If 2014 was the year of media misunderstandings of the pope, 2015 was the year Catholics got him wrong.
It should have been a defining year for Pope Francis as a defender of Catholic doctrine. It was the year of many papal pro-life statements, the year the pope denounced “gender theory” within a week of Caitlyn Jenner’s debut, the year of a strong synod document on the family.
But it seemed that each season brought a new occasion for Catholics to feel deep suspicions about the pope.
It began with winter and rabbits
On the plane back from his Jan. 15–19 trip to the Philippines, Pope Francis told a reporter: “Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.”
Of course he was right — responsible parenting is absolutely essential. But the phraseology left many Catholics feeling like the pope had just slighted large families.
The pope clarified his remarks a few days later. Speaking to a meeting with large families, he praised large families in several different ways.
So what was the “rabbits” comment all about?
He was answering a journalist’s objection to his outspoken comments against contraception in the Philippines — comments that led one American writer to proclaim: “The news that Pope Francis has strongly defended the Church’s ban on artificial birth control left me, in a word, devastated. I had hoped for so much more from this man.”
Pope Francis’ rabbits message was not intended for those who embrace Church teaching but those who reject it. He wasn’t saying, “Too many people are having too many babies,” he was saying “Too many people dismiss the Church’s teaching on contraception as impractical.” And that needed to be said.
With spring came global warming
The May 24 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si,starts out being very careful to say that “a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned” to global warming (No. 23). But then it seems to throw caution to the wind in its denunciation of “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries” (No. 51).
Catholics rightly wondered: Wait — isn’t it a bad idea for the Church to make pronouncements on scientific issues? That hasn’t worked out well for us in the past.
Maybe so, but Pope Francis’ urgency about global warming is nothing new. Both of his predecessors issued similar warnings. And it is important to note that he left a significant escape hatch for the Church in the encyclical, saying: “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts while respecting divergent views” (No. 6).
I have always been a global warming agnostic: There are people who are smarter than me on both sides of the question. If the threat is real, then thank God the popes are raising the alarm. If it isn’t, Laudato Si’s central point about the West’s self-destructive hyper-consumerism is nonetheless a point well taken.
Then came summer and South America
In the summer, Pope Francis’ six-day South America trip generated controversy early on when the president of Bolivia presented him with a hammer-and-sickle crucifix.
The story brought waves of confusion. First, there were the eagerly shared memes of the pope’s disapproving look when he received it. Next was a wave of pictures taken a moment later of the pope’s smile when receiving it. Some said Francis hated it and left it behind. Other said he loved it and kept it with him.
The pope gave the definitive answer on the plane ride home, calling it not a crucifix but “protest art” and describing how Jesuit superior general Pedro Arrupe had been critical of the Marxist interpretation of the Gospel in response to just such works of art.
Then he said something telling. He said that he left other tokens of appreciation behind. “If I take them to the Vatican, they will end up in a museum where nobody will see them. … However, I am taking the sculpture of Christ with me.”
In other words, faced with the two options: “leave the protest art behind where it will be displayed” or “put the art where no one will see it,” Pope Francis chose to deep-six it.
But I still hear comments from Catholics who are convinced that the pope cherished the crucifix, showing his true colors.
Last came the Francis fall freak-out
And so it was that, when Pope Francis visited America, some Catholics treated his every move with a deep suspicion. Why didn’t he say “Jesus” in the White House? Was that a real blessing outside the U.S. Capitol? Did he mean to meet with Kim Davis or was he ambushed? Didn’t he kind of soft-pedal abortion to Congress?
And so it was suspicion that followed him to the Family Synod in October, when many Catholics were convinced that the Holy Father was colluding with cardinals who wanted to soften Jesus Christ’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.
George Weigel has done invaluable work spelling out what really happened at synod 2015: A reboot of a process begun more than a year earlier, re-rooting the Vatican’s approach to the family in scripture.
But the damage has been done.
Pope Francis demonstrates all the good that you get from a pope who has an emphatic, plainspoken style. He also shows the confusion it can cause. Some say, “What more does he have to do before you admit Pope Francis is trouble?” But you can look at the man who keeps a Way of the Cross and a Rosary in his pocket and also say, “What more does he have to do before you admit he is devout and faithful?”
I predict that Pope Francis’ pontificate will be seen in retrospect as a time when the Church let down her defenses and had a real encounter with the world. But I predict we will have more explaining to do first.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.