I spent a year reading Pope Francis, and it was the hardest year of my life.
It wasn’t that Pope Francis is hard to read — he’s not. It is just that he was really hard to read in 2015–2016, if you knew you had to write a book defending what he was saying.
My book is What Pope Francis Really Said: Words of Comfort and Challenge, newly published by Servant, and I was writing it at the precise moment that Pope Francis’ public image was taking a bruising. In May 2015 his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, was greeted with complaints from all sides. Salon magazine warned its liberal readers not to trust Pope Francis, saying “Don’t be fooled by the hype!” National Review summed up the feelings of conservatives in an editorial. Its title: “Laudato No.”
Then Pope Francis’ Synod on the Family was described in the media as an attempt to change significant Church teachings. Even his September 2015 visit to the United States stirred controversy. He raised all the hot-button issues that were already emerging in the presidential race: immigration, homosexual marriage, abortion, and religious freedom.
My book had to cover them all — as well as spend precious time explaining the truth behind major Francis misunderstandings from his pontificate thus far. There was “Who am I to judge?” from year one (“You’re the pope, that’s who!” a friend quipped). There was the great contraception meltdown from year two. “The news that Pope Francis has strongly defended the Church’s ban on artificial birth control left me, in a word, devastated,” wrote one Catholic author. Another group was upset that in defending the Church’s teaching, Francis had seemed to compare large Catholic families to rabbits.
Then there was the great Marxist fiasco. Talk-show hosts had labeled him a Marxist early on for his economic ideas. When Pope Francis accepted a Marxist crucifix during his visit to South America, he seemed to prove them right.
“I wish I could just sit and watch this pontificate unfold instead of having to write about it!” I complained to friends. “I don’t want to have to defend this guy.”
But then it dawned on me. That’s not the attitude a Catholic is supposed to have.
A Catholic is supposed to rally around the Holy Father and row in the same direction as the captain of the “Barque of Peter.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful’” (882).
We are one Church — under one head, Peter.
The pope is not infallible in his every utterance — far from it. Papal infallibility only applies to certain rare circumstances. But one thing is always true for Catholics: “‘The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered’” (CCC, 882).
He’s the boss. And what is our role, as laypeople?
We are “the front line of Church life” says the Catechism. We are “the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him” (899).
So, you see, whether we like it or not, we are supposed to defend the pope. It’s part of our job description as Catholic laypeople.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we have to accept everything the pope says without further examination or honest questions. But I think it does entail certain “shoulds” and “should nots” of Catholic behavior.
First, a rule about what you should not do: You shouldn’t publicly dissent from the pope or undermine him. This is a good rule in many walks of life: Don’t publicly contradict your commanding officer, especially on the front lines. If you can’t exactly embrace them, at least refuse to publicly undermine the things he says.
Second, a rule about what you should do: You should take your general direction from the pope. You should get behind his initiatives. He is the one who has been chosen to ensure the unity of the Church. If he thinks it is time for us to focus on marriage and family, or the environment — find a way to do so, privately or publicly. If he has left out details you consider important, include them. But do it in a spirit of sharing his initiative, not quashing it.
Third, you should actually look up what he said and learn more about it. You should not simply take the secular media’s word for what the pope has and hasn’t said. Some of the most famous things Pope Francis has said are things he never said. He never said that all pets go to heaven. He never said all religions are equal. He never said Christians should apologize for the attack on Orlando, Florida. Yet headlines claimed he said all three.
Alas, however, he has said some startling things. That’s why I have included here a handy guide for reading Pope Francis.
If I learned anything in my hard year of reading everything Pope Francis had said or written, it’s this: Not only can we trust Pope Francis, we can thank God for him. He called for the Church to “go out to the peripheries,” and he is bringing the Church into more parts of the world, and into more conversations, than it has seen in years.
It’s our job to go there with him.
Five questions to ask about a Pope Francis quote
Pope Francis is not the fire-breathing radical some make him out to be. He is also neither foolish nor naive. He is, in fact, continuing a project his predecessors started: He is making the Church relevant again to a world that badly wants to write us off.
But reading Francis takes a little more effort than reading St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. They spent their university careers training themselves to say things using only the exact right words. Not Pope Francis.
In my book What Pope Francis Really Said, I point out that from his very first homily, it became obvious you have to ask certain questions to understand Pope Francis quotes properly.
FIRST: What did Pope Francis really say? Don’t take a secular news report’s word for it: Go to the source — the pope’s actual words. You can find transcripts online, often published by Catholic News Agency or the National Catholic Register. Eventually, they all appear at the Vatican’s website (Vatican.va), too. Many of the troubling quotes of Pope Francis will simply disappear into thin air when you read his words — because he is often reported saying things he didn’t really say.
SECOND: Who did he say it to — and why? I used this key question to understand every Pope Francis outrage, from his first homily to the latest headline.
In his first homily as pope on March 14, 2013, in the Sistine Chapel, Francis said: “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil.” Yikes. Did the pope condemn all non-Christians as Satanists? No. Read it in context and you realize he was telling Catholics that if they are ignoring Christ, they are working against him.
And this summer, in the wake of the Orlando, Florida, nightclub shooting, CNN reported, “Pope Francis says Christians should apologize to gay people.” Not quite. Read what Pope Francis said, and you learn that in response to a reporter’s insistent questions, Pope Francis said Christians had nothing to do with Orlando, but that we should all apologize to anyone we have offended.
THIRD: Did St.John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI say the same thing as Pope Francis? One thing that became obvious in researching my book is that many of the problems people have with Pope Francis they should also have with St. John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI, too. For instance, all three popes said similar things about global warming, Benedict repeatedly said not to stress hot-button issues such as abortion, and the three are as one on economics.
FOURTH: Does the Catechism say the same thing as Pope Francis? Rome priest Father John Wauck made a great point about Pope Francis. He said that much of the astonishment people have at what Pope Francis says is really their astonishment at what the Church teaches. Many of his most shocking statements are not shocking at all; they are just Catechism quotes translated into everyday speech. Pope Francis said, “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” So does paragraph 2358 of the Catechism. He upset some Catholics by defending Islam — just like paragraph 841. There are many, many more examples.
FIFTH: Ask WWJD, and then read the Gospels to find out. One key truth kept cropping up as I wrote the book. Pope Francis knows the Gospels — very, very well. He loves them. He lives them. He has formed his heart according to them. He sees the poor at the center of faith concerns — because the Gospels do. He sees service as fundamental to our life as Christians. Because the Gospels do. He is slow to condemn. Because the Gospels are.
Above all he is a lover of the person of Jesus Christ: The man-God who is revealed in all his mystery and loveliness in the Gospels. In the end, the best way to defend Pope Francis is to remember that it ultimately isn’t him you are defending. It is Jesus Christ himself.