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Vive Pope Francis


I spent seven years as a not-quite-Catholic, so I could write a book on ways to recognize that your future may lie in Roman Catholicism. Here are a few noteworthy entries.

You might be a future Catholic if you constantly find yourself explaining to actual Catholics how their church is way more reasonable than they seem to suppose.

You might be a future Catholic if people wish you a Happy Reformation Day, and you feel sad.

You might be a future Catholic if you solicit your Protestant friends for their theological faves, and deliberately seek out the most laudatory biographies you can find of the church reformers, and still find that the vaunted figures of the Reformation appear in your mind’s eye as small, angry midgets, shaking their fists at the sky.

If this describes you, call your local parish office. You’ve clearly been bitten, and trust me! This bug does not pass in a hurry.

Gold-Standard Spiritual Insurance

Some people spend decades, or even whole lifetimes, as not-quite-Catholics. What finally pushed me into the forbidding, murky waters of the Tiber? Several things, but among them: a need for protection.

Emergency action of some sort was clearly required, because I was in imminent danger of getting squished.

After college, I spent two years in the Peace Corps, which I treated as a kind of extended theological retreat. I read piles of theological literature (sometimes literally by candlelight) in my apartment in Andijan, Uzbekistan. Six whole days after returning to American soil, I raced headlong into an Ivy League graduate program, and found myself surrounded by aggressively secular, highly intelligent atheists. My two-year read-a-thon notwithstanding, I felt like an ant in a grandfather clock. Emergency action of some sort was clearly required, because I was in imminent danger of getting squished.

It was a bracing moment, as though my draft card had just come in the mail. I felt the draw of those glittering ivory towers, and could readily appreciate the benefits of casting aside my anachronistic religious sensibilities for an appealing and highly prestigious career.

Inconveniently, though, I really did believe in hell. So, with my excitement at its lowest possible ebb, I bid farewell to the tide pools of mere Christianity, and got serious about purchasing some real spiritual insurance.

Conversion was one of the loneliest experiences of my life.

I could have quit my graduate program, but that would have been like fleeing to Canada. I could have sought solidarity among the liberal Episcopalians (the only Christian group with a noticeable foothold in my department), but that felt like a childish distraction from the real business at hand. I could have returned to my native Mormonism, and relaxed into the warm, comforting arms of a familiar community. That was unthinkable, because as much as I loved the Mormons, I did not believe.

In my intellectual-and-spiritual foxhole, only gold-standard security seemed adequate. I didn’t need Yelp reviews to tell me where to find it. Looking up local Roman Catholic parishes, I reflected nostalgically on happy days when I would engage in jovial debates with Mormon and Protestant friends, always in the comfortable garb of “the seeker.” Conversion was one of the loneliest experiences of my life.

The Passport Everyone Recognizes

Have you ever found yourself standing at a checkpoint on some strikingly non-Western border, waiting for likely corrupt officials to drag you through their phony baloney “security” routine? I have, a number of times. At such moments, you may feel nothing but love for your Canadian, Irish, and Liechtensteinian comrades, but it still feels great to have an eagle stamped on your passport. Everybody recognizes that eagle. Even the petty, two-bit tyrants of Kyrzbekistan know better than to mess with the bird.

When the chips are down, you start to notice that Protestant denominations are like dust in the wind.

I feel similarly about my Roman citizenship. People can develop their idiosyncratic tastes for Methodist revival meetings or Anglican hymnody, and that’s fine. I have both affection and esteem for my Protestant friends. When the chips are down, though, you start to notice that Protestant denominations are like dust in the wind. How many have we got now—eight million? Even the word “denomination” sounds transitory, like a kind of religion club. Outside of the immediately involved parties, does anyone even care about the disputes that hold particular communities together or drive them apart? I start falling asleep whenever I wade into a piece about the minutiae of contemporary Protestant disputes.

By contrast, everyone is interested in Rome. Virtually all of my Protestant friends have an explanation in their back pocket for why they aren’t Catholic. I cannot recall a single occasion in which I was pressed to explain why I haven’t traded in my Roman citizenship for a place with the Presbyterians.

On the other hand, secular friends (or enemies) have many times demanded to know why I would voluntarily fall in with the biggest and baddest of reactionary faiths, and I take that as a high compliment. Have you noticed in the New Testament how it’s always the devils who are quickest to identify Jesus?

Long Live the Pope!

The pope is the Catholic Church’s main figurehead, so whenever he does something noteworthy (makes a visit, writes an encyclical, dies), lively debate is sure to follow. Right away we can notice something striking: everyone wants to participate, whether or not they are Catholic. Somehow people implicitly recognize the Catholic Church’s business as everyone’s business.

Somehow people implicitly recognize the Catholic Church’s business as everyone’s business.

There is some adulatory coverage, but the bulk of it is either derisive or else sadly crestfallen. Some people are determined to be thrilled with the pope regardless of what he says, simply because he is the pope. Others will be happy only if he delivers the precise message they wish to hear. Those people, inevitably, are disappointed. A third group of people is determined to find fault with anything the pope says, simply because he is the pope.

Let’s cut through the noise. Particular popes come and go, but the pope is awesome for a very simple reason. Without him, we really cannot have one holy, catholic and apostolic church. A ship won’t stay on course without a captain. A military needs a commander in chief. Without a CEO, a company will descend into a lot of squabbling over competing visions and interests.

Catholicism is amazing in a million ways, with rich and fantastically cohesive intellectual, juridical, and liturgical traditions, more than a billion living members, and some of the loveliest art and architecture the world has ever seen. But popes, however you feel about them, are part of that package. A central leadership makes possible a kind of unity that would otherwise be entirely out of reach. That unity, in turn, provides the foundation on which this remarkable tradition, unparalleled in so many ways, has been built.

A central leadership makes possible a kind of unity that would otherwise be entirely out of reach.

Protestants try to protect their own tradition, such as it is, through their three “solas,” but this is a dramatically different arrangement. “Solas” have a reductionist quality to them, which is far less amenable to maintaining a longstanding tradition. Quite obviously, they have been far less successful when it comes to maintaining unity, and they leave Protestants in a more complicated relationship with Christian history, since there really is no one hermeneutical lens that smoothly encompasses their entire narrative from the time of Christ.

Very smart people have of course worked on this problem from a variety of angles. But it remains a challenge, and Protestants who become really absorbed by the issue of Christian unity have a disconcerting habit of jumping ship.

The Office Belittles the Man

Without a pope, the wheels would have come off the Catholic bus 18 or 19 centuries ago. (Cue laugh track! Like any institution could really last that long. Oh, wait.) He isn’t the most important or interesting thing about Catholicism, but he’s a necessary active ingredient.

The papal office has always been bigger than the men who filled it.

Remarkably though, history indicates the pontiff needn’t be good in order to fill his role adequately. Of course, it’s much better if he is good. But the office has always been bigger (sometimes much bigger) than the men who filled it. Some Catholics fail to understand this, and act as though every word the pontiff utters simply must be filled with rich wisdom beyond our ken. This is a mistake.

Many pontiffs really have been great men who dazzled the world with their wisdom and leadership. It’s always worth paying attention, because if you’re looking for spiritual guidance, you’re more likely to get it from the pope than most other living persons. On the other hand, there are clearly no guarantees. Some popes have been remarkable mainly as illustrations of the resiliency of the institution. To quote G.K. Chesterton:

When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

Chesterton’s analysis may seem disconcerting at first, but in a way, this is a no-lose situation for Catholics. Papal triumphs prove how much the Holy Spirit can do with this unique and remarkable office. Papal failures highlight the remarkable fact that, through two millennia worth of blunders, the church rolls on.

Last Church Standing

In case it’s not obvious, I eventually warmed to life as a Roman Catholic. From a lonely and timid beginning, I moved on to enjoy a landscape that was rich and fertile (in more ways than one), and I can honestly say with John Henry Newman that whatever my difficulties, I have never doubted that initial plunge.

As a Catholic, my liturgical and intellectual life is anchored in something bigger than the Ivy League, the culture wars, and even than that eagle-stamped passport.

As a Catholic, my liturgical and intellectual life is anchored in something bigger than the Ivy League, the culture wars, and even than that eagle-stamped passport. My Vatican flag is flying right now, and it will stay up until the Holy Father is safely home in Rome.

I expect the secular world to stand at attention with rotten fruit in hand, ready to pillory the pope. Protestants, for their parts, are protesters by constitution, so I naturally expect some querulous complaints from their corner whenever Catholic issues are under discussion. Some can be received gratefully as constructive criticism. Others are basically petty, but gentlemen (and -women) should not be too fazed by a bit of heckling from the groundlings. Pope Francis seems like a magnanimous figure, and I’m fairly sure he doesn’t lose sleep over the jeers of American pundits.

If there’s ever a time, though, for urging people to consider the long game, this is it. Popes have made fools of themselves time and again, but that white robe has some pretty amazing staying power. Do you really want to lose sight of that greatness on account of some trivial dispute over carbon dioxide?

Enjoy your denominations, Protestant brethren! I wish you all the best, and I’m grateful and proud to be allies in vitally important cultural and spiritual battles. Nevertheless, I’ll stick with my church.

Actually, I’ll do better than that. In the gathering gloom, more and more people may find themselves, as I once did, feeling cornered and in need of spiritual protection. Friends, we’re keeping the lights on for you. This fortress has stood for 2,000 years, and we can always make room for a few more.