Early in the pontificate of Pope Francis I was, generally speaking, what could be called a “Francis skeptic.” To be honest I didn’t pay that much attention to him at first. As the father of three little kids, I primarily focused on survival in those days. I wasn’t even aware of the dubia or the original Viganò bombshell but, being a conservative in a conservative family, I had absorbed the idea that at the bare minimum his style was suspect. I have to admit, I was late to the game. When I finally got around to looking at the websites and material that family and others recommended to me, I was shocked. The sheer lack of charity and bombastic insults being leveled at the Holy Father was unbelievable. I began to read Pope Francis’ writings and found the opposite: warmth, joy, peace, and an overwhelming love of Jesus. I still didn’t agree with every word he said, but—if one reads his words in context and in their entirety—his deep love for Jesus was undeniable. I could understand having a disagreement with the Pope, but the lack of charity towards him was a clear sign that this was not the work of the Spirit.
It is this lack of charity, which is so ubiquitous, that has perplexed me for quite some time. What is its root? How has it taken hold in so many people, many of whom I know are good and holy people? I think the answer—or at least part of it—can be found in the true meaning of charity as it is lived and in its relationship with the other two theological virtues, faith and hope.
Let us look at what the Church teaches us about faith. First of all, the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines faith as obedience: “to obey in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself,” and describes Abraham as a model and the Virgin Mary as “its most perfect embodiment” (CCC 144) and “the purest realization of faith” (CCC 149), who never wavered in her faith, even when she did not fully understand.
The Catechism also teaches that faith is first prompted by “interior helps of the Holy Spirit” but then requires “the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals” (CCC 153-154). It cautions us that “What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe because of the authority of God himself who reveals them.” Thankfully we are provided with “motives of credibility” that make this submission easier, but it is this submission that is faith itself (CCC 156).
Springing from this submission we get to the theological virtue of hope. The Catechism defines hope as: “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1817). Once we place our faith in the reality of Christ, we can then hope in that which he promises. True hope produces in us humility and piety as we reorient our lives to the reality of God’s greatness in relation to our smallness. The Catechism points to another product in a Christian as well: “Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity” (CCC 1818).
Finally, we come to charity. Paragraph 1822 of the Catechism defines charity as, “The theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” The following paragraph says “by loving one another, the disciples imitate the love of Jesus which they themselves receive.” This definition shows us that the foundation of charity is faith in the reality of God’s love for us. This reality, that God the Father loves us beyond measure gives us an unshakable hope, which allows us to radiate this love to others.
The Catechism describes this reality beautifully as: “The practice of the moral life animated by charity gives to the Christian the spiritual freedom of the children of God. He no longer stands before God as a slave, in servile fear, or as a mercenary looking for wages, but as a son responding to the love of him who first loved us” (CCC 1828).
How might this picture of the theological virtues be related to the loss of charity among so many people, seemingly overnight? I believe the key is found in one of Pope Francis’s foundational principles: “realities are greater than ideas.” Our faith is based upon the reality of God’s love for us, which is demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We also find it in the many real and concrete promises he made to us about how he would safeguard his Church. In the realm of ideas, there are many beautiful and important descriptions and explanations about this reality that help us to better understand it, but these ideas are always secondary to the reality of the Gospel. We are not a people of a philosophy, but a people of a reality. We find this profoundly in the outward, physical signs of our sacraments. This is also reflected in the great importance we place on relics, good works, and other tangible and physical signs of God’s love in our physical world.
The division found today in the Church and the malice towards the pope are caused, in large part, by people placing their faith in their ideas more than in realities. We might expect this, of course, in the secular world where—lacking the faith in the love of God—people put their faith in ideologies, political parties, and other worldly things. People often refuse to see the reality of the truths that they might find if they were open to listening to both sides of a discussion. Instead, many people choose to celebrate their own narrow-mindedness. Rather than being open to other perspectives in search for the truth, many will obstinately place their hope in the success of a political party or the proliferation of an ideology, and will only give charity to those who are in agreement. Anyone who disagrees is seen as an obstacle. At the extreme end of this phenomenon, people will begin to create alternate realities to safeguard their ideas. This is what causes the proliferation of conspiracy theories.
Regretfully, we see this in the Church as well. Many Catholics have placed their faith (and subsequently, their hope) in their own ideas about doctrine or in their own interpretations of the Gospel. Quite often, these are conflated with secular ideologies or political platforms. Rather than placing their hope and faith in the reality of the Gospel and Christ’s guarantee that he will protect the Church, many Catholics treat the faith in the same way as the secular world: forming divisions and only showing charity to those in their camp. When someone challenges their narrow understanding and tries to broaden their rigid worldview, they see it as a direct challenge to their faith, since their faith is built only on the sand of their own ideas and conclusions.
When our faith is built upon the solid rock of the Love of Christ and his promises to us there is never a reason for fear and no reason to lack charity. In fact, when the reality of God’s love is the foundation of our faith, we will want to love as he loves, which means even loving our enemies. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
When I began to recognize that this is the fundamental reason why there is so much division in the Church and so much malice towards the Holy Father, empathy for those in this situation began to well up in me. I have sorrow and love for them, not contempt, and this helps give me certainty that I was on the right track. May we all pray for the unity of the Church. We can only make this a reality by taking Christ at his word and trusting, with faith, hope, and charity, in the Holy Spirit who guides the Church.
Adam Stengel started out studying to be a medical doctor, then moved to Honduras to start a family and pursue a love for missionary work. He now lives in rural Arkansas with his wife and three children and is employed as a custom cabinet maker in a family owned shop.