No, Francis is not the Catholic Obama


Adam Shaw, the video game critic, has not been especially sought after as a commentator on faith before.

Now, thanks to the power of Drudge, I am receiving e-mails about his critique of the Pope as a “new Obama” as if he is a pastoral force to be reckoned with.

Maybe he is. Rather than dismiss him for his lack of credentials, let’s look at his arguments.

Begins Shaw: “Just as President Obama has been a disappointment for America, Pope Francis will prove a disaster for the Catholic Church.”

francis obamaWow. That seems extreme and unwarranted. Not the Obama part: He has indeed been a bad thing for America, by promoting policies that are antithetical to American principles: Abortion, which is against the right to life; stripping conscience rights and religious liberty, on which we were founded; and taking over health care in a way that directly contradicts the separation of powers (ht, Drudge!).

But is Pope Francis similarly poised to oppose the Church’s teachings in the way Obama contravenes founding principles?

Shaw thinks so: “Francis is beating a retreat for the Catholic Church, and making sure its controversial doctrines are whispered, not yelled – no wonder the New York Times is in love.”

Is he really? What evidence?

Says Shaw: “Just like President Obama loved apologizing for America, Pope Francis likes to apologize for the Catholic Church … In his interviews with those in the left-wing media he seeks to impress, Francis has said that the Church needs to stop being ‘obsessed’ with abortion and gay marriage, and instead of seeking to convert people, ‘we need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us.’”

More on that in a minute. First, some context: We quickly find that Shaw’s real problem is with Vatican II.

Says Shaw of the Council: “The result was the Catholic version of New Coke. Across the West where the effects were felt, seminaries and convents emptied, church attendance plummeted, and adherence to Church doctrine diminished.”

He disdains the council while praising the last two popes:

“John Paul II and Benedict XVI worked hard to turn this trend around, but now Pope Francis wants the bad old days to resume.”

jpThat’s odd because they were nothing if not defenders  and extenders  of Vatican II.

Vatican II

Benedict and John Paul knew that blaming Vatican II for the defections from the Church is a classic post hoc ergo propter hoc mistake.

The mistake is easily revealed: If the pre-Vatican II Catholic faith was so strong, why did all those people abandon the Church Militant in droves at the drop of a biretta? Fulton Sheen compared it to the thinning of Gideon’s army when the cowards left; that’s how easily they abandoned the sacraments.

The papal  project of the past 40 years has been to shore up the troops in the army after the disserters fled.

That is why it is not Pope Francis but Pope John Paul II who is known for apologies.

And that is why it is not Francis but Benedict who first chafed at seeing Catholicism defined as the “anti” Church:

Pope Benedict said that when he was interviewed in the 1980s and 1990s, “I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems. If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith – a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.” (Benedict in 2006 to the Swiss bishops, spotted by Wheat & Weeds)

So, let Shaw and those he has rattled be forewarned: If Francis’ approach is wrong, so was Benedict’s and John Paul’s. Francis is following the example of his predecessors.

Pope Francis’ much ballyhooed “obsessed” comment sounds like Pope Benedict:

Says Francis: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.”

BenedictI don’t think Benedict, John Paul or even Adam Shaw can disagree with that. I certainly don’t.

Economics and Marketing

Which raises the question: What exactly does Adam Shaw disagree with? It seems to be Pope Francis’ economics and his marketing.

First, the economics. Mr. Shaw begins by claiming the Pope likes communism. Here’s a shortcut for you: If you are reading someone who says that Francis is sympathetic to communism, know that the person you are reading is either willfully misrepresenting the truth, or is a bad journalist. In either case, stop reading.

It is a matter of a quick Google search to find an interview book with Pope Francis that quotes his real feelings about Communism — he sees it as a soul-killing exercise in materialism.

Even in the quote Mr. Shaw offers as evidence, Francis doesn’t praise communism. He says that in younger days he learned from a communist thinker, and then rejected communism for the Church.

The rest of his economic critique was given more comprehensively by Rush Limbaugh, and is wrong for the same reasons Rush was wrong.

But at the heart of Shaw’s critique of the “New Coke” Church is marketing.

Says Shaw:  “That Francis didn’t see that this would be translated into headlines of ‘Pope tells Catholics to shut up about things that offend Sandra Fluke’ by every left-wing media outlet shows a terrifying naivety.”

pope francisAnd as a marketing guy, I’ve got to say: If Adam Shaw is saying the best communication strategy for Pope Francis is to go after Sandra Fluke, he ought to check with Rush first about how successful that is.

But Shaw makes his best point next:

Says Shaw: “For years, the majority of priests didn’t dare cover controversial topics in their homilies in fear of getting angry letters from pick-and-choose Catholics outraged that their pastor dared to say something out of line with the Democratic Party. Most parishioners therefore haven’t heard the Church’s argument on controversial topics. Consequently, usage of contraception is only slightly lower in Catholics than in the general population, and support of gay marriage is actually higher in Catholics than the general population. Perhaps talking about it even less isn’t the answer?”

Shaw is absolutely right. Most homilists not only don’t stress moral issues — they don’t mention them. And that imperils souls.

But the point Pope Francis makes in his America interview isn’t that the moral issues are secondary in importance — it’s that they are second in chronology.

Says Francis, “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

There is no chicken-or-egg confusion in the question: “Do we love God because we are supposed to or do we do what we are supposed to because we love God?” We love God first; “what we are supposed to do” comes next.

peterWhat Is a Pope?

And this gets to the heart of the problem with Mr. Shaw’s article. It comes down to the question: What is a Pope?

Is he the Marketing Director of the Coca Cola Catholic Church? If so, then maybe it’s true: Pope Francis might be a lousy one.

Is the Pope the Political Boss of the Catholic Party? If so, then maybe the cardinals should pick someone better at scratching the right backs and stroking the right egos.

Is he the Guardian of Nostalgia, whose job is to make sure the Church delivers the same experiences to the same people in the same way?

Of course he is all of those things, in part. But not fundamentally. Fundamentally, the Pope is the vicar of Christ.

Christ himself was rejected by the religious of his day, because he didn’t do things the way they were accustomed to. He didn’t make nice with either the Saducees or their rival Pharisees. He didn’t make the zealots happy, either.

Christ himself gave the woman caught in adultery a “Who am I to judge” moment — adding “Go and sin no more,” just as Francis added, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill …”

Christ himself was criticized for liturgical lapses, frequently — even on liturgical matters that touched the commandments.

Shaw criticizes Pope Francis for each of those in his article.

But we need not let it rattle us.

You can criticize Obama for opposing American founding principles such as the right to life. But Francis isn’t the head of the Catholic Church; Christ is. He is our “founding principle” — and Francis has stayed close to him.

So long as his vicar cleaves to Christ, the Church has nothing to worry about.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Tom Hoopes, author of What Pope Francis Really Said, is writer in residence at Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kansas, where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications Department and edits The Gregorian, a Catholic identity speech digest. He was previously editor of the National Catholic Register for 10 years and with his wife, April, of Faith & Family magazine for five. A frequent contributor to Catholic publications, he began his career as a reporter in the Washington, D.C., area and as press secretary for U.S. House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Archer. He lives in Atchison with his wife and those of his nine children still at home. The views and opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Benedictine College or the Gregorian Institute.

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