Realities are greater than ideas.

Pope Francis keeps saying these words, and I think his understanding of this is something that sets him apart from his immediate predecessors. Don’t get me wrong—I love Popes Benedict and St. John Paul II. I think they were brilliant and holy men to whom I (and the Church) owe a great deal.

But I also believe that what Francis is teaching us really is a concrete shift from what many Catholics of my generation were taught, especially those of us who grew up in the culture of conservative Catholicism in North America. It is also markedly different from the approach to the faith that is typically presented by well-known Catholic media apostolates such as EWTN and Catholic Answers. His approach also implicitly repudiates that of many high-profile priests and bishops who were long held up by this culture as champions of orthodoxy and heroes of the faith. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Francis’s message has been met with such great resistance from within the Church. Yet making this shift is absolutely vital and necessary for the Catholic faith to have any hope of evangelizing (or even being relevant) in the wider world in the future. This is why his papacy is so necessary right now in this messy world where we live.

The McCarrick Report, which likely wouldn’t have been commissioned—and almost certainly would never have been made public—by his predecessors, paints the image of an institutional Church’s hierarchy (including two popes) who too often placed an idealized vision of Catholicism over the reality of the abuse committed by leaders in the Church. In many cases, it is quite clear that leaders in the hierarchy chose to lie in order to protect the public image of an idealized Church while at the same time knowing that the Church was rife with scandal, corruption, and abuse.

I am willing to accept at face value the explanation that John Paul II fell prey to the lies of predators like Theodore McCarrick and Marcel Maciel. I can believe that he thought, in his heart, that they were innocent. Certainly, he would never have condoned their abuse. Indeed, the report shows that when McCarrick was being considered for as the archbishop of Washington, three New Jersey bishops who had knowledge of his history wrote letters to the papal nuncio vouching for McCarrick’s character. In this instance, John Paul sadly placed his trust in clerics over the cries of the people of God.

For John Paul, it seems the idea of leaders like Maciel and McCarrick and Cardinal Bernard Law—all of whom championed orthodoxy, brought in vocations to the priesthood, and raised lots of money—was greater than the reality of the dark secrets they harbored and the innocent lives they ruined. John Paul wouldn’t have had to look very hard to uncover the diabolical truth about any of these men. But he didn’t. He trusted them because of their statuses and the images they projected. In other words, he fell prey to clericalism.

Francis himself isn’t immune from this clericalism. He trusted McCarrick at first (to what extent is unclear). He certainly trusted whoever advised him about Bishop Barros in Chile. It’s quite likely in some of these cases that his trust was in no small part because he also trusted the judgment of his predecessors about these men. Remember, he was not the one responsible for giving an episcopal career to either of them. Even still, questions remain unanswered about his apparent support of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, an Argentine prelate who quietly returned to work for the Vatican Bank earlier this year after being suspended over allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior with seminarians. Similarly, Francis appointed the late Cardinal Godfried Danneels to the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family despite having been caught on tape telling a clerical abuse victim to keep quiet. (And for the record, I think the faithful have a right to hear the reasoning behind these decisions.)

Still, I think—well, I pray—his experience with the abuse scandal in Chile was a turning point for Pope Francis. It seems he has begun to realize that any trust that is rooted in clericalism is a foolish trust. This isn’t a lesson that comes easily to people who have spent years benefitting from a system that takes clericalism for granted. Thank God for the courage of survivors like Juan Carlos Cruz who didn’t stop when the Church tried to silence them. Today, convincing the hierarchy to learn hard truths often takes determination and occasionally an assist from the mainstream media.

After Chile, Francis seems to have realized that it was necessary to change his approach—and to reconsider where to place his trust. But an important thing to understand is that this is part of Francis’s makeup. Where his predecessors often approached problems by drawing straight lines based on strict adherence to objective moral principles (absolutely no access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried; no civil unions that in any way accommodate same-sex couples, ever), he will look into the messy realities of everyday life to see what opportunities are still possible. As he wrote in his apology for his errors in Chile, “Now more than ever we cannot fall back into the temptation of verbiage or dwell in ‘generalities.'” In other words, in the face of serious crises and deep wounds, conversion—our own, our neighbors’, the world’s—is never achieved with platitudes or the restatement of general principles, but with concrete and tangible decisions and actions that respond to each unique challenge before us.

Francis is trying to teach us that when we respond to serious problems in the real world, we must be honest about our expectations, limitations, impressions, biases, projections, and ideals. Ideas are very often rooted in a vision of perfection that is completely unrealistic or unattainable. When our worldview is primarily shaped by ideas that are completely detached from reality, we can easily become ideologues and fundamentalists. It is vital that we learn to “recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” (Amoris Laetitia 303). An authentic Christian life rooted in reality begins with embracing the Gospel and then going forth into the world and applying it according to the circumstances in which you find yourself.

Pope Francis is not “watering down” Catholic doctrine or the Gospel. He simply recognizes that God is calling each of us to draw nearer to him in every moment of our lives, whatever we are doing. This applies to everyone, whether we are daily communicants or ardent atheists. Whether we are a cloistered nun or a hardened criminal, every moment presents an opportunity for a first step toward God.

This is not a contradiction with truth. Francis believes what the Church teaches. He practices it, albeit imperfectly (we are all sinners). But he believes in looking at every tangled real-life situation individually. He sees everyone as loved and called by God. But everyone has their own path. We must have the wisdom, patience, and ability to discern realistically, “Where do I begin here?”

Pope Benedict XVI recognized this principle. Remember, there was a great controversy when he said that a prostitute using a condom out of concern that his client might get AIDS could mean “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.” This line caused great confusion in conservative Catholic culture, which is accustomed to seeing morality only in general and universally applicable terms. But like Francis, Benedict was thinking about the individual journey of faith in all of its messiness and complexity.

Years before, you might also recall that he was asked by the same interviewer, “How many ways are there to God?” Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger responded, “As many as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one,” (Salt of the Earth, p. 32). Yet despite Benedict’s clarity on these matters in the realm of ideas, he sometimes struggled to implement them in reality. For example, some of his gestures carried great and profound symbolic meaning, such as the lifting of the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops, the opening up of permission for priests to say the traditional Latin Mass, and the creation of the Anglican Ordinariate. All of these decisions were ordered toward the great good of Church unity. Yet the practical implications of each of these decisions has backfired in multiple ways. For example, the lifting of the excommunications backfired when one of the bishops was revealed to be a Holocaust denier. Meanwhile, the SSPX rejected a proposed agreement with the Holy See. The liberalization of the use of the old Mass seems to have emboldened and radicalized traditionalists in recent years. And despite its small size, the Anglican Ordinariate has had its share of scandal and dissident priests.

Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely convinced that Pope Benedict was sincere and holy and meant well. But often it seemed that his gestures, as meaningful and symbol-rich as he intended them to be, often fell flat in the eyes of the faithful. Perhaps there’s no example more obvious than that of the papal slippers. Pope Benedict revived the tradition of wearing the traditional red shoes (symbolizing the blood of martyrs) that popes have worn for centuries, while John Paul II typically wore brown shoes (John Paul did wear red shoes early in his papacy and was buried in them). A media fuss centered around this fashion choice. Described in secular headlines as “ruby slippers” or “the pope wears Prada,” they became a humorous jab that reinforced the notion of a decadent and materialistic Church.

Pope Francis has a much better sense of how things are seen by everyday people in the world. And the headlines generated by his choice to stick with his trusty black orthopedics showed just how far apart the idea of red papal shoes (to symbolize martyrdom) was from the reality of what people thought about them. This contrast was so stark and so obvious that Esquire named Pope Francis the “Best Dressed Man of 2013.” This is a somewhat amusing example, but it shows something that is central to Francis’s vision. This aspect of his vision is what sets him apart from the type of Church leader many of them have come to expect.

Pope Francis explained this idea in Evangelii Gaudium, when he wrote,

In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them (43).

This principle isn’t simply about keeping up with the times in our customs, clothing, and style. It is essential to our mission of evangelization. It is a recognition of the individual’s faith journey, and that each of us comes from a unique time and place, with a history that is not identical to that of anyone else.  And each of us must be accompanied at our own pace. In the following paragraph, he goes on to say, “A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties. Everyone needs to be touched by the comfort and attraction of God’s saving love, which is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings.”

Here’s one way to visualize what he’s trying to teach us. Every sinner (that is, all of us) is like a messy kitchen. Someone might walk into this kitchen and say, “This is a mess! You need to clean it up!” That’s true. We all want a clean kitchen. But how do we start the cleaning process? You obviously can’t do nothing, but demanding nothing but complete perfection from the outset is clearly oblivious to the reality of the situation.

This should be common sense. You have to start somewhere, and you have to understand your limits. Yet when Francis goes into that messy kitchen, rolls up his sleeves, and pulls pots and pans out of the sink, and puts them on the counter, his critics start screaming, “Those pots need to be washed in the sink! You are doing it wrong!” Anything he does that shows the slightest indication of backtracking, tolerance, or compromise. And seven years into this papacy, the complaining about everything he does has developed into a shrill, unhelpful distraction.

This brings us back to the challenge that Pope Francis is offering to conservative Catholics. Too many of us have fallen into the idea that God expects us to have a perfect, non-messy idyllic life. I know from personal experience that there’s a lot of pressure in “orthodox” Catholic circles to project this (whether our lives really are perfect or not). Vulnerability, struggle, doubt, and depression are seen as weakness.

In this type of Catholic culture, not only do we feel pressure to project an image of piety and confidence (so we are seen as “holy”), but we are also conditioned to look down on others who don’t line up with this idea. And in order to keep up the appearance of holiness, things like abuse, infidelity, addiction, mental illness, and all kinds of sins are kept hidden and allowed to fester in the shadows. Meanwhile, intolerance and judgmentalism rise to the surface.

The message of Pope Francis (whether he is doing it deliberately or not), is a finger in the eye to this approach. He basically says, “Let’s acknowledge the fact that the world is a mess, and no Catholic is even close to perfect. We’ll work with what we’ve got, and let’s include everyone.”

That is hard for many Catholics to accept. They want a culture war. They want clear lines drawn so they can hold others accountable. They want a strong fortress where they (the elect) can take refuge and fight those outside the walls. They have been working hard to be that perfect Catholic for a long time, and they resent the thought of being tossed in with everyone else. They want the Church to be a place that offers reverence and stability, is made up of unwaveringly devout families, and is free from the dominion of sin and the temptations of the world.

But that’s an idea. It’s not reality. It’s not what the Church is.

Realities are greater than ideas.

Pope Francis is asking us to work within the reality, not to imagine that we can impose ideas on everyone else. Sadly, many Catholics can’t handle that.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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