Friday, March 27, 2015

Five Quick Takes


Thank you very much for your prayers, party people. The friends I mentioned in this post have had a wonderful turn of good fortune, in the form of a job that the guy of the pair actually looks forward to doing, and that will furnish him with paychecks, complete with numbers on them that indicate money.

The said guy, whom I will refer to for the purposes of this post as Ceolfrith, is one of my oldest friends: we've known each other for about fifteen years, which is as long as I've known anyone outside my family, and watching him grow as a person and as a Christian has really been something, as has his generosity and affection to me personally. I can't be sure whether this is in spite of or because of the fact that we could hardly be any more unlike one another -- Ceolfrith is an extreme extravert, an engineer, a computer guy, decisive, and amazingly persistent -- but, whatever the cause, thank God he decided that we were friends, because it's worked like the dickens. He's struggled (as a straight dude) with some of the same difficulties over sex that I have, and last month he sent me a series of texts that I found helpful and touching*:
So feeling lonely is of course completely legitimate. But my brain likes to give me unhealthy solutions to painful stuff. So I try looking for where I'm being lied to that makes the bad solution look good. So that starts with what the loneliness means to you. E.g.: I'm lonely (true) which is painful (true) and then the lies start: that pain will kill me ... I have the right to find any available solution to that pain, my solutions will fix the pain/source thereof. But the truth is that I can't 'fix' pain (at least this kind), it's part of being human. The best I can do is share my pain with people who love me and can understand it. Part of the addictive mindset is needing a solution for things that don't 'solve.' ... Also my main internal lie is that I am lonely because I'm too broken to be loved. For me the implied rejection by everyone involved in feeling lonely is the hardest. 'If I were loved I wouldn't feel this way. Therefore I must not be truly loved. I guess no one truly loves me because I'm not good enough to earn it.' And that way I can hate myself for feeling lonely. Tadaaa!
*No homo.

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I don't believe I have mentioned it here on Mudblood Catholic before, though I have twitted about it somewhat; but, I am working on a novel, and have nearly finished! It's a mid-Victorian Catholic vampire gothic fantasy novel of manners, like all the kids are into these days, and is titled Death's Dream Kingdom. I'm currently polishing the final draft in the hope of making it as good as I can and removing any howlers, and I hope to publish it (most likely via Amazon) this summer. Prayers welcome, and maybe I'll give patrons a sneak peek; who knows?

(You. You all know. I'm going to give patrons a sneak peek. That is a thing that will happen.)

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Lent kind of rushed by this year, didn't it? The day after tomorrow is already Palm Sunday. I am planning to take the Triduum, at least, offline, which of course means that I won't be updating the blog or approving comments, but I'll take care of the backlog (if any) when I get back on.

This Lent hasn't exactly gone well for me; generally I have little to no trouble fulfilling my chosen penance, but this year I'm sure I've missed it about a third of the time. I guess that means I picked a good one? I don't know.

Nonetheless, for the past few days -- since Annunciation, on Wednesday -- I have been feeling stupid happy. I'm sure it's partly the Zoloft, but there's something else, too. My awkward fight with God seems marginally to have improved (regarding which, again, thank you for your prayers, and please continue them!): I haven't by any means gotten morally better, and I haven't gone to Confession nearly so often as I have decided to go to Confession.

What if there's a bear in there? With a gun?

Yet, for whatever reason, I just feel more willing and able to talk to Him. And a little less resistant to hearing Him talk to me, though whether I'll listen remains an open question.

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The last month or so, I've had the pleasure of having some conversations with a few Protestant pastors -- one who used to be the youth pastor at my old church, two others who were friends of friends and asked for a little sampling of us. I found both conversations extremely encouraging and refreshing. What stood out to me about both of them -- and which I am cautiously optimistic is a growing trend among Christians -- was that they made a point of talking to gay Christians about the experience of being a gay Christian; rather than deciding in advance that they knew what was necessary and then, however politely, even however compassionately, trying to stuff us into a pre-created mould.

To cure the gay. It can't fail.

Some people in the LGBT community would dismiss this as too little, too late; and I'm the first to concede (or rather, insist) that it should have been the churches' original response to the gay rights movement, rather than emerging forty years after Stonewall. But I believe firmly that it is every individual person who matters; it is in individuals, not in trends, that we encounter the image of almighty God. And if this shift helped only one individual person by making the church a safe place for them to be authentic, it would be worth the trouble.

It remains to be seen how far the shift will go, and in what circles. But I am hopeful. Christian history has its share of awfulness; but it also has its share of us getting it right eventually.

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Relief of the Lord meeting the Virgin with His cross, Church of Our Lady, Geneva.

My parish has been conducting the Stations of the Cross (in the traditional form, rather than the more specifically Scriptural form promulgated by St John Paul II) every Friday throughout Lent. Reflections differ; one that I particularly like is the allegorization of the Song of Solomon, applying its language to the Passion. This form of devotion, using the language of eroticism, strikes a lot of people as weird; it has, however, a very ancient pedigree, going back not only to the Mediaeval mystics (notably St Bernard of Clarivaux), but even to the New Testament itself, and indeed to the Old, where God is described as a Bridegroom, and first Israel and then the Church as His Bride. And it is fitting, too, to remember that the pain of the Passion was endured for the passion of His love for us.

The following are some possible meditations for each Station, adapted from the Song of Solomon.

I. Jesus is condemned to death
My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

II. Jesus takes up His Cross
Who is this that cometh up out of the wilderness, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?

III. Jesus falls the first time
The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills; my beloved is like a roe or a young hart.

IV. Jesus meets His Mother
Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion, and behold King Solomon with the crown wherewith his mother crowned him on the day of his espousals, and on the day of the gladness of his heart.

V. Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene
Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the companions hearken to thy voice: cause me to hear it.

VI. Jesus' face is wiped by Veronica
Thine head upon thee is like Mount Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held captive in thy tresses.

VII. Jesus falls the second time
My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies.

VIII. Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem
Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine.

IX. Jesus falls the third time
Until the day break and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of frankincense.

X. Jesus is stripped
The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me: the keepers of the walls took my veil away from me.

XI. Jesus is nailed to the Cross
I am black but lovely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the curtains of Solomon.

XII. Jesus dies
My beloved is white and red, the chiefest among ten thousand. His head is as the most fine gold, and his locks are black as a raven. His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters.

XIII. Jesus' body is taken down from the Cross
I opened to my beloved, but he had withdrawn himself, and was gone; I called him, but he gave me no answer.

XIV. Jesus is laid in the tomb
I sleep, but my heart is awake: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Mustard Seed

When I was five years old, my family went on a trip to Disneyland. I vaguely recall enjoying it, but five-year-olds are stupid so who knows whether it was any good.

One thing I did not enjoy, however, was the Pirates of the Carribean ride.* I took one look at the chaos and the shouting, and promptly screwed my eyes as tightly shut as they would go and hid my face in my hands. My mother kept telling me that it wasn't really scary and was just like Peter Pan, but I knew this was a devious ruse.

"You cheated!" "Pirate."

You sit on a throne of lies.

I wonder whether this is a good parallel to faith, especially to my extreme difficulty accepting the Church's teaching -- that is, according to my convictions, divine revelation -- about homosexuality. On the one hand, the similarities are fairly obvious: it was my mother's word, which I had no rational cause to doubt, against my kneejerk reaction and deliberately self-limited observation (I don't know that I've deliberately limited my observations about queer matters, but that isn't the chief point). On the other hand, the ride wasn't actually going to injure me in any way -- it might not even have scared me if I'd consented to open my eyes, but of course I have no way of knowing that -- whereas it is, in fact, terribly costly to lead a celibate life when you don't want to and aren't sure how; costly especially in loneliness, which is one of the hardest and most bitter crosses for a person to carry. Rewarding, perhaps, but that doesn't do away with the costliness. So maybe it's a good parallel and maybe it isn't.

I have been thinking more and more of late, though, that the opacity of the Church's teaching about homosexuality may be one of the conditions of faith for me. I don't get why God couldn't have, or at any rate didn't, design sex in such a way that that gay sex was as morally licit as straight sex; or, to put the same thing another way, why marriage is specifically for one man and one woman, as opposed to any two people irrespective of gender. I don't get that. I never have. But the Catholic Church, which I believe speaks with the authority of Christ, assures me that that is how invisible reality is shaped, so to speak, and so I'm presented with the choice of trusting the Catholic Church or withholding my trust from her.

And that's what faith is. St. Paul contrasts faith with sight, not because it's better not to see -- we look forward as Catholics to the Beatific Vision -- but because faith is precisely the decision to trust. It is an intellectual decision, but no less a decision for that; and that intellectual decision is the basis of love, because you cannot love what you refuse to know.

And honestly, with most of the Church's doctrine, I either see how it works clearly enough to be thoroughly satisfied of its truth, or at the least am content to shrug my shoulders and say, "Whatever, I believe you, Mama." This is one of the few, the very few, points where the faith is not merely opaque to me, but hard to believe, and even repellent. I think faith has to overcome that obstacle in us; save perhaps in a few happy souls whose growth into virtue is sufficiently natural and uninterrupted that the obstacle never arises. But such a dislike of divine things cannot simply be ignored, if it does arise.

Don't fight it, bro. Even God has a Mother.

For of course, as long as our -- my -- "faith" is merely assent to what seems either obvious or the most reasonable explanation of the obvious, it isn't faith, but rationality. Nobody is credited as having a strong faith in mathematics, or in mathematicians, because they firmly believe in the multiplication table. Faith comes in when it is a question of whom you trust, whom you choose to trust, and trust only becomes active and relevant when what's at stake is uncertain -- when trusting, or not trusting, has a concrete impact.

"If a man wishes to be sure of the road he travels on," said St. John of the Cross, "he must close his eyes and walk in the dark." And faith does become a kind of seeing, a way of knowing someone. When you trust somebody, you're finding out by experiment what kind of person they are. Now, that can be taken the wrong way: the experimental element here is not an experiment in the sense of a laboratory test in controlled conditions. Trust reposes its confidence in someone before they have unambiguously proven themselves worthy of it, though it may well start small and grow over time, in the style of the famous mustard seed. It's like the passage in The Silver Chair, maybe my favorite passage in the whole Chronicles of Narnia, where Jill meets Aslan for the first time:

   "Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
   "I'm dying of thirst," said Jill.
   "Then drink," said the Lion.
   "May I -- could I -- would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.
   The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
   The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
   "Will you promise not to -- do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.
   "I make no promise," said the Lion.
   Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
   "Do you eat girls?" she said.
   "I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
   "I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
   "Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
   "Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
   "There is no other stream," said the Lion.
   It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion -- no one who had seen his stern face could do that -- and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she ever had to do ...
Without faith, I think, we will be unable to see God as He wishes to be seen -- as we must see Him if seeing Him is to make us happy. Possibly for much the same reason that I couldn't enjoy the Pirates ride without trusting my mother, because my hands were over my eyes.** Of course, I'm not above making a virtue out of necessity, either: it's easier to commit yourself to walking in the dark if you haven't gotten where you're going before nightfall. I don't get it anyway, whether I bless God in faith or curse Him in stubbornness, so I might as well see if I can't do something useful with my not-getting-it.

Taken this way, I think that maybe when it comes to the Church's teaching about homosexuality, I can be okay with not knowing, not getting it. I guess the only thing to do is wait and see.

*For my younger readers, this was actually the ride that served as the basis of what is now bidding to be the most stupidly huge franchise since The Land Before Time, not a cheap attempt to capitalize on the films. (Cheap attempts to capitalize on the films are what the films are for.)

**The fact that I knew her to be perpetrating a malignant, manifestly ridiculous deception, as mothers who take their children to Disneyland are wont to do, is, for our purposes, neither here nor there.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


I've been an avid ritualist for as long as I can remember. When I was a Presbyterian I was aware, from the scornful remarks about ritual made by fellow believers, that being fond of ritual was in some way bad form; and I did dutifully try to convince myself that I didn't like it. I don't know if anybody bought it but me, though.

The Advent wreath, being one of the only vivid vestiges we had of the great mass of Catholic symbolism in our worship, was one of my favorite things. We lit it as a family rather than in church, and the lighting of the candles in the dimness, the readings from Scripture, and the carols all combined to make it my favorite aspect of Christmas. They produced a sense of mystery that, while doctrinally acknowledged, perhaps, was experientially lacking in my practice of the Christian faith. There was nothing like it in the Presbyterian services I attended; they were more like very competently run classes in Scripture and theology, with (for some reason) songs and tithing and occasionally sacraments.

Lent, though I didn't become familiar with it until much later, also retained some very slight remnants of ritual. The rate of jokes about "giving up giving things up" for Lent was even higher among my Protestant acquaintances than among the general populace (and, if you didn't already know, has never, ever been funny, just lame), but some people did. And when I was at my last Presbyterian church, which I attended for about a decade, the great cross at the front of the church was hung with a cloth, draped stole-wise, from the first Sunday of Lent, more or less, through Pentecost: purple until the Good Friday service, when it was changed for black, and then white throughout Easter. It wasn't much, but it was something, and I was grateful for it and took pleasure in it.

It's weird to me that some Christians feel the need to attack ritual. You'll find few things as ritualistic, symbolic, and liturgical as the Torah (which, on the most strictly Protestant showings, is God's own word-for-word instruction to Israel in how to worship Him), or the celestial visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel, or the weird and magnificent panoply of Revelation; to say nothing of the fact that incense, gold, and aromatic resin were brought by the Magi to the very stable. And the earliest documents of the faith attest that a ceremonious liturgy was the universal practice of the Church from her inception. If, as many Christians seem to want to maintain, God abhors ritual, then He's a bit schizophrenic about it.

The contention, sometimes put forward by Fundamentalist Christians, that ritual was abrogated by Christ in His abolition of the Torah and rejection of the rabbinic traditions accompanying it, is in my opinion absurd. The Torah was fulfilled by Him, not merely scrapped, and the New Testament (particularly but not exclusively in the book of Revelation) is full of references to Christian ritual and liturgy; indeed, many of the earliest Christian documents are precisely liturgical books.

At bottom, ritual is the expression in terms of matter of spiritual truth. Because human beings are imaginative creatures, we see, by instinct or training or both, a mysterious fitness in symbolizing certain things by physical means. That we should surround things we believe to be holy and precious in their own right with gold is not an attempt to improve the holy things, but an attempt to do justice to their worth; that we should accompany prayers with incense is not an attempt to display the magic of incense, but an attempt to give an aromatic and visible expression to the magic of prayer.

And when you learn the liturgical language of gestures, colors, vessels, seasons, and substances that the Catholic Church employs -- varying in style and even in specifics from parish to parish and from rite to rite, which is good, because the human imagination is varied -- you will find that most of it is pretty intuitive. Moderns are not altogether unfamiliar with ritual, as that pants are men's clothing and skirt's are women's, for no obvious reason and with a great many exceptions (kilts and, uh, more pants come to mind). But modern ritual tends to be quite arbitrary. An apron of fig leaves, a pair of bell-bottoms, or a cunning arrangement of cardboard tubing will all equally serve to hide one's nakedness, but if you pick the wrong one for the culture you're in, you will be laughed at or even taken for a crazy person. There is no reason for this except convention. By contrast, anyone can see how a golden chalice, lifted in a sudden silence amid chanted music and glinting through a veil of sweet-smelling smoke, states the mingled clarity and enigma of divine things more clearly than eloquence could do. No one, I believe, can truthfully claim to understand the enigma of pants.

C. S. Lewis, with his customary intelligence, expresses much of the problem of ritual's uneasy place in the modern Christian mind in passing in his introduction to Milton's Paradise Lost, which was of a deliberately solemn and ceremonial cast:
[T]he very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of 'solemnity.' To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when everyone puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea ... that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connection with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade ... all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.*
A common objection to ritual practices is that, in repeating set forms instead of coming up with things spontaneously, we lose the liveliness and sincerity of worship, and come to substitute the ritual representation of devotion for devotion itself. There is no doubt that people do that. But may I ask the people who raise this objection to try an experiment? The next five times or so that you are listening to the spontaneous prayers of which you're so fond, count the number of phrases that are repeated from one prayer to the next, from one believer to the next, and so forth. If your experience is anything like mine, you will find that these spontaneous prayers are anything but -- that stock phrases are quite as much a part of extempore prayer as of set liturgies. The difference is that liturgies are beautiful and spontaneous prayers are, as a rule, not.

Besides, I think this objection rests on a fundamental misunderstanding. Consult experience. If we think something is important, aren't we apt to get ready for it, to rehearse it, even? Weddings, for example, are not celebrated planlessly on the grounds that it is somehow dull and insincere to have a wedding in which everyone knows what is going to happen next; in fact, people rather prefer to know what will happen next. Even proposals are rarely altogether spontaneous, and those that are aren't necessarily any the better for it.

It's true that every Catholic ritual is, symbolically, something universal and eternal, suited for many situations throughout life, not just something to do in ritual form and then ignore in everyday things. That, to be sure, is hypocrisy. But one of the functions of ritual -- in addition to bringing together our intellectual grasp of truth with our imaginative and emotional responses to truth -- is to give us a place to rehearse the things we need to do in the rest of life. We kneel and beat the breast literally in the penitential rite, in order that we may accustom ourselves to repentance; we bow at the name of Jesus, in order that we may acquire the habit of honoring the person of Jesus. To abstain from ritual on the grounds that it can be substituted for the real thing is like refusing to study for fear that you will stay up too late and sleep through the test: that is, the thing does happen, but to find fault with the studying won't actually help.**

Even if you're up so late it starts to look like this.

A very ancient ritual, of course, is the practice of Lent. For forty days leading up to Easter (Sundays excepted, so that actually it comes to forty-six consecutive days in the West), a deeper devotion to prayer, giving to the poor, and fasting are traditional. It's also become customary to adopt some particular discipline, usually giving something up that you like, though this isn't strictly necessary. If you haven't done anything to mark this Lent, I'd encourage you to start -- you've got more than three weeks to get the benefits out of it. If you've dropped off on what you were doing, I'd encourage you to pick it up again. And if you still think all this sounds like hokum, well, explain pants and maybe I'll listen.

*A Preface to 'Paradise Lost,' p. 17; the Latin words hoc age mean literally "this do," or "behave in this fashion."

**This seems to me to have something in common with the scholarly deduction from the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a second century Father, that, since he speaks with such emphasis about the importance of obeying the bishop, the institution of the monarchical episcopate was probably a new thing in the Church -- because everyone knows that if you speak about something, it is probably because it does not yet exist.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Housekeeping and Prayer Requests

Hey, readers. This isn't a post exactly, but I wanted to give you all some updates.

First, I don't think I'll be posting a lot during Lent. I'm not going on hiatus precisely -- in fact, I'm planning a new series -- but I have a lot of other irons in the fire, particularly a story I'm working on that is approaching completion, and it's been correspondingly difficult to keep up with my prior output.

Second, I've made a few changes in the sidebar to your right. (Well, and my right.) I've added the weekly Collects of the Anglican Use Catholic missal, because they're quite beautiful prayers and I like them, and often exhibit the mysteries of the faith with a poetic clarity. I've also changed the link lineup a little bit, mostly based on what I find myself actively following (sorry if I'm not reading your stuff!). Disappointingly, I had added The Dish only a few days before Andrew Sullivan announced his retirement; I'll miss his inimitable even-handedness and conviction a great deal.

Third, speaking of prayer, if you all wouldn't mind praying for me and my loved ones. I personally have been having rather a hard time of late, spiritually; my prayer life is lackluster (I really need to go on a retreat), I'm finding it a real chore to keep up with my sacramental obligations, and I'm feeling out of sorts with God in general. A lot of this is because of, well, pretty much what you'd think it would be because of, but there are other factors too. In any case, I'd welcome your prayers for that. Additionally, my sister recently had follow-up treatment for thyroid cancer (she had to have her thyroid removed about two years ago), and is doing fine, but prayers never hurt; and some close friends of mine who recently had a baby -- man, so many friends with babies -- have been having a rough time financially, and, while there's never a good time for that exactly, "recently after having a baby" is a special bonus bad time. Lastly, there are some catechumens at my parish planning to enter the Church at Easter -- at least four, I think -- and prayers for their spiritual well-being are of course welcome. (We have the privilege of housing a very small first-class relic of Saint Edward the Confessor at my parish, so, if you appeal to the saints, he's a good one to go to.)

Fourth, my good friend Ben Y. Faroe has released his first book! It is titled The Stone and the Song: A Fairy Tale, and is available here on Amazon. Mr. Faroe is one of my favorite writers -- he and I met through a group we both participate in, and I've had the pleasure of listening to a magnificently imaginative, hilarious, and at times deeply poignant novel he is working on, whose publication I anticipate with immense excitement.

Lastly, I don't say this much, but thank you all for reading, commenting, e-mailing, retweeting, sponsoring, and praying for me. I'm grateful for the feedback I get -- it's very rewarding to know that I make something that's meaningful and helpful to people.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Pope Francis the Clear

Tomorrow being the Feast of the Chair of Peter, I wanted to do a piece on the papacy, as I have before. This is the patronal feast of the Ordinariate to which I belong, and a very ancient festival in the Church's calendar.* It's also rather special to me personally. It was precisely Catholicism, rather than Orthodoxy, to which I converted, and one of my chief reasons was being persuaded that the Catholic doctrine of St. Peter's office and successors was the correct one.

The Chair of Saint Peter, Bernini, 1647-1653, in the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome.

I have, too, long been particularly fond of St. Peter the man. His combination of humility, profound holiness, zeal, and incredible bumbling is both endearing and reassuring; and I feel that Christ's choice of him to lead the Church after His departure -- over the mystical John, the brilliant Paul, or even (significant omission) His sinless Mother -- is emblematic of His whole recklessly adoring attitude towards humanity.

But I was talking about the papacy, and at present, that means Pope Francis. Since his accession two years ago, and especially during the session of the Synod on the Family late last year, many traditional Catholics have expressed discomfort with and even disapproval of His Holiness. Few (few at any rate that I've encountered) have charged with him heresy; many have charged him with carelessness, stupidity, and oversimplification. The sentiment of these remarks seems to be that, in phrasing things as simply and indulgently as he does, he is giving a false impression of Catholic Christianity to the world at large, and even making people feel that they can behave however they please and God will still love them.

The horror.

Well, I'll admit that, while my reverence for the Petrine Throne is unabated, Pope Francis is not my sort of man the way Pope Benedict was my sort of man. And yes, there are times when I miss Pope Benedict: though he was the victim of appalling slanders in the media, and was already a weary and self-effacing man at his own accession, he was an exact and wise theologian, and possessed of a spirit of immense charity and grace that shines brilliantly forth in his sermons and books. I've been rereading his Introduction to Christianity of late, in which he gives a more illuminating treatment of the Trinity than I've read anywhere else, and was particularly struck by this passage:
In the six principles [he has just explained] we have identified the elementary particles, so to speak, of Christianity, but must there not exist behind these one single, simple center? Such a center does exist, and I think we can say, after all that we have said and without any danger of using a mere sentimental phrase, that the six principles finally coalesce into the one principle of love. Let us be blunt, even at the risk of being misunderstood: the true Christian is not the denominational party member but he who through being a Christian has become truly human; not he who slavishly observes a system of norms, thinking as he does so only of himself, but he who has become freed to simple human goodness.**
Let us be blunt, even at the risk of being misunderstood. I have a shrewd suspicion that it is this principle voiced by Pope Benedict that is the real animating force of the pastoral style that has characterized Pope Francis, and that has so upset many traditional Catholics. For he has shown no special regard for the shibboleths that mark out self-professed paragons of orthodoxy in the American Church, and has freely asserted things that sound like concessions to to the secular left, until suddenly one remembers that he is restating the long-standing teaching of the Church, which diverges from the concerns of Caesar (liberal or conservative) in several important respects.

A lot of Catholics have complained of Pope Francis that he is careless in his way of expressing things and doesn't take proper account of the media's distortions -- that, if he would only be more theologically exact in speaking to journalists and so forth, these misunderstandings of Catholic doctrine by the public wouldn't arise. You'll notice how well that worked out for Bl. Paul VI and St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For that matter, truly, has there ever been an age in which people in general, even practicing Catholics, didn't misconstrue the Church's teaching? Mediaeval peasants, the children of the "ages of faith," sometimes sacrilegiously abstracted the Host and used it to make a poultice to apply to the wounds of their livestock; King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled in favor of Rome at the Synod of Whitby out of fear that St. Peter would use the keys to literally lock him out of heaven (or so it's been said); the famous Clovis, while being instructed for Baptism, on hearing of the arrest and torment of Christ, burst out angrily, "Oh, if I had been there with my Franks!" Doctrinal misunderstandings aren't a question of one Pope versus another, and they will never go away: it's human nature. Put not thy trust in principles, nor in any brainchild of man.

Besides that, we are maybe apt to forget in this country that we aren't a large or necessarily a very important segment of the Catholic Church. Taken together with Canada, we're only a little over 15% of the Church's worldwide membership, while Latin America, from which His Holiness hails, provides a solid third of our numbers. If he does not cater specially to our socio-religious concerns, I think that's to be expected.

Pictured: not the capital of Christendom.

Turning back to the matter of the media, Pope Francis has certainly made an impression on them. He's a winsome man, and has been a correspondingly popular pontiff -- the admiration he has commanded from those outside the Catholic Church has been much remarked upon, and even his solidly Catholic stances on questions like abortion and gay marriage have been absolved and indulged by the populace; after all, one must not be unjust, bigoted, or even like this Pharisee.

I confess, I wonder a little whether this popularity hasn't been a spur of some of the dissatisfaction with Pope Francis among conservative Catholics. There's a faint suggestion of the elder brother in it. They have been faithful, they have been creedally exact, they have tithed and fasted and said the Rosary and written their blogs defending Benedict and Burke, and no one has cared. But now here comes this Argentine prelate, his head probably filled with Marxist ideas and talking about nothing but love, even for atheists and homosexuals and adulterers, and people cheer and celebrate and praise him to the skies. It's enough to make somebody jealous.

I don't want to be harsh or unfair. A few close friends of mine have been perturbed by this or that remark or decision made by Pope Francis, and I certainly don't propose to read hearts. But I don't think it either unfair or harsh to plead for people to examine their consciences, and ask themselves whether it is really they who know how best to shepherd the Church. Admittedly Popes make many mistakes; but if dear Peter, the impetuous, shuffling, apostate saint, was unable to ruin the Church, I do not think that anybody can. It may be worthwhile to trust that Jesus will guide (and, if necessary, contain) His Vicar.

And the truth is, I think, Pope Francis' methods are not only licit, but downright cunning. Remember, the reason doctrine is important is that it expresses Divine truth; it is communication of that truth that matters. If you deliver a theologically correct message that nobody understands or takes to heart, you might as well have stood up there farting loudly for ten minutes for all the good it's going to do (though at least people would get a laugh out of that). Pope Francis has chosen, it seems, to focus on getting the point across over being, I'll be blunt, pedantic. And love is the point: God is love. Truth itself is of no value apart from Him -- Christ is the Truth, but Christ does only the will of the Father. Let us be blunt, even at the risk of being misunderstood. Which, let us not forget, He often was. 

Complete with ensuing hijinks.

That's the New Evangelization: taking the same substance that Christianity has always consisted in, and making it comprehensible to a people who are mentally quite different from the ones who formulated the theology; people to whom key terms like necessary and disordered and perfect mean something entirely unlike what they mean to a trained theologian.

And in communicating the core reality that those words were originally chosen to designate, yes, some of the details are going to get lost. But, as I said above, the details have been lost in any case, and that isn't actually a cause for great alarm -- not because the details don't matter (they do), but because He for whose sake they matter has them in hand, and what Pope Francis is trying to do is put them in in touch with Him. If he succeeds, the details will come. If he doesn't, having the details right won't matter.

Lastly, I would beg my Catholic brethren who so openly criticize His Holiness to take thought for the scandal they may be giving. I don't mean only the intrinsic scandal of open insolence toward the appointed ministers of the gospel, though that is worth taking into account. I made a flippant reference to people praising themselves for not being like Pharisees above, but of course, people do really do that. Suppose they learn by your example to associate contempt for the Pope with devout Catholicism. Will that prompt them to become Catholics who despise the Vicar of Christ, or is it likelier that they will remain mere fans of Pope Francis who won't seriously consider becoming Catholics? And really, when you come to think of how few of his critics have held the office of the papacy themselves, well gosh, it begins to look like talking authoritatively about something one may not understand as well as one thinks.

*One of two ancient celebrations of the Petrine Throne, in fact -- the other was suppressed in 1960 by Pope St. John XXIII. The two celebrations commemorated St. Peter's episcopacy at Antioch, after his departure from Jerusalem but before his arrival in Rome, and his rule of the church at Rome itself (which ended in his martyrdom, reputedly on the same day as St. Paul, in 64, the tenth year of the reign of Nero). St. John XXIII suppressed several feast days that were in substance duplicates, and, interestingly, the commemoration he chose to suppress was that of St. Peter's Roman throne; February 22nd was traditionally observed in honor of his rule at Antioch. It now commemorates the mystery of the Vicariate of Christ as a whole.

**Pope Benedict XVI (written as Joseph Ratzinger, before his elevation to the Cardinalate), Introduction to Christianity, p. 270.