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]

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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.

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