Truth and Mercy: The Church of Good Pope Francis

There I was, sitting with the dog outside Denver’s renovated Union Station in what we call LoDo (lower downtown). It was about 5 on a typical summer Friday evening. Folks passing bye, some strolling, others in a rush. Families and friends heading up the block for the Rockies game (yes, just next door). Some oldsters like myself, strolling or sitting. Many youngsters: some leaving work; couples starting the night; singles beginning the evening dance – groups of guys, gaggles of gals dressed to kill, mixed groups laughing with anticipation. Occasionally some costumed leftovers from the Comecon convention earlier that week passed by, as also others in new culture tats  and leather and metal, silver studs and shocking hair.  And yes, there were today’s omnipresent security folks; this time two cops on bikes stopping to chat with a family about the Rockies caught my applause.

And always there are particular individuals I end up chating with, that evening an old man and a young woman at separate stands selling ball-game treats. He’s been there for years – a very heavy, wheelchaired whitehaired African-American guy called “Bear.” He always has treats for the dog and his stand is the happiest place on the walkway! Up the block, she was reading a physics textbook at her stand. I was curious and asked. She’s getting ready to start a program at UC Denver which prepares people to become austronauts or to work in Denver’s large aero-space industry. And yes, she too was African American, though quite petite.

There were folks radiating sexual or romantic energy.  And others radiating muscled anger. Some were rushed; others just beginning to relax. Headed home or to one of Lo Do’s night venues.

It struck me as a somewhat typical melange of contemporary diversity. Yes there would have been more minorities in other neighborhoods and cities, but African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, along with Muslims of various nationalities, were well represented in the predominantly white parade.

Which reminds me now of an evening dog-walk last Fall when a guy got out of his cab, spread a rug in the direction of Mecca, and quietly began his prayers. And this turns thought not just to racial and ethnic diversity, but to the beliefs and practices, the ethics and inclinations in this melange of contemporary Americans.

For a while I played my “Trump game” – trying to figure out, just by appearances, who might have voted for our misfit president.

Then (such is the strangeness of my Catholic sensibility) I thought about Denver’s former Archbishop Charles Chaput – now happily transferred to Philadelphia. He more than once has called for a leaner, more orthodox Church of “true Catholics” rather than the present church which includes so many he once dismissed as “protestants who happen to go to communion.” He has of late also joined with others raising doubts about the supposed novelties and deviations of Francis’ papacy.  Yet Francis recently has, at least in effect, returned the favor by passing over Charles in the latest appointment of Catholic Cardinals for the US (something traditionally awarded to Philidalphia),  He gave the red hat instead to Joe Tobin in (of all places) Newark, a man closer in vision and sensibility to Francis than to Charles or to New York City’s cardinal, Timothy Dolan.

I’m far from alone in making this contrast between “the church of Francis” and “the church of Charles.” Yet we all need to be careful with contrasts lest they get reduced to simplistic polarizations, to good guys and bad guys thinking. Indeed, important and complicated differences are involved in the contrast between these two ways of understanding Roman Catholicism.

Concern for truth and orthodoxy, for staying the course, along with calls for resistance to the world’s pervasive and simplistic relativism, are these days very important, necessary, and wise. Even our appropriately secular and skeptical media are making similar calls in response to bashing from the twitterer-in-chief and his cronies — continual accusations about false news, continual lying and the deliberate spread of “alternative facts,” all contributing to an environment where truth is dismissed, propaganda expected, and only power important. Indeed, serious Catholic thinkers (Alasdair MacIntyre comes to mind) have of long been calling for monastic retreat from the barbarism of contemporary society.

Yet such a “Benedict option,” as it’s recently been called (and as I’m suggesting is a central aspect of “Charles’ church”), however understandable and perhaps necessary for some times and places, is at best a partial solution to the challenge of our times, and at worst a betrayal of the Gospel. For it can too easily become a form of idolatry whereby the Church replaces its Lord and effectively limits His command to bring the good news to all nations and peoples.

An expansive understanding of that evangelical imperative has, since the first, been the hallmark of “the church of Francis,” indeed a hallmark of the church envisioned by Vatican Council II. Francis would undoubtedly reject my notion of “his” church, but he has clearly embraced the Council’s expansive mission to embrace the “Joys and Hopes” of contemporary humanity.  Indeed, his first major writing on “The Joy of the Gospel” elaborates beautifully what he has elsewhere said again and again about the need to go into the streets to witness to God’s mercy, to both serve and learn from the folks. It’s worth a careful reading, even regular re-reading.

And that, of course, brings me back to the streets of LoDo.

My guess is that a significant number of the folks that night had voted for Trump.  And that the vast majority would not qualify for “Charles’ church.” Nor would most want in. Certainly not the faithful Muslims and Jews and non-Catholic Christians among them. Nor the still-growing number of ex-Catholics (though some have also “returned home”).  I’m guessing that most of the GLBT folks in that crowd would also not want in, nor – far more significantly – would many of the young folks out for an evening of drink and song, romance and perhaps sex.

Yet many such folks might, at least in my musing, be interested in Francis, perhaps even in his church. He’s gotten much good press.  And he is clearly very interested in them. In the poorer folks in that crowd (fewer that evening than earlier in the day), and in the many families (whatever their faith), and perhaps especially in the young folk. He knows that many of them wouldn’t share Catholic truth about sexual ethics and simplicity of life, or even about the goodness of God’s world and the omnipresence of Mercy. More often (again, in my experience) they’re impressed by the dangers and evils of this world – by pervasive infidelities of all sorts, by too many crooks running too many things, by so many forms of predatory violence, and by the general unreliability of most proclaimed truths.

Yet Francis has challenged the Church to be truly catholic and universal – NOT to retreat into enclaves of so-called goodness, but to mix with the many who don’t necessarily share our sense of goodness, who may well suspect and at times fear and even hate us. He’s called us to “evangelize” (a good word even if we have warranted misgivings about it): to live and share the joy of the Gospel’s central truth about the Great Mercy and to give expression to that joy by many forms of welcome, compassion, real dialogue and friendship, or at least just by plain old respect.

I very much enjoyed the vitality and general friendliness of that Friday night, even as I was touched by tension and anxiety emanating from some and by tough anger emanating from others. I felt at home there partly because I now live now right next door. But mostly because I have thankfully long been loosed from the fearful confines of “Charles’ church,” however important it remains. I say “thankfully” since that loosening still feels like having demons cast out, even if it also at times still feels like having left home. I have long hungered for Francis’ less angry and less fearful church. Yes, he lives the traditional truths of Catholicism, but understands them as grounded and guided by the fundamental Truth of God’s goodness and mercy.  He’s not (as I’ve written previously) changing Catholic truth, but re-visioning it within a new, more expansive and evangelical paradigm.

So, yes, Archbishop Charles notwithstanding, I do think all those folks (myself hopefully included) are part of the “body of Christ.” The Roman Catholic Church and Tradition are (or should be) a sign, an example, a living embodiment of Christ’s presence (in grace, inspiration, hope, suffering) for this world which God so loves. And yes, the Christian Church more broadly is crucial for our discernment of and partaking in that love, even as the bustling energies of that LoDo crowd also embody, each in its way, that love.

But if the world often loses its way, so does the Church. Roman Catholicism is clearly sailing on troubled waters. Charles and his comrads honestly believe, as partakers of the very long and deeply conservative dimension of Catholicism, that these are times when the Church must hunker down and resist the world’s many evils in order to be able, “from under the rubble” (as Solzhenitzyn wrote), to bear witness to the Light. I agree and disagree, but basically find more of that Light with Francis and his new crowd. Yet I’m also aware of the great historic irony that an earlier moment of withdrawing from the world into monastic enclaves – during what some historians still call “the dark ages” – initiated the expansive evangelical flowering which converted our barbarian ancestors and came to fruition in European Christendom.

The Church needs both these “churches” (and others). Each by concerned criticism might help the other to be loosed from its demons and idols. More significantly, together (and in tension) they might serve those many in this not-so-brave-new-world who still have time for Friday fun even if their Sunday is taken up with supplies and  lawns and laundry.

One thought on “Truth and Mercy: The Church of Good Pope Francis

  1. Thanks, John, for your perceptions of “the body of Christ” in the street among the diversity of people passing by! Natalie

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