I’m too young to have known John Paul II. He died before I cared about Jesus, let alone the pope. Benedict was pope during my conversion at the end of high school and during college. But I was too deeply entrenched in culture war stuff to care much about what the pope had to say.

Back in college I binged listened to Catholic Answers. I read The Catholic Thing pretty much daily. I regularly read First Things. I cheered when George Weigel came to my alma mater. I was even a fan of Cardinal Burke. Looking back, the reason I immersed myself in these sources was primarily because I was reacting against the liberal heterodoxy I was surrounded by at school.

Francis was elected after I graduated college and was starting to reevaluate my culture war Catholicism. I knew Republicans didn’t like him, but I didn’t pay attention any more than that.

During the year of mercy I read Francis’ book, “The Name of God is Mercy” and fell deeply in love with the pope. That book was the start of a long process, a process that continues now, of shedding the legalism and pelagianism that I thought was the definition of orthodoxy.

It wasn’t until the dubia and filial correction that I really started paying attention to the growing dissent against the pope. That was when people I respected and knew personally started being critical of Francis and his teaching. At that point I felt like I had to choose a side. And by choose a side I mean I felt like I needed to learn everything I could and defend the pope because I already knew I was on his side. So I studied like I’ve never studied before and found sources outside of the EWTN bubble that I had lived in.

Francis’ teaching is precisely what the Church needs in this moment. And it hurts to see his teaching, and his person, so hated and dismissed by those who once praised John Paul II and Benedict. It’s really discouraging to see Catholics who I once respected so much dive headfirst into the same beliefs that they used to so strongly oppose, dive into hypocrisy.  

The spirituality that I inherited from members of the the John Paul II generation contained a lot of fear. The turmoil of the culture, especially from the threat of Communism and the aftermath of the sexual revolution, I think provoked a tendency to make the Church and her teaching an objective, static thing. This bulwark of absolute, unchanging assurance was a safe haven from the culture.

But this safety came at a cost. The comfort of the objective ideal left little room for the weak who were unable to live the moral law. And it created this tendency to fill in the grey areas of Church teaching with clear black and white answers (how we treat the non-magisterial opinions of Catholic Answers and The National Catholic Bioethics Center are a testament to this). This bulldozing of the grey left little room for individual consciences.

Francis’ teaching flipped the script. He readily acknowledges human weakness, mitigating factors, and the reality of grace transforming us within time (not making us superhuman all at once). Francis, while not diminishing the moral law, is concerned about weakness and drawing those who are weak into the Community where they will find strength.

He also places more emphasis on the role of individual consciences. He expects us to make the necessary effort to form our consciences and he expects pastors to get into the muck of accompanying people to help them discern their conscience. This is tough. It’s a lot harder than turning to EWTN and apologetics to know how a good Catholic should handle every little moral decision in their life.

I think that Francis is calling the faithful to foster a relationship with the Holy Spirit and do the work of actually forming our consciences. Trust and reliance on the Holy Spirit will ultimately conquer the fear that drove us to the false comfort of absolute assurance in the first place. A well formed conscience, and the confidence to follow it, will allow us to accept the grey and navigate through it.

Further, Francis, in part by his development of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty, also shows the the Church isn’t a static book, but a living thing. A bride, a mother. The Church herself is living, growing, learning. Church teaching really does develop, and we are witnessing that before our very eyes.

Bishop Barron, during his talk at this year’s World Meeting of Families, summed up the differences he sees between the JPII generation and Francis. He said:

“I taught in seminary for many years….I love the John Paul II generation. A lot of the kids that I taught for many years were inspired by John Paul II. They came to the seminary because of his heroic ideal. And he’s my hero, I’ve got a picture of John Paul in my chapel in California.

But if I can say this, the shadow side of the John Paul II generation of seminarians was they often got deeply frustrated when they fell short of the ideal. You know because he was such a heroic figure (indeed he was) and held out such a heroic ideal (indeed he did), and they properly were called to follow it. But then what do you do when you fail? I think they struggled with that. And I read Francis as being sensitive to that fact, that part of our pastoral experience. What do we do when people fail? And he prefers the path of mercy and reinstatement to the path of exclusion. And I think that strikes me as right.”

Mercy and reinstatement. This is Francis’ spiritual legacy. We don’t have enemies in a culture war, we have brothers and sisters who, like us, have been wounded by sin and need to be shown mercy. Francis wants us to meet others where they are at, to show them the love of the Father, and accompany them, step by step, back to Jesus and the Church. We are not soldiers fighting a war, we are field medics in search of the wounded and suffering.

I inherited the theological foundation of John Paul II and Benedict without having to experience much of the cultural turmoil that provoked it. Now I look back on it and see its flaws, rather, I see the flaws in how it was understood, taught, and, at times, manipulated. Flaws that distorted my own faith for so long. Reflecting on my own experiences in college, that I can say that while I was probably doing the best I could with what I had, I was also wrong. I was wrong to let fear of the culture and of heterodoxy drive so much of my faith formation. I was wrong to see so many people as my enemies. I was wrong to believe everything I heard from Catholic media and lay apostolates instead of reading the Catechism for myself.

Every generation has its faults, but that doesn’t mean that the flaws of the past shouldn’t be addressed now.  Because we have a living Magisterium the Church is able to address the needs of each new generation, and again, I think Francis’ teaching is precisely what the Church needs today.

[Image Credit: Bradley Santos at One Secret Mission]

Paul Fahey

Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is.  He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation

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11 Responses

  1. Allen Thrasher says:

    We are still in the “cultural turmoil” that provoked the “theological formation of John Paul II and Benedict.” Franicis’s policies risk changing the Church into something like Anglicanism, that is, ultimately and swiftly to nothingness.

    In spite of the good things he has done, Bishop Barron’s at least near approach to the doctrine that all people are saved to my mind taints his opinions. It means that nothing either in thought or in action is of ultimate consequence.

    If people who have left the spouse of their youth may continue sexual relations with the persons they are living with, why should unmarried people, who perhaps cannot find a good spouse or have other sufficient reasons not to marry, not find sexual satisfaction, e.g. with hookers?

  2. chris dorf says:

    I commend your work. You are going right into the teeth of the Bannon, Vigano, Burke, anti-Bergoglio hornets nest. I have personally fought this battle a long time myself.

  3. jong says:

    I dont know how many site like wherepeteis is dedicated in updating viewers how to better understand the mind and pious character of Pope Francis.
    Personally as I got so interested in defending Pope Francis from many Trads channels uploading numerous videos attacking the dignity of Pope Francis and Cardinals and Priest loyal to him.This Trads Channels is having a behavior bordering on blatant disrespect and arrogance as any diligent viewers can discern that they merely twisting words and spreading Fake News.
    There is one priest who called publicly and directly Cardinal Wuerl to GET-OUT and encourage his viewers to go against Cardinal Wuerl to prevent and shame him from participating on upcoming Event this January on mere basis of unsubstantiated written article.
    Imagine a priest encouraging catholics to go against the Hierarchy of the Church and repeatedly associating Cardinals and Priest loyal to Pope Francis as part of the corruption network.
    I just sometimes wonder how blind can we follow a priest attacking his fellow bro.priest and Bishops on a mere written article without diligently searching for solid proof knowing CCC2479 is a mortal sin.
    I guess Akita prophecy is truly unfolding now. We must hope and pray that Our Lady’s Maternal Mediation will enlighten and strengthen all the priest and Bishops to heed the call of Pope Francis to all the Bishops to become a true brother to their fellow Bishops and not become a judge especially to the fallen priest.
    The Letter of Pope Francis to the US Bishops is very rich in Wisdom, thats why my admiration for Pope Francis continue to grow.
    God bless.

    • HW says:

      jong I almost wonder if you are talking about Fr. Z (John Zuhlsdorf) a particularly arrogant and haughty man who is constantly attacking fellow priests and needling Francis. Zuhlsdorf at times seems to think he is the Pope himself.

      I find this site to be refreshing most sites I go to that claim to be “catholic” seem to be more and more like some kind of Breitbart immitation or some modern day Fr. Coughlin offspring.

      I appreciate this site for doing the work of examining and explaining things instead of being rabid anti Francis attack dogs like EWTN news.

  4. brian martin says:

    the sad truth is that much of what passes for Catholic Appologetics is little more than pseudo-intellectual ego masturbation.
    Thank you for an insightful commentary

  5. chris dorf says:

    In my life as a cradle Catholic I have followed, by observation and within the Church proper, these many threads within the Church. I have been involved in many different and varied ways, with the many and varied gradations of Catholics (and former Catholics who get ‘born again’, and ex-Catholics angry at the Church…you can fill in the other different roads traveled), many often at odds with the other.
    When involved in pro-life activities, the more ‘liberal’ Catholics were critical of that movement claiming that the pro-life movement did not care for ‘all life’, a viewpoint I agreed with.
    When involved in Charismatic Renewal, traditional Catholics often slandered ‘those charismatics’.
    When involved in the Dorothy Day/Catholic Worker stuff, conservative Catholics thought us socialist anti-capitalists.
    When in eccumenical groups, I saw Catholics lose their Catholic Faith to Evangelical Protestants theology.
    When I went to Grant Park in Chicago in 1979 when Pope John Paul II came there, I was considered too Catholic.
    When I went to Medjugorge, I was too influenced.
    Read about Padre Pio…too nuts…
    …you see the trend…
    We live in complex and complicated times in the Church and the world, with many proscelytizing and wanting to make a convert, a saved, a heathen reborn.
    …and Francis is steering the Church thru all this…God Bless Him greatly!

  6. Yaya says:

    Great commentary which I found to be affirming and encouraging in continuing to support and defend Papa Francis.
    God bless you!

  7. QED says:

    The other day, reflecting on my unemployment troubles, I had a startling insight. The pope is right: the economic system is the number one problem facing humanity. At this juncture I will mention that socialism and communism suffer from the same defect: it sees individuals as workers, as instruments of economic productivity.

    The whole throw away culture and neglect of the environment are connected. If someone or something cannot increase production or profits, that thing is neglected or discarded. Yes, abortion is evil. But why are mothers opting to kill their children, disabled or not? Because of how difficult it is to raise, especially to raise them to care for themselves as adults. Every employer wants to make profit, and it is costly or risky to hire those who seem unproductive. Why is illegal immigration more important than what the refugee or migrant is running from? Because they are a ‘drain’ on society’s limited resources. Why are the elderly neglected? Because they seem unproductive and cost resources to care for. Why is the environment we live in neglected and abused? Because it’s costly or maybe even incompatible with an economic system based on unlimited growth.

    The pope is right!

  8. Christopher Lake says:

    Thank you for this piece, Paul. I am a convert and revert to Catholic Christianity who returned to the Church during the Papacy of Benedict XVI, and I respected and loved him so much, as a person, and as a great teacher of the Faith. I tend to have a cerebral bent to my faith, and Benedict XVI spoke in a special way to that part of me. Not that that was the *only* way in which he ministered to me, but it was a real and important part.

    I also respect and love Pope Francis so much, as a person, and as a great teacher of the Faith. He teaches in a less obviously cerebral, and more earthy, gritty, way than Benedict XVI, but Francis is definitely a teacher nonetheless, and, I believe, a great one. He has definitely both challenged and encouraged me as a Catholic.

    Among my circles of Catholic friends, I sometimes feel lonely in respecting, and personally loving, both Benedict XVI and Francis. It’s sad that this is the case. Both men have made it clear, at different points, in numerous verbal and non-verbal ways, that they are certainly grateful for *each other*. Sometimes, from my experience, it seems to me that many of the particular “fans” of Benedict XVI who vocally dislike Pope Francis try to find almost any way to dismiss the evidence of their brotherly love for, and appreciation of, each other, but that evidence is still there.

    At 45 years old, I’m not, chronologically speaking, a member of the “Pope Francis Generation,” but I love him just as much as those who are. 🙂 His witness and teachings have changed me for the better and are still changing me. I wish so much that more of my “conservative Catholic” (I dislike that term now, though I once identified with it!) brethren were open to appreciating him.

    One last offering of thoughts here: I agree with you (and with Pope Francis!) that we are “field medics in search of the wounded and the suffering.” However, in line with the teaching of Sacred Scripture, and I think that Pope Francis would agree, I believe that we are *also* soldiers fighting a war– but, as St. Paul says, “our war is not against flesh and blood but (rather) against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Our real war is *not* against any of our fellow Catholics, *or* against non-Catholics, but against Satan and his demons, who deceive and influence people (including me, when I sin!!) in ways that are destructive to their well-being. The true war is a spiritual one. It has some cultural *aspects* at times, and Pope Francis has taught about these aspects, in many ways, at different times– but he always returns to the deeper, *spiritual* war against Satan, his demons, *and* our own proclivities to sadly, at times, buy into the seductive lies of Satan– whether those lies involve sexual objectification of another person, or hedonistic materialism, or sinful gossip. Thanks be to God for Pope Francis. He has made me a better follower of Christ– and therefore, by definition, a better, more faithful, more *orthodox*, Catholic.

  9. SK says:

    Many people misunderstand the teaching of our Pope. If you are to understand Amoris Laetitia, one needs to read it slowly and prayerfully. It’s a masterpiece of Papal love and direction.

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