Wild promises of a “Francis Effect” have not materialized. Certain traveling salesmen have used the catchphrase to hawk changes in Catholic practice on divorce and remarriage and more: If only the Church would soften its tone and adjust its practice, the millions of Catholics who have left it would come rushing back.
Now, one need not resort to regression analysis to puncture these predictions. Common sense should establish that the Great Pumpkin has not arrived—but where common sense is lacking, one may draw on the data. This is what I did last week in an op-ed for the New York Times. As survey findings from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reveal, notwithstanding the immense publicity attached to the idea of a Francis Effect, in America, at least, the downward trends in Catholic life have only continued during the current pontificate.
Judging by the response to my op-ed, many Catholics would prefer not to hear this. Perhaps the most common objection to my argument is also the strangest: I am told that it is unreasonable of me to expect Francis to turn around the Church on a dime—when in fact I have said that it is unreasonable of others to expect as much. One response of this type came from CARA, which accused me of being unable to parse its data, while seeming unable to parse my words. I even began to doubt their author’s devotion to statistical rigor after reading passages like this:
In three years Pope Francis has not been able to fix the problems of the Catholic Church. But I think most would agree that he has put the institution on a better path than where it was headed when he got it. People are listening. People who would have never done so before.
Ah, yes, the old “I think most would agree” analysis, with a sample size of one. Data journalism often amounts to this: simultaneous appeals to the prestige of expertise and the pressures of the crowd. “I think most would agree,” and since I am an expert and most is the majority, we overrule scripture, tradition, reason, and conscience.
A better response came from Commonweal's Matthew Sitman, who proposes to fact-check my quotations of Pope Francis. Sitman claims that Francis has never described priests as “little monsters”: Francis only said that poorly formed seminarians could become priests who are little monsters. Sitman also says that Francis never characterized Catholics who emphasize attending Mass, frequenting confession, and saying traditional prayer as “pelagians.” (Here he seems not to remember the denunciations in Evangelii Gaudium.) I don’t apologize for paraphrasing Pope Francis with a polemical edge—I was writing an opinion column, after all—but I left Sitman too much room to quibble.
The larger point of Sitman’s objections seems to be that Francis does not oppose traditional Catholics as such; he only resents their falling into certain spiritual abuses. Perhaps—but Francis’s rhetoric very often seems to define any kind of insistence on doctrine or discipline as an error. This is what happened in his closing address for the Synod on the Family. The debate raised by Amoris Laetitia is precisely a debate over whether or not the Church can ignore what Francis calls “a supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline” that requires us to “observe certain rules”—such as confessing our sins and resolving to sin no more before receiving communion. Sitman acknowledges that I had this debate in mind when I wrote the column. But in registering his quibbles, he writes as though I did not.
This is why I dislike the current vogue for debating by means of fact-checks. Because their immediate purpose is to make our opponents look stupid and dishonest, fact-checks often fail in accuracy on the first and most essential point—namely, what our opponents actually said. By falsifying this fact, we can charge our opponents with falsifying many others. This method saves us the trouble of criticizing our opponents’ actual arguments or defending our own. We would be better served by a style of debate that is unafraid of airing fundamental disagreement. Because facts matter, we should consider giving up fact-checks for good.
A response that was full, fair, and to the point came from Fr. James Martin. I had written that Catholics must be willing to “speak of the way hard disciplines can lead to freedom.” Martin countered that “mercy, the great theme of Francis’ papacy, is not only hard, but that it is also the most fundamental of Jesus’ teachings.” Perhaps, as Fr. Martin says, mercy is the most fundamental of Jesus’s teachings (or perhaps it is not). But it cannot be divorced from his teaching on judgment.
Here, I think, is where my opponents and I really disagree. I view mercy and judgment as working naturally together; they tend to see them as being in conflict. Pope Francis himself often speaks as though the two are opposed. On the debate over communion for the divorced and remarried, he almost seems to think that it is counter to forgiveness to tell someone to go and sin no more. No doubt Francis and his defenders would say their account has room for both judgment and mercy, just as I would say that there is a time and place to speak of mercy rather than judgment. Still, the basic difference between our views remains. How to resolve it?
One answer comes from Bernard of Clairvaux, whose Sermons on the Song of Songs I have been reading. In the sixth sermon, Bernard describes mercy and judgment as the two feet on which Christ swiftly runs to meet us. “Beware that you do not neglect either of these feet,” he says. Instead, we must be grateful for the imprints left by both mercy and judgment in the Christian heart. Bernard then commences a rhapsody of praise:
No longer of judgment alone or mercy alone, but of mercy and judgment I will sing to you, O Lord. I shall never forget your precepts, mercy and judgment will be the theme of my songs in the house of my pilgrimage, until one day when mercy triumphs over judgment, my wretchedness will cease to smart, and my heart, silent no longer, will sing to you. It will be the end of sorrow.
We require both judgment and mercy. My conviction on this point does not stem from a feeling of superiority, or a pedantic obsession with doctrine and rules. It comes instead from the experience of my own human frailty. I know that I have sinned and deserve punishment. I also know that I am redeemed by grace. If the Church ceases to speak of either one, how can it reach me with the comfort of God’s love? To support me in my weakness, I need a Church that stands with both of Christ’s feet, on which Mary poured out her nard.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.