Pope Francis' Warning Against Reactionary Catholics
Part of the issues to discuss in your parish coffee hour series
When Pope Francis was elected, I knew his pontificate would be different. He is a Latino. I am fluent in American Spanish and Portuguese and minister with the Latino Community for over thirty years.
When I was young, there was the saying when someone made an obvious declaration “Is the pope Italian?” meaning of course your words are as true as the Catholic Church will always have an Italian pope.
In 1978, Karol Wojtyla became the successor to the Papal Office. He, of course, was Polish. Followed by Benedict XVI, German, and no longer can one say is the pope Italian?
Pope Francis, however, is the first American pope ever. He is from Argentina, which includes the southernmost tip of the continent only six hundred miles from Antarctica.
Recently, the pope raised a storm by talking about troubles in the United States. He addressed one Jesuit’s concern about Catholicism in the United States which is critical of both Francis and Jesuits. The pontiff warned that there is a reactionary element in the United States that replaced faith with ideology.
This obviously did not sit well with many of my fellow United States Catholics.
American culture is about control
Often when I preach, I explain that the U.S. culture is one of control. We seek to control the world and we seek to control our own world.
I ask my congregations “What do you call that little thing you use every night when you watch TV? Some call it a clicker but its real name is. . .” I see lights go on in the heads of many in the congregation who realize it is called a ‘remote control’. I then ask them to see how many things they have in their house that are all about control—programmable light switches, thermostats and more.
“We can even control the devices in our house from the other side of the country.” I always preach. I then point out that U.S. culture even seeks to control the world.
This would explain why there is a strong element of religious reactionaries that is fighting the fifty year old post Vatican II change in this church. They want to go back to an idealized past where everything was just like they watched on syndicated runs of “Leave It to Beaver”. Mass and Catholicism were simple. Of course, what these people did not realize is that unlike fifties TV which is homogenously white, suburban and problem-free, the real world is not like this and was not then. After all, the point of TV is to escape from daily life so anything on it by definition is fantasy unless it is news.
A simplistic faith can not address new issues
Believing was simple then because many Catholics learned their faith from the Baltimore Catechism, a simplistic primer that taught the basics of the faith for a similarly uncomplicated world that did not exist.
When the sixties came around, Catholics raised on the Baltimore Catechism did not have the answers to many new questions young people asked. After all, if the only reason why two adults could not cohabitate is because God said no, then if they choose not to believe in God, they can cohabitate.
This led the under-thirty crowd to lose their faith and seek the cosmos artificially.
The fact is, what the Baltimore Catechism did not address and the pope does is Catholics have a vocation to a different way of life while living as witnesses to the truth of Christ in the world.
A clash of cultures
Now through the work of Pope Francis, the reactionary law-based culture of the United States and the forward-moving pastoral world of the Latino pope clash. Their Baltimore Catechism-inspired simplistic faith is not ready for the real-world issues of the Twenty-First Century.
If you read the pope carefully, he seeks to bring Christ into the real world and the real world to Christ. This is anathema to the control-oriented citizens of the United States who embrace the Latin Mass yet hold true to their rosary and their guns. They do not realize many of the saints they embrace would condemn their arrogance.
The pope addressed the US habit of focusing on all sins below the belt. In fact, there is an old understanding which I believe originated with Archbishop Fulton Sheen—a hero to many Catholics—especially the conservatives. It goes like this: In many Catholic households a man can get drunk at a bar, get into a fight, drive home and as long as he did not get into bed with anyone but his wife, he did not commit any sins. This, indeed, defines much of this reactionary Catholicism.
A rules-based Eucharistic theology
However, this would make sense because of the influence of the Baltimore Catechism—US Catholicism is rules-based. Let us take a classic example: Catholics seek to limit who receives the Eucharist which is Catholic teaching. They center it around abortion. Those who support abortion, they claim, especially politicians, must not receive the Eucharist at Mass and indeed, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone publicly informed Representative Nancy Pelosi she may not receive in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. No similar restriction is addressed in regard to other issues that are also against life most specifically nuclear weapons. All U.S. bills that finance them come from the House of Representatives. So, those weapons are deployed because through Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and today through Representative Kevin McCarthy the funding exists to keep them there.
Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. I always preach that one approaches God on his terms not our own, so to approach Him arrogantly is a grave mistake. We must only come to communion humbly accepting his gift of Himself to us. That attitude goes beyond one’s stand on abortion.
Many world leaders indicate that NATO surrounding Russia with deployed weapons of mass destructions was a cause of the Ukraine-Russian war. Yet, many U.S. bishops and their conservative counterparts say nothing about this grave evil. Pope Francis blamed part of the source of the war on these weapons.
In 2022, Daniel Panneton a young researcher in Canada wrote an article in The Atlantic about the growing movement of Catholic reactionaries celebrating their rosaries and their guns. He suffered social media castigation by many considering him an anti-Catholic operator.
Mark Shea, however, an author, blogger and speaker and a convert to Catholicism displayed on his blog many pictures of rosaries and army symbolism including weapons and ammunition cases showing the world the researcher was not wrong. I showed the pictures to South American Catholics in my parish and they could not understand how someone could put a symbol of peace which the rosary is with weapons of war. It made no sense to them.
Reactionary Catholics and deadly force for justice
Many of these same reactionary Catholics whom the pope said replaced faith with ideology believe in such things as stand-your-ground laws, which allow one to use deadly force to protect property. Catholic teaching does not recognize this legislation and many Catholic saints would not endure it.
Reactionary Catholics also support the death penalty and see nothing wrong with both Ron DeSantis and former president Donald Trump seeking to expand it, even though one of their heroes Pope John Paul II rejected its use in countries such as our own.
Synod of Synodality
This is all coming to a head with what Pope Francis calls the Synod of Synodality which is an attempt to look at the future of the Church based on the understanding that all baptized Catholics have a voice in the governing of the Church. This is something reactionary Catholics do not seem to comprehend fully while they seek to bring back the Pope John XXIII Mass from 1962.
They will stand on the fact that truth is unchangeable which is true but our understanding of what is true does change.
If you look at the catechism from the Council of Trent which was published in the mid-sixteenth century, you will learn that the Lord put two orbs in the sky that revolve around the Earth. This was the understanding of creation regarding the Sun and the Moon back then. We no longer believe this and in fact, we have proof we did not have in previous centuries that in fact the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around. Truth did not change but our understanding of truth does.
This is something that reactionary Catholics do not understand. So when they see what they perceive is truth being challenged they seem to go into a panic. However, the pope is trying to bring forth that our understanding of how to live our faith is always growing not because Jesus’ teaching is changing but our comprehension of it is.
Pope Francis’ criticism of the reactionary element of our Catholicism which includes even some bishops and elements of our Catholic media is right on. They are there and short of other bishops ex-communicating them as did Bishop Fabian Bruskewicz to some of the more left-wing organizations in his diocese, we will have to live with them as Jesus taught.
The weeds and the wheat
In his parable of the weeds and the wheat, (Mt 13:24-30), Jesus explains that both have to grow together because removing the weeds will also take up the wheat. It is important to recognize them and understand that since they are not in union with the Holy See then they are best ignored. We need to be people of prayer and seek the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to continue God’s will and not listen to some gun-toting narcissist from Texas claiming that he has the wisdom that the pope does not have. Jesus warned that these people would come and demanded that we not follow them.
The pope’s words reiterate that warning.
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