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.
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 a founding editor for Where Peter Is.