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Trust not in Princes
An exercise in trying to hold two things at once
I've used this platform, as well as the podcast, to carve out a space within the Church for people who don’t entirely feel all-in with Catholicism but who have a desire for God and for the Church.
That feeling of not-belonging sometimes comes from having different political opinions than the predominance of your local Catholic community. Sometimes it’s from having struggles with some Church teachings. Sometimes it’s from difficulty trusting Church leaders because they’ve squandered their credibility on fighting culture wars or, most profoundly, being complicit in clericalism and abuse.
This is a space of tension, of having to hold two things that feel both contradictory and true. The Church is good AND part of my experience of the Church is being coerced, manipulated, abused, or neglected. Somehow, both things can be true.
I have tried to carve out this space for people because it’s the space that I inhabit. My faith life is lived in that existential tension. My intention is that by being genuine about my faith that others will feel that they too have a place in the Church despite their struggles. Perhaps others can benefit from my external processing, you know?
In that spirit, I want to say that the past few weeks have been especially difficult for me.
I was, and still am, really excited about the ongoing Synod and the recent teachings from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF). But everything coming from Rome has been overshadowed by the story of Fr. Rupnik (if you’re not familiar, you can find a rundown here).
It was great news that Pope Francis lifted the statute of limitations and allowed for a formal investigation and prosecution of Rupnik. But the pope is a day late and a dollar short. My understanding of the information is that Francis didn’t intervene in favor of justice until there was huge public pressure to do so. He allowed this to drag on for way too long, and in doing so demonstrated that he is not prioritizing survivors of abuse and he is not taking clerical abuse of power—in all its forms—seriously enough.
Short of an explanation, an apology, and repentance, I don’t know how Francis earns back people’s trust. I don’t know how he earns back my trust. Lay people are watching and reasonably thinking: Does the pope—does any cleric—care if we’re abused?
Maybe it seems silly that this one thing would overshadow everything else that Pope Francis is doing. However, this case of Rupnik feels especially grievous to me precisely because it seems to demonstrate that Francis can’t, or won’t, follow his own teachings about the sin of clericalism and the infinite value of every human life.
As much as clerical sexual abuse is a profound abuse of power and betrayal, so is every act of a bishop not taking that abuse seriously or, worse, actively covering it up. And sometimes the institutional betrayal does more harm to survivors than the initial abuse. Here Francis has grossly abused his power and office (or was grossly negligent) by not taking seriously the grave harm that Rupnik did to people under his care. In failing to act with justice, Francis re-traumatized Rupnik’s victims and scandalized every Catholic who cares about clerical abuse.
Combined with this, past experiences of betrayal from my own parish and diocese that I’m still processing have felt especially heavy. It’s been a season of feeling unprotected and unwanted in the Church.
However, in the midst of this, I have also been able to preach a Catholic Social Teaching retreat in Memphis, TN and give a lecture about Fratelli Tutti. Preparing for these presentations brought me real consolation. The Church’s teaching about human dignity and solidarity are so beautiful and so compelling. They resonate with me so much that I joyfully believe they are true. These teachings are an important reason why I’m Catholic. Reviewing and teaching them has been an oasis of comfort and security for me.
Also in this season of tension, I’ve been confronted with the question of the prudence of my own association with Pope Francis, including the name of this website.
When someone, especially someone in a position of authority, has demonstrated that they are not interested in our safety, then there’s often the grueling process of shedding the expectations we had of them, of setting boundaries, keeping them at a safe distance and not expecting them to care and provide for us.
And if that person is a public figure, I also believe it’s prudent to stop promoting them. I can’t tell you how many Catholic leaders, writers, apologists, and speakers I have stopped recommending to others because of their public lack of concern for the truth or the dignity of others. And sometimes not continuing to promote a public figure feels a moral obligation out of respect for those they’ve harmed.
But disassociating from Pope Francis feels a lot more difficult for me.
Part of the difficulty is because of how much Pope Francis has influenced my own faith. I’ve said it before—because it’s true—if it weren’t for Pope Francis’s teachings I don’t know if I would still be Catholic. More than anyone else, Francis has convinced me of God’s goodness. I love Pope Francis. Like nobody else in the Church, I’ve experienced him as a spiritual father.
The name of this website, Pope Francis Generation, communicates these things well. As I wrote when I first started this website, Francis’s teaching stands out when juxtaposed (though not in opposition or contradiction) to the values and legacy of John Paul II Generation.
But the reality of spiritual leaders dramatically failing to live up to their own words is nothing new. Many people have had to navigate the moral failures of their spiritual heroes.
However, because he’s the pope, it feels more complicated for a Catholic—for me—to disassociate from Francis. He is still the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the pastor of the universal Church, the “perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (CCC 882). All of his teachings about faith and morals, even his non-definitive and non-infallible teachings, are in some way guided and protected by the Holy Spirit and require my assent (CCC 892).
And I believe Francis’s teachings in particular have done real good in combating spiritual abuses in the Church. I think synodality (i.e. greater emphasis on co-responsibility and co-power with lay people) is extremely important for any structural reform. I think Francis’s teachings about sin and human dignity have helped correct areas where Church teaching has been (and is still being) misunderstood and misused to spiritually abuse people. I think his criticism of clericalism is dead right and absolutely needed. I think his opposition to all kinds of Pelagianism undermines the moralism and performative mentality that subtly infects so much of my experience of Catholicism.
So, it’s really challenging for me as a Catholic who believes the pope’s teaching and theological emphasis are crucial for the Church to distance myself from him, even though he is presently, not just historically, making terrible and harmful governing decisions.
Here is the essential distinction between the pope and bishops’ teaching authority and their governing authority: only the former is protected by the Holy Spirit.
Last year, Mark Shea pointed out to me that during the Council, all the world’s bishops got together and voted to approve the teaching that human beings are “the only creature on earth which God willed for itself" (Gaudium et Spes 24). He said this teaching was a significant development in the Church’s teaching, explicitly stating that human beings can never be sacrificed for the sake of something perceived to be more important. However, many of these same bishops, after the Council, went back to their own dioceses and, when informed about priests abusing children, prioritized their dioceses over vulnerable human beings.
Their behavior rightly scandalizes—deeply and profoundly scandalizes—us. Jesus’s harshest words are directed at hypocritical religious leaders and those who scandalize God’s children. Yet, as we heard in the Gospel last Sunday, Jesus still tells us to “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you” even when he commands us not to follow their example.
Maybe this gets at something that feels more and more distinctly true about being in the Pope Francis generation of Catholics: having to navigate the constant disappointment and betrayal of every major spiritual leader and institution you’ve looked up to and still, in some way, continuing to keep practicing Catholicism. Having to constantly examine myself for where I’ve put my trust in anyone or anything other than God.
I’m reminded of Psalm 146, where I’m told to trust “not in princes” who are “powerless to save” but to put my hope in the Lord. Or, as Venerable Madeleine Delbrel said, “For the Gospel to reveal its mystery, no special setting, no advanced education, no particular technique is required. All it needs is a soul bowed down in adoration and a heart stripped of trust in all things human.”
Does “all things human” include the human elements of the Church? Does “all things human” include the pope?
And I’m left with no clear answers and no clear path forward. My faith continues to be lived in this terrible tension of trying to hold these things that feel so true and so contradictory at the same time.
If you feel that way too, welcome.
There is room for you here.
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