'The Francis Effect': Who's Feeling It? Who Isn't?

It appears that the world loves Pope Francis, but American Catholics in particular are resistant to the harder teachings of the Church he heads, with a surge in Mass attendance overseas having yet to break on U.S. shores.

You could say many Americans love the man but reject much of what he stands for. But sooner or later, they're going to realize that to be intellectually honest, the two can't entirely be separated.

But people are very good at being happy with half a loaf, especially if it's the one with the jelly slathered on it.

There's a famous story in the eighth chapter of the biblical Gospel of John, in which Jesus came upon a woman about to be stoned for adultery. Challenged by the scribes and the Pharisees to affirm or deny the religious righteousness of killing the woman, Jesus wrote something with his finger in the sand (by the way, this tale is only account of him writing anything). He doesn't say the woman didn't sin; instead, he looks at her accusers and asks any of them if they are without sin, and, if so, tells them to go ahead and throw.

Here's what happened next: "Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' She replied, 'No one, sir.' Then Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you. Go. From now on, do not sin anymore.'"

As with those who like to grab selected soundbites from Pope Francis, many people love this story, right up to the "do not sin anymore" part. The woman is forgiven, but she is sent off with a stern warning to not repeat her behavior. That's what's often phrased by evangelicals and Protestants as "Hate the sin; love the sinner."

In a more Catholic context, it could also be phrased as, "As a beloved Child of God, if you seek forgiveness with a contrite heart, it will always be granted -- but what you did was still wrong, so don't do it again."

Again, the first half of that is a lot sweeter than the second, but to be intellectually honest, the two can't be separated. The first half alone leaves people feeling like adored, spoiled children who are never taught right from wrong nor suffer any consequences for what they do. The second half alone feels like a hard slap upside the head.

But taken together, they're like a good parent who corrects a child's unacceptable behavior and choices while still affirming love and forgiveness for the child itself.

This sounds simple, but in practice, it's a very hard concept -- particularly in America, which kicked off the traces of its Puritan past in the Sixties with a mad rush to libertine excess. Ironically, this has now led to a reverse Puritanism, not just in the U.S. but in much of Western Europe as well.

Those who talk about traditional morality (especially the Catholic Church, which has not altered any of its notions on the subject for many, many centuries) are condemned as heretics and consigned to the outer darkness of social unacceptability, if not actually being subject to legal sanction (as they are in some other countries).

So, while the media has fallen in love with Pope Francis' humility, love of people, personal warmth, and disinterest in material excess (which despite him being a Jesuit, are very much the hallmarks of his namesake, St. Francis), they only want the bits that appeal to their own sensibilities.

Or, Francis is merely used as an excuse to air personal viewpoints and grievances.

For example, take a recent story, "The Francis Factor: Why Worshipers are Returning to Catholic Churches," written by Jesuit-educated former altar boy (and as near as can be discerned from the piece, still-lapsed Catholic) John Walsh.

He does cite some encouraging statistics about how Mass attendance is surging in England and Italy -- apparently it's also happening in Ireland, whose break from the Church is of more recent vintage, and in Australia.

But Walsh talks mostly about his own experiences as a power-seeking, irreligious altar boy and then segues into a highly self-referential list of reasons why people are returning to the Church, whose practices and beliefs are frequently described in subjective, crude, and derogatory ways.

His lurid descriptions of Catholicism -- using such words as "cannibalistic," "slightly horrifying," "savage, earthy atavism," "slightly weird cabal," and "grotesquely Gothic" -- sound much more like the fictional fantasies of Dan Brown or The Omen movies than modern Catholic reality.

Or he's just wrong, like when he states, "In addition, Catholics worship the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, also known as Our Lady."

Catholics respect, venerate, and honor Mary, but they don't worship her (and if any of them are, they need to stop doing that, like, now). They ask her to pray for them, like one would ask any other human for prayers, because they believe she lives still in heaven. Surely, a former altar boy would know enough to consult the relevant section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church before holding forth erroneously on its teachings in print.

But Walsh is correct in saying that the pontiff is emphasizing the sweet-sounding half of the message, saying, "Pope Francis has shifted the papal message from affirmations of doctrinal rigour to the affirmations of simple humanity towards the poor and dispossessed."

These have always been part of Catholic teaching -- indeed, of the larger Christian worldview -- and social-justice efforts around the world, but since a sex-obsessed media insists on constantly laser-focusing on Church teachings on sexual morality, that's all that most people have heard about. Francis is not diluting any doctrine, but he's proactively shining a light on Church teachings and activities that have been given short shrift.

Because of this, he's often characterized in the media as a political liberal -- although terms like "liberal" and "conservative" have no relevance in the Church, which has teachings that either attract or trouble people on both sides of the political divide. Also, liberal politicians and advocacy groups have been eager to lay claim to a particular image of Francis, regardless of their feelings about his Faith.

As to why this has happened. Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Neb., writes in a piece for First Things called "Our Pop Culture Moment": "The reason is simple. Sexual and social libertines have little interest in discrediting Christianity. They're far more interested in refashioning it -- in claiming Christ, and his vicar, as their supporters. The secularist social agenda is more palatable to impressionable young people if it complements, rather than competes with, the residual Christianity of their families. The enemy has no interest in eradicating Christianity if he can sublimate it to his own purposes."

"The enemy" in question is, of course, Satan, whom Francis has mentioned far more frequently than his supposedly more "conservative" predecessor, the oft-maligned (especially in the media) Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

But, even if it may take time for Catholics to catch up to actually practicing their Faith -- and there will always be a certain percentage of "cafeteria Catholics," who pick and choose what teachings to follow -- Francis appears to be getting many of the most alienated back through the doors, which is the first step.

This past Christmas in Ireland -- where a rush of economic prosperity, strong secular influences, and devastating revelations about the sex-abuse crisis drove many from the Church -- parishes around the nation noted record Mass attendance.

Speaking to The Irish Catholic, Father Kieran O'Brien of St. Mary's Cathedral in Killarney said, "What we noticed here were the large numbers of families coming to the cathedral. Many people returning home for Christmas came with parents and grandparents, and you could see three and four generations visiting the crib, which was lovely to see."

Recently appointed Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare & Leighlin was quoted as saying, "The challenge now is to keep them with us and to see them making regular Sunday Mass a part of their lives. The Church is always there for them. As Pope Francis has said, it is an 'open door.'"

According to The Irish Catholic, of its poll of 26 parishes, 23 responded by press time with 20 "reporting substantial increases."

As relayed in the U.K. Telegraph, respondents to an informal survey of Catholic priests in England and Wales have seen an uptick in Confession, attributed to Pope Francis, a visit by Benedict to the U.K. three years ago, and even some smartphone apps that allow Catholics to examine their consciences before going to see the priest.

As for the U.S., despite mass media attention, the evidence of real change on the ground is lacking. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported flat poll results, with U.S. self-identification as Catholic and Mass attendance virtually unchanged between March and Oct. 2013.

But sometimes change, if and when it comes, comes slowly and not in dramatic ways.

Recently in the National Catholic Reporter, a columnist posted an email he received from a U.S. priest at Christmas, which read, "Well, I just celebrated Mass and got the best compliment afterward. A woman came out and said 'that was the most welcoming Mass I've ever been to. It was a real "Pope Francis" Mass! You got the message!' He's infectious!"

(Picture at top taken on Saturday, Feb. 8, at American Martyrs Catholic Church in Manhattan Beach, Calif.)


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