy, with Scoldings”. The timing was, as they say, fortuitous. Scalia writes:

… I’m no longer interested in the “which pope is what” question. I’m frankly just tired of feeling scolded.

I love His Holiness Pope Francis, but for a while now, I have been feeling harangued by him, as he’s been harping on us to do more, and ever more, to practice mercy on the world; to welcome the stranger, to clean up the rivers, to bring about justice and peace in our time; to level the playing fields, visit the sick, and so on.

These are, of course, all very good things. You can’t argue with someone who is telling you to love the poor, or to make room in your pew for the transgendered, or to help poor kids get new opportunities, or to pay a worker what he is due.

But sometimes, when I read Pope Francis exhorting us again about the poor, or the environment, and urging people once again, to take action, to go out into the world and fix-all-of-the-things, because Jesus wants it (and yes, I’m sure Jesus does) I can’t help thinking, “but Holy Father, have mercy! Do you not know that many of us are already doing the best we can? Some of us are doing all we can to keep the family together, keep food on the table, and maybe go out to a movie once in a while.

Yes, we agree with you that excessive materialism is harmful to the spirit, but we’re really not “living large.” Some of us are commuting a total of four hours a day to our job, not to be rich — not to exploit poor people, or to oppress anyone, or to ignore anyone’s suffering; not to mindlessly keep up with ownership trends — but simply to pay the utility bills, and the taxes, and the student loans, and write the checks to support the charities we believe in, and support the parish, and get the car inspected and repaired, and keep the kids in a sport or activity, like Scouting, so they can learn some worthwhile skills.

We stumble in from work, eat something we can rustle up quickly, be “family” for a while — which is often a turbulent thing — and then around 10PM we plop down on the couch, looking to relax a little, turn on the news — and there you are, telling us to get up and go do something useful!

Scalia’s excellent post captures quite well, I think, the weariness I encounter, more and more, in a lot of Catholics. They are not “Woe is me!”, but they are certainly tired of the seemingly constant addresses, homilies, interviews, texts—many of which read like lectures—that come from the Holy Father. And it’s not just the quantity, although that is staggering in many ways, but it is quite often the tone and approach found in many of those texts: haranguing, harping, exhorting, lecturing. It probably doesn’t help that Francis obsesses over particular points, to a degree that is, frankly, grating.

Case in point: the Vatican website returns 104 results for a search for “gossip”; of those, 96 are by Francis. But, again, it’s not the quantity alone, but the hyperbole: “Gossip kills more than weapons do” and “Gossip can also kill, because it kills the reputation of the person!” And:

The greatest danger is terrorism in religious life: it has entered, the terrorism of gossip. If you have something against a sister, go and tell her to her face. But never this terrorism, because gossip is a bomb thrown into a community and it destroys it. Unity without the terrorism of gossip.

This, I have to note, from the same man who spoke publicly—in remarks reported on numerous websites and newspapers—about a mother of seven whose pregnancy, said Francis, “is an irresponsibility”. Do public scoldings over sensitive and personal issues qualify as acts of “the terrorism of gossip”?

Personally, I gave up long ago trying to parse and explain everything that Francis says. I accept that he’s often not that adept at communicating clearly, and I’ve decided that it’s often best to be quiet—especially since there are plenty of times I really have no idea what, exactly, he is trying to say. And there are plenty of times, in reading his many addresses and texts, that I’ve thought, “Has he never thought about this? Or been told about that?”

In other words, Francis often gives the impression that he hasn’t contemplated perspectives or sides of issues that really should be considered. Granted, his time and energy is limited, but isn’t that why he has advisers and experts? For example, the breathless insistence in “Laudato Si'” that “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Okay, but can they be met with calm criticisms and measured analysis (such as that provided by Michael Severance in his CWR feature “Is Less Really More?”). Such a statement, it seems to me, is a form of straw man argument, as if the only options are (1) embrace doomsday predictions or (2) be a snarky jerk.

Recently, the Holy Father admitted, in an interview given while returning from South America, that perhaps he needs to do a better job of thinking about important matters that are, for whatever reason, overlooked:

Ludwig Ring-Eifel, (CIC): Holy Father, on this trip, we’ve heard so many strong messages for the poor, also many strong, at times severe, messages for the rich and powerful, but something we’ve heard very little was a message for the middle class – that is, people who work, people who pay their taxes, “normal people.” My question is why in the magisterium of the Holy Father are there so few messages on the middle class. If there were such a message, what would it be?

Pope Francis: Thank you so much. It’s a good correction, thanks. You are right. It’s an error of mine not to think about this. I will make a comment, but not to justify myself. You’re right. I have to think a bit.

The world is polarized. The middle class becomes smaller. The polarization between the rich and the poor is big. This is true. And, perhaps this has brought me not to take account of this, no? Some nations are doing very well, but in the world in general the polarization is seen. And the number of poor is large. And why do I speak of the poor? Because they’re at the heart of the Gospel. And I always speak from the Gospel on poverty, no? It’s not that it’s sociological. Then on the middle class, there are some words that I’ve said, but a little in passing. But the common people, the simple people, the worker, that is a great value, no? But, I think you’re telling me about something I need to do. I need to do delve further into this magisterium.

I understand that one man cannot think about everything; no one expects so. But it is a startling admission (up there with Francis’ confession, in the same interview: “I have a great allergy to economic things”). And I’m even more perplexed that the pope’s advisers have apparently ignored the struggles of the ordinary, middle-class people who work, raises families, pay the taxes and, in so many ways, keep society afloat while chaos and madness swirls around. Come to think of it, last year’s Synod was supposed to address challenges to the family, but somehow ended up discussing nearly everything except fathers, mothers, children, and marriages. Yes, it’s a bit tiring and, at times, a bit troubling.

Andrea Gagliarducci, whose site has some of the most thoughtful and insightful Vatican reporting today, argues that Francis’ modus operandi reflects traditionalist thinking but a “pastoral approach” that “does not advance a given line of argument, he seeks to promote discussion.” Gagliarducci states the obvious problem: “But this attitude is risky: without a clear line, anarchy can rule.” And:

The problem is even wider. Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has put the Church in a sort of state of permanent synod. The establishment of the Council of Cardinals, along with the increasing impact of the Synod of Bishops and the use of Cardinalatial Consistories in order to promote discussion demonstrates the papal will to promote debate over needed reforms.

… On one side, there is the huge popularity of Pope Francis, his ability to convince everyone, the interest he attracts from powerful people in the world, his personal charisma. On the other side, there is the structure that requires a reform, not a revolution, but that still lives without reforms, because some players are still clamoring for a revolution.

… This problem is mirrored in the encyclical, where there are some innovations (mostly, in method), but still many teachings that accord with the Church’s tradition. … In the end, “Laudato Si” mirrors Pope Francis’ two and a half year-long pontificate, in that it is suspended among different interpretations.

As if to validate my decision, quite a while ago, to stop trying (at least publicly) to interpret and “translate” the many utterances of Francis, Gagliarducci writes:

The expectations for a revolution in the Church guided by Pope Francis were raised especially with regard to the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried. But Pope Francis’ pastoral views on the family, made explicit by this encyclical, prove for the most part that he is predominantly a traditionalist. It was predicted that the Pope was going to bring order to the Church, but the internal and external dialectics developed under his pontificate are fueling the debates more than they are leading to concrete actions.

There is everything and nothing in every description of Pope Francis, as there is everything and nothing in “Laudato Si.” And in the end there is everything and nothing in “Evangelii Gaudium,” the pastoral apostolic exhortation that Pope Francis has frequently indicated as his “Magna Charta.”

Make of it what you will. I’m not questioning the Pope’s orthodoxy, or sincerity, or innate goodness. I just know that beyond the scolding and the weariness and the frustration, there is, as Scalia notes, the reality of living, following Christ, giving witness to the Truth, and pursuing holiness. As I wrote nearly two years ago:

The bottom line, in many ways, is that the Church is not the pope’s to remake or revise or change. The role of the pope is more modest (which is not to say it is not divinely ordained or unimportant), as one pope explained not long ago: “The Successor of Peter, yesterday, today and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of that faith which God has given as a light for humanity’s path.” Yes, that pope was Francis, in Lumen fidei, his encyclical on faith.

Popes, as important as they are, come and go; the Word of God endures forever.

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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11 Responses to The hyperbolic and exhausting papacy of Francis

  1. I know it’s a terrible thing to have to admit, but I long ago stopped paying much attention to anything this pope says, because I know in advance it will be either vague or confusing or even, apparently, opposed to Church teaching – or all of the above.

    Or it will give the impression that Pope Francis is completely ignorant of contradictions in the Church. I think, for example, of the bishops here in Germany who keep nattering on about showing “mercy” to the divorced and remarried, to sexually active gays and lesbians, to cohabiting couples, among others, by allowing these individuals to receive the Eucharist without first going to confession and promising to amend their lives.

    The contradiction? Ah, the contradiction is this: any Catholic who fails to pay the government-mandated “Church tax,” through which the German Church receives the lion’s share of its financial support, well, THAT sort of individual is shown NO MERCY WHATSOEVER. Excommunication, no last rites, no Church funeral – those are are merciless penalties for not meeting the bishops’ – and the government’s – demand that you pay your Church tax in Germany.

    I’ve lived in Germany for twenty-five years and in some ways I like this country much better than my own (the United States). There is, however, a relentlessly punitive element in the German character toward anyone who doesn’t follow the rules – or at least the rules that are important to the authorities at any given time.

    You think the Greeks have it bad? Well, in Germany, you can be a partner in an adulterous marriage, commit sodomy, cohabit with someone – and STILL go to Communion, all in the name of “mercy.” But if you fail to pay your Church tax? Then for you, it’s the outer darkness. And mercy? As they say in Brooklyn: Fuhgeddaboudit!


  2. louiseyvette says:

    I happily ignore this Pope, but then, I don’t like him.

    “This, I have to note, from the same man who spoke publicly—in remarks reported on numerous websites and newspapers—about a mother of seven whose pregnancy, said Francis, “is an irresponsibility”. Do public scoldings over sensitive and personal issues qualify as acts of “the terrorism of gossip”?”

    Frankly, yes. And in a spectacularly bad way. He practically named her to anyone who knows her personally. How many women expecting an 8th child (by c-section) were there in Rome at that time? Not many I’ll bet. Well, I’ve had 6 c-sections and I’ll happily have more babies because 1. I love my husband and 2. I HATE contraception. Yes I know there’s NFP blah blah but the only way to be 100% of not having more babies is Abstinence. But one saves that dire necessity for very serious situations.

    Gossip IS really bad, but probably not as bad as overturning the whole social order (e.g. same sex “marriage”) or I dunno, killing babies in a torturous way so you can sell their organs. But who am I to judge?


  3. johnhenrycn says:

    Louiseyvette is a Catholic who puts me – and the Pope – to shame. Clearly a more faithful Catholic than me – and the Pope…

    …(to be continued, maybe)…
    Our Holy Father is not above criticism for his opinions on secular and scientific issues; but that’s not the thrust of Lousieyvette’s comment, the last paragraph of which suggests that Pope Francis favours abortion to “sell their organs.”. Is that what you think, Louiseyvette? That is a reasonable reading of your comment, but in no way a reasonable reading of Pope Francis.


  4. johnhenrycn says:

    Sorry, Louiseyvette, but you’ve got my back up:
    “I happily ignore this Pope, but then, I don’t like him.”

    …and you got 5 up votes when you said that? Which other popes do you ignore and don’t like? Is Francis the only pope you ignore and don’t like? Personally, I’ve never expressed an opinion about my favourite popes on this or any blog, although I do have them. It’s bad form ( I think) for a Catholic to say he/she ignores and doesn’t like Pope Francis; but then, I’m not a cradle Catholic – so maybe I should learn from my betters.


  5. geoffkiernan says:

    You are permitted to criticise the Holy Father however the level of criticism should be commensurate with how much you pray for him. As confusing as some of his utterances are and confusion is not a gift of the Holy Spirit, he is the Holy Father.
    I sometime wonder at the mentality of the Holy Father as I wonder at the mentality of those who think the Holy Father is the best thing for the Church at the moment. The Church is in disarray and the Holy Father is not helping with his ramblings and some of the ambiguous comments he makes… He is walking a fine line with some of the silly things he says.
    JH, Cardinal Pell recently mentioned some 31 Popes in Church History who were derelict in their Papacy. So that is 31 that I have no trouble in not following. It is not hard to be a better Catholic than the Pope at the moment, sad to say…
    Please continue to pray for the Holy Father and the Church


  6. geoffkiernan says:

    PS… It is equally ‘bad form’ for a Catholic, cradle or otherwise, to hang from every word the current Holy Father utters, given the confusion that emanates therefrom


  7. johnhenrycn says:

    No one here (certainly not me) hangs “from every word” the Pope (any Pope?) utters; but it is bad form to say, as does Louiseyvette, that he is happily ignored and disliked. Am I putting words in her mouth? No, I am not. As for your “31 Popes in Church History who were derelict in their Papacy”, are you saying that Pope Francis is No. 31? You are a man who likes acronyms, are you not? Try this one: SOGOTP.


  8. geoffkiernan says:

    JH: “No one here( certainly not me) Hangs from every word…” Yep I concede you that point…. As for the 31 Pope who have been derelict, I don’t count Francis but He is definitely in the running for No 32.
    SOGOTP….. ???? I don’t know… maybe ‘Silly Old Goat Over The Pope”….. ‘Son Of God On The Pope ‘… ???… Mate you have me cold… I give in… Just tell me before I go to bed tonight…. I wont be able to sleep.


  9. johnhenrycn says:

    Sorry, Geoff, no can do. Butter doesn’t melt in my mouth, but you can type SOGOTP Acronym into your choo-choo train and follow the link. Sweet dreams in Perth.


  10. Crow says:

    I am with John Henry here. I am a cradle Catholic. I have not always agreed with the direction the Church has taken, but the Church is an institution that was divinely created. It will right itself, but sometimes, there needs to be a lack of equilibrium to do so.

    Pope Francis is not really so confusing – he is a person who is trying to deal with the eternal truths in an age when the world does not want to hear anything that interferes with financial and self-interest. It is a Catholic Church and it will always be an institution that is divided for this very reason – there are many different voices within it.

    To some extent, I see in some of these comments on Pope Francis, many of the same mistakes that the media makes in an attempt to analyse the mysteries of the Vatican. The Pope is not a political leader. One cannot define a Pope as “Conservative” or “Modernist”.

    I do understand the position of the German bishops – quite frankly, these people see good Catholics who are divorced, who cannot receive communion. The divorce may or may not have been their fault. I do understand that Jesus made unequivocal comments about divorce and remarriage – hence there is a stand that has been taken by the Church for centuries, and indeed, led to the Reformation in England. However, there is also a teaching in the Catechism of the Church by which confession enables the absolution of sin. There is also the concept of redemption and forgiveness. These are issues that are facing the priests with people who present a real dilemma for the Church.
    How does the Church remain pastorally merciful and yet address these issues, without betraying the truths of Christ?

    We need Pope Francis just now to reach out to those who do not understand the bases of some of the teachings of the Church. He can speak to the people, and, while some of his sayings may be confusing, if endlessly picked apart, one should have faith that the Church will ultimately steer a course towards the truth. As a child, I remember the fall-out from Vatican II, when the Latin Mass was never said, and I was effectively rebuked by angry priests and bishops for saying that I wished it would be said. This was an era in the Church that, to my mind, was grim – when the Church itself had no value for its own history, its own traditions and beauty and when the interiors of churches were vandalised in the name of Vatican II. Thankfully His Holiness, Pope Benedict, stepped in and the Latin Rite is now said in some churches (although it is still treated with a kind of embarrassed apology by many Catholics, who seem, for some unfathomable reason, unable to understand that this is the liturgy of 2,000 years of the Church, and is the liturgy for which many people died, and who seem unable to recognise its beauty).

    I now see a renaissance in the faith – much smaller, but very real, in the attendance in the Extraordinary Rite. This change has occurred in my lifetime. As a teenager I left the Church, and the reason was the lack of spirituality that existed in the Novus Ordo at the time. Now as an older parent, I am a committed Catholic – but I am one who reads and is interested in the theology of the Church. Most ordinary Catholics do not understand the theological bases for many of the Church’s teachings and so are susceptible to manipulation by the media. Perhaps Pope Francis is needed, post-Pope Benedict, to be a translator to the ordinary person.


  11. geoffkiernan says:

    Come on JH…. SOGOTP


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