Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Scandal of Pope Francis

With Pope Francis being awarded Time's "Person of the Year", I thought I'd reflect on just who won that award. You see, there are, in fact, three Pope Francises!

Back in the 14th Century was a period of Church History known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy, followed by the Western Schism. The pope, due to certain political circumstances, had fled Rome and settled in Avignon, France. Unfortunately, successive popes became more and more influenced by the political intrigues of the French Monarchy, until they were no more than puppets of the kings of France. Through the tireless work of such saints as St. Catherine of Siena, the Pope was finally persuaded to move back to the Holy See and rule again from Rome. The French Cardinals were none too pleased by this, and set up a second conclave to elect a French pope to reign from Avignon (it didn't help that the rightful claimant of the See of Peter had become a paranoid, crotchety, and maniacal sort of fellow that nobody liked at all!); and the two popes excommunicated each other. While the world was trying to figure out whether the Roman Pope or the French Pope was really the real pope, a third pope stepped up and excommunicated them both! Of course, throughout this whole debacle, there was only one true Pope, and two "antipopes", but for a while, it was very hard to tell which was which.

Today, on a far less extreme scale, politically-speaking, there is a similar dynamic. While there aren't three different people claiming to be the pope, since the election of Pope Francis, there are three different versions of who the pope is, being claimed by various groups of people. This was put in crystal clear perspective for me recently by none other than the late, great G.K. Chesterton, who wrote a story seventy-seven years ago that captures the scandal perfectly.

((Warning: Spoilers!))In the final volume of the Father Brown stories, The Scandal of Father Brown, the first and eponymous story tells about how Father Brown got involved in a scandalous affair in which a woman had left her husband for a famous poet. A newshound had happened to follow the trio to a trysting-place in Mexico where Father Brown happened to be. The newspaperman saw Father Brown give his hotel room to the woman in order that she could escape and run off with the handsome gentleman while the aging other man tried vainly to keep the handsome man out of the hotel. The newspaperman assumed the aging, portly fellow was the woman's husband, and the dashingly handsome man was the romantic poet. When he saw that Father Brown had aided the woman in uniting with the man outside the hotel, he assumed that Father Brown was not only condoning, but aiding in adultery, and reported it immediately to the newspaper back home, and so the story went out about the scandalous priest who defied the Church to aid in this horrible sin. In fact, the handsome fellow turned out to be the husband, and the portly fellow was the poet, and the husband had come to win back his wife, who had grown bored herself of the poet's company (because poets themselves are not nearly as romantic as their poetry, after all). And while the jealous poet tried to keep the husband out, Father Brown helped the wife climb out his window into her husbands waiting arms. The chagrined newspaperman contacted the paper immediately upon hearing the truth, but the damage had already been done. Chesterton ends the story thus:
Not much more than half an hour had passed, between the time when Rock [the journalist] had telephoned to say the priest was helping the poet to run away with the lady, and the time when he telephoned to say that the priest had prevented the poet from doing precisely the same thing. But in that short interval of time was born and enlarged and scattered upon the winds the Scandal of Father Brown. The truth is still half an hour behind the slander; and nobody can be certain when or where it will catch up with it. The garrulity of pressmen and the eagerness of enemies had spread the first story through the city, even before it appeared in the first printed version. It was instantly corrected and contradicted by Rock himself, in a second message stating how the story had really ended; but it was by no means certain that the first story was killed. A positively incredible number of people seemed to have read the first issue of the paper and not the second. Again and again, in every corner of the world, like a flame bursting from blackened ashes, there would appear the old tale of the Brown Scandal, or Priest Ruins Potter Home. Tireless apologists of the priest's party watched for it, and patiently tagged after it with contradictions and exposures and letters of
protest. Sometimes the letters were published in the papers; and sometimes they were not. But still nobody knew how many people had heard the story without hearing the contradiction. It was possible to find whole blocks of blameless and innocent people who thought the Mexican Scandal was an ordinary recorded historical incident like the Gunpowder Plot. Then somebody would enlighten these simple people, only to discover that the old story had started afresh among a few quite educated people, who would seem the last people on earth to be duped by it. And so the two Father Browns chase each other round the world for ever; the first a shameless criminal fleeing from justice; the second a martyr broken by slander, in a halo of rehabilitation. But neither of
them is very like the real Father Brown, who is not broken at all; but goes stumping with his stout umbrella through life, liking most of the people in it; accepting the world as his companion, but never as his judge. ("The Scandal of Father Brown", The Scandal of Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton, pp. 22-23)
So today, we have the Media reporting (woefully inaccurately) the words of Pope Francis. His award in the Times was predicated upon their strange notion that he is going to overturn centuries of Catholic teaching in order to make things like abortion and gay marriage acceptable. Liberal people in the Church who desire such changes are eating it up and lauding the Pope for being so "new" and "different". Reactionary traditionalist Catholics are deploring the Pope's image as though the image is the reality, and using it as an excuse to support their conspiratorial notions that drive them further out of the Church itself. Meanwhile, faithful Catholics chase after these erroneous stories, filling comboxes and posting Facebook statuses about "what the pope really meant", and they themselves, fatigued by their perceived need for constant vigilance, begin to wish the Pope would, in fact, just be more "Pope-like". In all of this, Pope Francis is compared and contrasted with Pope Benedict, pitting the one against the other as though some seismic shift in the Church has actually occurred. Round and round this dance goes, like a dog chasing its tail.

And yet, like the "real" Father Brown, there is a real Pope Francis, a man who is who he is and does what he does, without any very great concern about what the world thinks of him. He is a man who is very obviously much more concerned with what Jesus thinks of him. Whether one thinks such an attitude is right for the most visible religious figure on earth to have, the fact remains that Pope Francis will continue to go "stumping with his stout umbrella through life, liking most of the people in it; accepting the world as his companion, but never as his judge."

To my mind, that is the real lesson that the Pope is teaching the world, and especially us Catholics. The Church isn't going to radically change. In fact, many places throughout the world are experiencing "The Francis Effect", with people returning to the Church (in particular the Sacrament of Confession) in large numbers precisely because of the witness of this Pope. The Media is going to spin its own agenda, and yes, we need to always be prepared to give a defence of the hope that we have as Christians (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), but we have that hope precisely because Jesus has promised that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church!

The Church survived the Western Schism, and every other scandal before that and since. It will survive Pope Francis being named Person of the Year! And let's be honest: he deserves it; even if not for the reasons Time gave it to him.

So keep calm and Catholic on!