I became Catholic right around the time
when Pope Benedict XVI was elected and one of the most frustrating experiences
for me as a new catholic was the media’s consistent portrayal of him in terms
that weren’t very accurate – because the media has this unfortunate tendency to
portray narratives in dualistic terms as in protagonists and antagonists, victims
and offenders, and liberals and conservatives – and the difficulty with
the Catholic Church is that it doesn’t fit into these dichotomies and so they
routinely find themselves shoehorning it into one of these two dimensions. For Benedict, they saw him as a conservative
so whatever they tried to report about him was usually an attempt to reinforce
that interpretation and Catholics like me, I think, rightly complained that this
was an inaccurate portrayal of our Pope and the church. Unsurprisingly the same
thing happened when Francis was elected but on the other end of the spectrum. So
he was cast as a liberal and if you’re a casual observer of the news and its
headlines you have no reason to think that he was anything but a champion on
the left because everything that they covered about him was something that
resonates with that attitude. So when that started to happen the same
Catholics that labored to defend and correct the inaccuracies about Pope
Benedict would jump at the opportunity to defend Pope Francis and so they would
produce the necessary context that would balance out that one-sided portrayal. But
after a while it seemed like those voices started to grow silent while a
new trend of subtle criticism and even sometimes open hostility towards Pope
Francis started to emerge in certain corners of Catholic media. So where this
became a relevant concern for me was in the surprising experience of finding
myself disagreeing with the Pope. The more headlines I read and the more of
that one-sided coverage I was exposed to the more I couldn’t help but be
influenced by it. So take for example his recent comments that equated wasting
food with stealing food right off the table of impoverished people. This one really hit me hard because on the one hand we have a pope who is so
celebrated for being welcoming and non judgmental and then he says something
that at face value appears to be so incredibly inflammatory and judgmental. The reason that comment stood out to me so much is because it implicated me and
my family. My initial response was, ‘That’s easy for you to say, when was the
last time you had to buy groceries or meal plan for a family of seven?” And the
reason we’re such a big family is because we faithfully observe the
teachings that your office upholds. To compare the accidental mismanagement of food resources that can occur from trying to keep a family of children fed
to the malicious stealing from people that are already destitute seemed like
it was unbelievably sophistic and hurtful to those of us that are just
trying to do our best. And you have to appreciate that as an enthusiastic
convert to the Catholic Church, finding myself on the wrong side of the Pope’s
condemnation was a new and startling experience for me and so it gave me
incentive to spend some time reflecting on my relationship with Christ and the
church and the current pontiff who represents Christ. So in an attempt to
gain some perspective I decided to go back and read his statements in their
full and proper context carefully and deliberately as well as to spend some
time listening to his critics to see if the complaints that they have about him
are valid. One of the more common complaints about Pope Francis among his critics is that he lacks clarity when he speaks. The claim is that if he spoke
with more definitive precision then there would be less confusion and
diversity of interpretation of the things that he says which can lead to
the spreading of misinformation. It seems like they want every statement of the
Pope to be entirely without the possibility of differing interpretation
and as I thought about that I realized that if we held Jesus to that same
standard, we probably would have ended up on the wrong side of that story.
See, we modern Catholics benefit from generations of theological clarification
of all the things that Jesus said, so we’re used to a lack of ambiguity but
the people that lived in Jesus’ time and heard him preach did not have that
same benefit and Jesus spoke in ways that were ambiguous and open to
interpretation quite often. Jesus’ own disciples even questioned him about his
use of parables as a teaching mechanism and Jesus responded by quoting Isaiah
saying that the hearts of the people are calloused and that they do not see with
their eyes and they do not hear with their ears and I think that Jesus was
pointing out that we have to encounter the mysteries of God with our hearts as
well as our minds. I think that’s why Jesus used poetic and metaphorical
language often and he even used hyperbole to exaggerate or emphasize his
points. For example, he said that among those born of women there are none
greater than John the Baptist. Taken literally we’d have to assume that John
the Baptist is greater than Jesus. He also said things like, “Unless you hate
your mother and your father and even your own life you’re not fit to be my
disciple.” And there’s another one for us Catholics that is always tough to
interpret which is that whole, “Call no man father,” bit. If using exact language
to avoid confusion is what we expect from our religious leaders then I think
we might have joined the wrong religion because the guy who started it all
didn’t seem to agree with that notion. In my experience of disagreeing with
Pope Francis about the odd thing, I decided to respond in a few ways and the
first is to not jump to conclusions whenever I see a headline framed by the
secular media. Unless I’m willing to go and read the statement or
writing in its full and proper context, then I’m just gonna have to ignore it or
refuse to form an opinion about it. The second thing is to give him the benefit
of the doubt. I think that too many people are jumping to the worst possible
interpretation about the things that he says and that just won’t do. The last
thing is that I’m learning to accept that there is room for disagreement and
diversity under the umbrella of orthodoxy. At the end of the day if I
disagree with Pope Francis about a few things I’m certain that I agree with him
about the overwhelming majority of things and that should be a good enough
reason for me to consider myself on his side.