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Action & Overreaction: Figuring Out Francis

St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Seldom confirm, never deny, always distinguish.” The last point — to always distinguish — looks to be a front-burner imperative for Pope Francis in the foreseeable future. He and his spokesmen will need to do much distinguishing, and not just for the sake of Church outsiders. Tradition-minded Catholics may well find themselves needing explanations for his surprising — sometimes controversial — decisions, more than was required of his immediate predecessors. Francis has impressed upon the world that he is true to the Gospel and is immediately beginning the huge task of Vatican reform. Will traditionalist and conservative Catholics be satisfied with most of his decisions, delivered as they are in his rather basic, stripped-down fashion? Perhaps, but only after the decisions are amply explained to them.

In last month’s New Oxford Note “Will the Real Pope Francis Please Stand Up?” we drew attention to the way journalists have glossed over Francis’s first moves, tending to portray him as a Pope who supports their own personal political prejudices. We expect that the pundits will sooner or later wake up to the fact that Pope Francis is Catholic after all, and that his reign will of course feature organic extensions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s essential teachings. Now, it behooves faithful Catholics to continue to bear in mind that we mustn’t overreact when our reigning Pontiff says and does things that at first strike us as somehow off-base. Unfortunately, just a few weeks into Francis’s papacy, criticism from “the right” had already reached a pitch high enough to attract the attention of secular news agencies.

The Pope’s decision to wash the feet of two women on Holy Thursday produced a storm of negative opinions about Francis’s liturgical leanings. An Associated Press report (Mar. 30) featured Fr. Christian Bouchacourt, head of the breakaway Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) in South America, criticizing the fruits of former Cardinal Ber­goglio’s labors in his old archdiocese. Bouchacourt describes “the ‘dilapidated’ state of the clergy in Buenos Aires and the ‘disaster’ of its seminary” as proof of the new Pope’s eccentricities. As for liturgical standards, “With him, we risk to see once again the Masses of Paul VI’s pontificate, a far cry from Benedict XVI’s efforts to restore to their honor the worthy liturgical ceremonies,” Bouchacourt says. The SSPX claims to have five hundred priests and a million adherents around the world, and while their views can be excessively rigid, some are not without merit and aren’t easily dismissed.

Bishop Bernard Fellay, longtime head of the SSPX, also lost no time in remarking on the Pope’s overall evangelistic style. Reuters reports (Apr. 19) that, in a letter to supporters, Fellay “asked whether the new pontiff’s focus on serving people could be only ‘man-centered philanthropy’ rather than true religious leadership.” Fellay urged Francis “not to allow souls to perish because they no longer learn sound doctrine.” The Church will always aid the poor, the bishop said, “but if it becomes merely man-centered philanthropy, then the Church is no longer carrying out its mission.”

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