Anyone who has stumbled across a long-forgotten diary will understand the embarrassment a journalist feels when he reads his old work. The foolish attachments and false urgencies of the past are there in dry ink, defying the easy airbrushing of memory.
Well, last night I decided to go through what I’d written on Francis since his election in March 2013. I will never forget the moment Francis walked out on the loggia at St. Peter’s. In instantaneous reaction, my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty tweeted the single word “No.” My response was different—a guarded but genuine “yes,” an instinctive attraction to the new pope, which would be disappointed by experience and time.
On March 13, the day Francis was elected, I wrote: “This is a humble man, a prince of the church born into a working-class family who’s noted for riding public transportation and cooking his own meals.” (Journalists should be allowed their boilerplate, I suppose.) In addition to these anodyne observations, I felt a hint of something more. Perhaps, as some had said, the cardinals’ choice of the previous conclave’s runner-up signaled a “desire for a transitional, placeholding pope. But”—I added—“transitional popes have been known to effect transitions for the whole church.”
It would be some time before I would realize just what kind of transition Francis had in mind. The next day, I quoted a reassuring article written by George Weigel for National Review that praised Francis for the way he “embodied ‘dynamic orthodoxy,’ just like John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger.” The day after that, I dug up what Richard John Neuhaus had written on Bergoglio in 2007: “Known as an incisive thinker and intensely holy man living a devout life, it is held against him that he is a Jesuit, although he has suffered the slings and arrows of Jesuits of a more ‘progressive’ bent.”
In June of 2013, when Francis notoriously asked, “Who am I to judge?,” I wrote that he had made a “welcome distinction on gay priests.” Comparing his statement to those of Benedict, I concluded that those who detected a new direction were wrong. I still believe we need the sorts of distinctions that I thought Francis was making, which is why I’m greatly cheered by the work of writers like Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet. But I didn’t anticipate the way this remark would echo. Politicians and public figures used it as a cudgel to beat anyone who dared speak up for the truth about marriage, and as a carte blanche for Catholic support of gay marriage. Francis could have offered firmer defenses of Christian teaching to ward off these misperceptions. He did not.
A few months later, in his famous interview with Antonio Spadaro, Francis said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. … [We] cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” I wrote to contradict the idea that Francis was “muzzling the Church’s moral witness”:
The Pope’s approach is one familiar to any reader of the gospels. Pharisees try to discredit the gospel by trapping its teacher; the teacher refuses the terms of their question and raises the spiritual stakes. The point here is not to compromise on or back away from truth, but rather to reject its caricature.
This is the just the kind of statement that now makes me grit my teeth. Even then, Andrew Sullivan didn’t buy it. After making fun of my efforts at explaining things away, he said that Francis’s words could not be understood as anything other than “a gentle but nonetheless revolutionary rejection of the entire John Paul II-Benedict XVI era.”
Those were halcyon days, when Catholics could parse papal interviews with an eye toward the hermeneutic of continuity. But the Synod on the Family was on the horizon—an event that would open a conflict without precedent in the modern church, a conflict that only continues to escalate.
Not that I saw it coming. As the synod preparations were underway in March 2014, I wrote that progressives faced “inevitable disappointment.” By October, I had to acknowledge that the synod’s interim report was “a pastoral failure” because it failed to speak of sin, and so failed to acknowledge a reality we all face. But I wasn’t yet willing to eat my words. It is “wrong to exaggerate the importance of this document,” I reassured my readers. But my heart was unquiet. In January of 2015, after Francis had said that Catholics need not “be like rabbits” and reproduce ad infinitum, I began expressing my doubts.
I was not then, and never will be, against Francis. In June of that year, I celebrated the publication of Laudato Si’: “Francis’ encyclical synthesizes the great cultural critiques of his two most recent predecessors.” I was glad to see Francis smashing the false idols we have made of progress and the market.
Then Amoris Laetitia came out. In it, Francis sought to muddy the Church’s clear teaching that the divorced and remarried must live as brother and sister. “I have felt the Church’s teaching on marriage land like a blow, yet I take no encouragement from this shift,” I wrote. It was clear by then that my initial rosy assessments were wrong. Francis meant to lead the Church in a direction that I could not approve or abide. He believes that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.” This renders him unable to resist the lie that says a man may abandon one wife and take up another. Instead, he reassures us that we can blithely go from one partner to the other without also abandoning Christ. This is the throwaway culture baptized and blessed, given a Christian name and a whiff of incense.
My admiration for Laudato Si’ has only grown with time, but I fear the import of that document is bound to be obscured by Amoris Laetitia. A pope who speaks with singular eloquence of our need to resist the technocratic logic of the “throwaway culture” seems bent on leading his Church to surrender to it. What is more typical of the throwaway culture than the easy accommodation of divorce and remarriage?
And so I ended up criticizing Francis—the pope for whom I once had such great hopes—in the pages of the New York Times. “Francis has built his popularity at the expense of the church he leads,” I wrote. How little I had wanted to arrive at these conclusions—how much I had dragged my feet along the way.
Meanwhile, the work of the Church goes on. Several friends of mine have decided this year to seek reception into the Catholic Church. All are aware of the debate touched off by Francis, and though most think my position in that debate too extreme, they dislike the idea of communion for the divorced and remarried. Unlike Francis, they came of age in a society in which divorce was normal. Even if one’s parents stayed together, there was always a possibility that you and your mom could be abandoned by dad. Neither state nor school nor corporation would do anything to restrain him. If Francis has his way, neither will the Church.
Francis says his critics desire rigidity. Once I disregarded the polemical edge of that word, I came to see that he is right. In a world that has been massively deregulated, both morally and economically, people are bound to desire the security of structure. Is seeking this structure a form of “rigidity” to be mocked and denigrated, or an honest human need worthy of consideration by any pastor? Francis wants the Church rebuilt to suit the freewheeling ways of the baby boomers. It’s no accident that their children don’t like the changes.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.
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