Francis has been pope for more than eight years now and has settled into that rhythm in a papacy whereby you know more or less what he is going to say before he says it. His favorite themes are the ones he has always stressed: outreach to the marginalized, mercy and inclusion, dialogue and synodality, and so on. His dislikes are also obvious: legalism and rigidity, clericalism and careerism, pomp and circumstance, etc.
Yet Francis still manages to strike those chords in different ways, so that they resonate long after they are spoken. Part of that is because, well, he is the pope, so anything he says is notable. I remember once when I went to interview Mother Teresa and she tried to put me off: “I always say the same things, why do you want to talk to me?” Well, you’re Mother Teresa, I wanted to say. She reluctantly agreed to an interview and as she spoke the power of her words hit me not only because she was a “living saint” (an amusing contradiction) but because what she said was so counter to the prevailing discourse.
So it is with Pope Francis, only what he says so often runs contrary not just to the ways of the secular world but to the self-righteous mindset of much of the Catholic Church.
That was especially evident in the pope’s Angelus address on the last Sunday in August. The noontime event is often a perfunctory appearance, giving pilgrims and tourists far below in the piazza a chance to say they “saw” the pope, and for the rest of us to see what kind of shape the pope is in. The pontiff will usually have a pleasant spiritual reflection, then recite the prayer, and then add a few comments on the events of recent days. Those comments are what will often generate a news brief for the wires.
But on Aug. 29 it was Francis’ mini-homily on the Gospel reading of the day that was especially notable. The passage was from the Gospel of Mark when some of the scribes and Pharisees again try to trap Jesus and his followers because they don’t follow the tradition of washing their hands carefully before eating. Frankly, I’m with the Pharisees on this one. Also, Francis needs to be much more attentive to using the Pharisees as a foil for his blasts against hypocrisy. When Christians hear criticisms of “the Pharisees” as religious legalists they too often equate them to “the Jews”—and not to themselves.
Yet the practice of self-accusation was what Francis wanted to preach about and, Pharisee-bashing aside, he did so in such a way that made me realize yet again how facile and faithless— and obviously ineffective—is what passes for much of Catholic apologetics today.
Francis began by stressing the importance of genuine faith over “outward formalities,” true religion rather than “a religiosity of appearances.” That’s an unsurprising commonplace.
But then he pivoted to the heart of his message, which bears quoting:
“How often we blame others, society, the world, for everything that happens to us! It is always the fault of ‘others’: it is the fault of people, of those who govern, of misfortune, and so on. It seems that problems always come from the outside. And we spend time assigning blame; but spending time blaming others is wasting time. We become angry, bitter and keep God away from our heart…One cannot be truly religious in complaining: complaining poisons, it leads you to anger, to resentment and to sadness, that of the heart, which closes the door to God.”
This is childish behavior, the pope said, and he became animated and extemporaneous as he noted that the early monastics knew that the “path of holiness” began by blaming yourself.
That practice of self-accusation has been the paradigm shift of the Francis papacy: that the church must reform before it can pretend to preach to the world with any authority. That was also a motif of Paul VI’s 1975 exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, which is understandably a favorite reference for Francis. Yet the past half century has seen church culture move in the other direction, toward an “evangelization by apologetics” that relies on cultivating a sense of grievance and fomenting culture wars. The key to this approach is to find an outside force to demonize, be it secularism or liberalism or, God forbid, “Critical Race Theory.”
The point is to have an enemy, a straw man works just fine. Anything to avoid condemning ourselves. Today’s self-styled apologists fancy themselves Paul at the Areopagus preaching to pagan Athenians. In reality our problem is the one Kierkegaard identified, that of “becoming a Christian in Christendom.” Instead, we have evangelization by detraction not attraction, a constant argument with others that reduces faith to a pseudo-intellectual exercise. It is about rallying the base rather than finding converts.
But that base continues to shrink, and at the end of the day, that is because the Church itself is often what drives people away from religion. Little wonder we don’t want to look in the mirror. As Francis said in his Angelus remarks, “If we look inside, we will find almost all that we despise outside.”
David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.