“Your Christianity will be Personal, or it will be Bullshit”: Beneath Grisez’s Critique of Francis

In response to Francis’ recently published interview with an atheist, Germaine Grisez had some startling criticism:

I’m afraid that Pope Francis has failed to consider carefully enough the likely consequences of letting loose with his thoughts in a world that will applaud being provided with such help in subverting the truth it is his job to guard as inviolable and proclaim with fidelity. For a long time he has been thinking these things. Now he can say them to the whole world — and he is self-indulgent enough to take advantage of the opportunity with as little care as he might unburden himself with friends after a good dinner and plenty of wine.

Katherine Mahon over at Daily Theology has some thoughtful reflections about the interview that also, I think, implicitly engages with the substance of Grisez’s critique, but I want to focus on the subtext, the assumptions, beneath this critique, which I find far more disturbing.

Grisez affirms that the Pope’s job is to to guard [the truth] as inviolable and proclaim [it] with fidelity. The truth we’re talking about here is the truth of the gospel, the truth which was entrusted to the Church.

He then criticizes Francis for being open and honest in saying what he really thinks and how he really feels.

The underlying assumption is that popes, bishops, and preachers have a responsibility to conceal any personal thoughts, feelings, or opinions that might potentially be interpreted as inconsistent with any element of the formal teachings of the church.

This sounds like the doctrine of scandal as it is usually applied: Oh noes, the faithful will be confused! We must never do anything that might confuse the faithful about what the Church teaches!

This is the same principle that led to the persistent, pernicious cover-up of sexual abuse by priests: If people knew that a priest was molesting children, they might lose their faith in the church. (You would think — you would hope — that all Catholics everywhere would have learned from how well that worked out. Sigh.)

This reasoning stifles authentic conversation about the faith, which is absolutely central to evangelization, catechesis, and growth in the Christian life. It incises a deepening gap between the academy, the seminary, and the pews. As Dr. Val Webb wrote,

the attitude of ”Let’s not pull the rug out from under the laity” . . . continues to rule in many churches today, even though the rug under many laity is threadbare. Why is it there is often more pastoral concern about keeping one group of church members in their innocence than about feeding serious searchers who are quietly walking out the door?

This attitude towards the laity is infantilizing at best, condescending at worst. And it doesn’t work, at least not in cultural settings where the people in the pews are frequently as well educated as the man in the collar, and not likely to accept that “Father knows best” if Father can’t provide answers that satisfy them.

It is also surprisingly timorous: if we have faith in the truth of the gospel, then what have we to fear from honest, authentic discussion?

Of course, “the teachings of the church” are not perfectly synonymous with “the truth of the gospel,” because the church is endowed with human frailty as well as divine grace. If open, honest discussion were to lead us to perceive areas in which the teachings of the church are not fully consonant with the truth of the gospel, would this not be a gift bestowed by the Spirit of Truth? And if it were to lead to the spread of misapprehensions about the gospel, then would this, too, not be a gift from that same Spirit, the kind of gift that teaches us, a means of pointing out those areas in which the teachings of the church are inadequate to express the truth of the gospel, and must be strengthened?

There’s a line coined by Flavia Dzodan that’s made the rounds in certain portions of the feminist blogosphere: my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. Many critics of the church today, particularly but not exclusively young people, might summarize their most fundamental critique with a similar refrain:

Your Christianity will be personal, or it will be bullshit.

Francis’ Christianity is palpably personal: this is the “Francis effect” to which so many people, Catholic and non-Catholic, Christian and non-Christian, theist and atheist, have overwhelmingly responded. It is personal in his directly engaged relationships with other persons. It is personal in his intense concern for persons who are poor, disabled, or wounded. And it is personal in his willingness to talk about what he personally thinks.

His name saint, Francis of Assisi, was personal in the same ways.

And, the gospels tell us, so was Jesus.

Contra Dr. Grisez, this emphasis of the personal, rather than the institutional, is precisely the approach that is called for in these times when suspicion of institutions generally, and organized religions particularly, runs so high. If the New Evangelization is to be more than a pious marketing campaign, then it must be personal, not institutional. And if the person of the Pope is not to talk about what he really thinks and how he really feels, then for what reason do we have a Pope at all?

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