Be careful around those who are rigid. Be careful around Christians – be they laity, priests, bishops – who present themselves as so “perfect,” rigid. Be careful. There’s no Spirit of God there. They lack the spirit of liberty. And let us be careful with ourselves, because this should lead us to consider our own life. Do I seek to look only at appearance, and not change my heart? Do I not open my heart to prayer, to the liberty of prayer, the liberty of almsgiving, the liberty of works of mercy?

– Pope Francis, Homily at the daily Mass of October 12, 2018

Last week, Francis once again turned to a consistent theme of his papacy: rebuking those with a rigid approach to the Faith that closes them off to the movement of the Holy Spirit. He’s been criticized on many occasions by Catholics who see rigidity as among the least of the Church’s problems, even necessary to some degree. Indeed, those traditionalist Catholics who embrace a rebellious spirit against this papacy mock these statements as incredibly out of touch and unnecessary in an age when so many Catholics, especially young people, are leaving the Church, and when so few of those who remain embrace the most challenging doctrines of the Church.

The idea perpetuated by those who criticize the Holy Father is that Francis wants to “soft-pedal” the truth or (much worse) bend Catholic teaching to accommodate post-Christian ideas on sexuality and life issues.

What’s problematic about this approach is an assumption that simple knowledge or understanding of Catholic moral teaching is sufficient to motivate people to want to follow it.

Certainly for some, this is enough. For those who have seriously resolved to follow the teachings of the Church, hiding or downplaying those doctrines does not help them. Additionally, those who become open to the spirit of conversion after living lives far from the Christian ideal benefit greatly from embracing the radical and counter-cultural morality of Catholic doctrine. It is an injustice to deny the truth to people in these situations.

Unfortunately, when one looks at the wider culture, this spirit of openness and docility to Catholic teaching is not widespread. Even within the Church, one sees Catholics either ignorant of Church teaching or opposed to it. In many cases, the opposition is ill-informed about the reasons for particular teachings. In other cases, dissenters know the reasons behind the teachings, but are unconvinced by them. Outside the Church, I don’t need to point out examples of misconceptions about Catholicism and Catholic doctrine.

When such people think about orthodox Catholics and their doctrine, what do they envision? Rigidity. False piety and judgmentalism. Arcane and flamboyant rituals. Riches and corruption. Hypocrisy and sexual abuse. Lapsed Catholics of certain generations remember rules and rote memorization. More recent lapsed Catholics see the Church as out-of-date on morality and homophobic.

Of course most of these charges miss the mark. That’s not the point. The point is that leading with these doctrines is a non-starter for the overwhelming majority of people in contemporary Western culture. There is an extreme lack of openness to Catholic moral teaching — or any approach to Catholicism that’s rules-focused and uncompromising.

Pope Francis knows this well, and that’s why he speaks so strongly against rigidity. He has two primary audiences when he speaks this way: those who are far from the Church, and those within the Church who have embraced a rigid approach.

For rigid Catholics, one should note that he doesn’t ever name names. He always speaks about such people in a general way, without singling anyone out. Yet it’s clear to many (at least on social media) that he’s speaking about them. (The prominent papal critic Archbishop Viganò even stated that he thought Francis was referring to him when he spoke against “the Great Accuser.”) Francis is clearly touching a nerve with this type of speech, based on the reaction he receives every time he does it.

For the vast majority, however, this type of speech resonates deeply. It strikes at the heart of misconceptions about the Faith and those who practice it. It’s intended to plant the seeds of openness to the Church and her message where it didn’t exist before. Pope Francis is trying to prepare hearts to be evangelized by Christians who are open to listening to others and to accompany people on the journey of faith.

Once people begin to open themselves up to the person of Christ, and desire to build a relationship with him, that’s when their hearts become open to difficult moral teachings. This isn’t a new idea. It is consistent with what Pope Benedict taught.

If Jesus says: “I am the bread of life”, it means that Jesus himself is the nourishment we need for our soul, for our inner self, because the soul also needs food. And technical things do not suffice, although they are so important. We really need God’s friendship, which helps us to make the right decisions. We need to mature as human beings. In other words: Jesus nourishes us so that we can truly become mature people and our lives become good.

— Pope Benedict (source)

For those of us who have a tendency towards rigidity in our faith, let us take the Holy Father’s words to heart, rather than mocking or criticizing the pope for calling us out. We should, as Francis reminds us, examine our hearts and consciences to discern where we have closed ourselves off to others and the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Only then can we become the evangelizing Church that we are called to be.


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Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

Why does Pope Francis pick on “rigid Christians”?

10 Responses

  1. Ralph says:

    The best description I have seen of Pope Francis’ method of evangelization is that he sees the Catholic Church as a hospital for sinners. You need to offer people the hope of healing before you administer the medicine. I think rigid Catholics often skip the healing part and instead go straight to the pills that are hard to swallow. That doesn’t work for most people.

  2. Marthe Lépine says:

    It seems to me that, very often, such rigidity is accompanied by pride, the kind of pride that the Pharisee in the temple expressed by comparing himself to the sinner and feeling superior. It is that sense of superiority that brings condemnation of those people whose lives do not yet follow all the rules, and it runs the risk of scaring away the people who might begin to feel an attraction towards this “hospital for sinners”…

  3. carn says:

    Is anybody interested to know, why the words of Pope Francis would still be to some extent problematic even if the explanation and interpretation of the article would be 100% correct?

    • Mike Lewis says:

      Because to you, everything he says and does is problematic, and you don’t have a single ounce of charity to extend towards him, ever?

      • carn says:

        “Because to you, everything he says and does is problematic, and you don’t have a single ounce of charity to extend towards him, ever?”

        No (and as you used “everything” there would have to be only a single action or sentence during his entire pontificate with which i am fine and “No” would be a true answer; so i am pretty confident, that “no” is actually the truthful answer)

        The problem is that that words of Pope Francis at least according to what is said do to some extent exclude the possibility that someone is very careful and rigid with external fulfillment of duties and appearance, but still has no closed heart.

        See here:

        ““But always, under or behind rigidity, there are problems, grave problems,” the Pope said. We intend to have the appearance of being a good Christian; we intend to appear a certain way, we put make-up on our souls. However, Pope Francis said, behind these appearances, “there are problems. Jesus is not there. The spirit of the world is there.””

        “always” he says; not often; not most of the time; or some other wording, that leaves open the possibility, that someone trying to externally be a good Christian is actually also internally at least of “passable quality”.

        Think of all the people taking religious vows, of all the priest carefully trying to say mass as prescribed: they are all rigid in this to some extent; vowing to wear a certain clothing style for the entire rest of life is rigid at least with the common usage of the word.

        And as the Pope used “always” all these people now got told by the Pope that there must be some grave problems behind their rigidity.

        And i grant that the Pope would at once argue against the suggestion, that every diligent priest and every devout monk or nun of a rather strict order must have grave problems underneath that “rigidity”; but that does not change, that by using “always” the words of the Pope imply just that.

        I would not say anything in this direction, if instead of “always” there had been something like “often” “most of the time”, etc.

    • Jane says:

      I think maybe because we don’t want to be obedient. It seems to me that the devil makes the current pope a huge problem to as many people as possible. I noticed how folks disliked Pope Benedict XVI while he was Pope and then when he was Pope Emeritus, I saw this push to have him back. I also saw a bumper sticker that said, “Re-elect Benedict.” It seems the devil makes sure to make the current Vicar of Christ on earth look as bad as possible

  4. Christopher Lake says:


    As a Catholic who loves Pope Francis in so many ways, and for so many reasons, I do admit that, at times, I have struggled with his statements about “rigid Christians.” I have wondered to myself, sometimes, if he might not be speaking, in a way, about me and how I think about and live out my faith as a Catholic?

    It has not been easy for me to ponder such things. Not at all. Honestly, it has been very painful, partially because the words that I am thinking about, are, indeed, coming from the Pope himself! If they were coming from, say, any stranger on the internet, it would be more easy for me to dismiss them (and, perhaps, therefore, to justify myself!).

    One reaction that has been helpful for me is to seriously consider the possibility that maybe, in some way, the Pope *is, indeed,* talking about certain unhelpfully “rigid” tendencies that I (and some other Catholics) can have in thought and in action.

    What if the Pope does really have something valid, and even, strongly needed, to say *to me* about certain manifestations of “rigidity” in my Catholic thinking and living– manifestations that I thought, for a long time, were about being “a faithful Catholic”?

    Can the Pope call me out even where I have been sure, for years, that I was “right” as a Catholic? Yes, of course, he can– and if and when he does, I should listen to him. It’s not always easy to listen to sometimes-stinging words that may just be telling me hard truths about myself. Not even *attempting* to listen to them, though, is one sure way for me *not* to grow, as a Catholic, in faith, hope, and love for God and for my neighbor.

  5. Jane says:

    I’m a rigid person, too rigid. I need to come down from my high horse and see other people with love more. I need to be less Pharisaical, less “perfect” in my own estimation. I need to learn from the words of Pope Francis! Thank God that I am given this Holy Father for me! Every Pope I have lived through so far has been so perfectly hand-picked by Almighty God for me. I am so thankful for the Holy Spirit and His work in our church through the centuries and to this day. Almighty God loves our souls so very much

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