The Paradox of Francis: When We Need Fathers, We Get the Law

December 7, 2016

john-vachon-1938-39In a business class in high school I recall studying how factories try to figure out how to squeeze productivity out of workers.  In one case they took a group of women apart from the rest, gave them a specific widget-making task, and then had them do it over and over again with different work schedules.  They tried all kinds systems to find the most productive – lots of little breaks, one big one, few medium ones, and so on.  The study frustrated the taskmasters though, because no matter what they did, productivity increased.  They could not identify the magic policy for work and breaks.

Then it hit them.

The women were more productive because of the personal focus.  They were asked about needs and comfort and treated as persons – not exactly the normal scenario for factories at that time.  It shifted managers away from the “law” of policy and procedure and to focusing on workers as persons, and not like the machines they were using in the factory.  Policy works best when corresponding to the reality of persons.

Policies or Persons?

I am a convert from Evangelical Protestantism, the strain that focuses very heavily on two things: truth and reaching people wherever they are.  In other words, we trusted Jesus completely that the truth would set people free, but we knew that truth is almost always felt as much as heard, through personal relationships, and rarely through any efforts of law and information – i.e. the evangelizing equivalent of a memo to the world, signed “Church.”  Through God’s grace love for the truth led me home to the Catholic Church.

Since the beginning of his Pontificate, I have loved the message of Francis to get out among the sheep until you “smell like them”.  While I’m not exactly sure I like the idea of having a scent potent enough to inflict upon my shepherd, I get it.

But the conversation today, especially with Bishops issuing conflicting “policies” about the implementation of  Amoris Laetitia , is about the law itself. We are talking about the application of policies, sometimes as if truth can get in the way of working with persons.  It’s a battle of headlines.  Truth and law is cast as “rigid”.  Well, truth is rigid.  Because it is outside of our subjective experience, the objectivity of the truth can feel cold and calculating.  But thanks to the Incarnation and the “method” Jesus gave the Church of people-to-people evangelization and formation, the truth is always accompanied by love.  You can go through decades of seminary, but in the end you are not a priest until a man places his hands on you!  The Church, like its Head, always comes in the flesh.  This is the great wonder of Catholicism: Truth came and accompanied us, and we can now accompany truth to and alongside persons.

What We Really Need

This is why we don’t need CEO’s and policies, but saints and fathers.

Francis speaks of the Church as if it’s laid a heavy burden upon the shoulders of the laity and the clergy need to come in and help lift it.  I think my experience is like many others: this is not the Church I encounter.  Instead I have endured soft and wonky preaching and teaching, constant exceptions in the name of pastoral sensitivity, and I have generally had to dig deep and even go around the average parish workings to find the truths of the Church.  And in them, because they are infallibly true, I have found freedom.  The yoke was a yoke, but it was sweet.  Jesus said that would happen right?

But I think this is the heart of the problem: people don’t know how to accompany truth on its way to people, so they think they can start with people, toss in some endlessly nuanced policies, and walk to truth.  Some are great with truth and bad with people; some are bad with truth and great with people.  (I fear the latter much more).  We talk and walk them in circles and call it dialogue and accompaniment – it goes nowhere.  The problem is not the truth.  Tweaking policies won’t get at the problems we’re facing.

On the ground, outside of headlines, what we laity are seeing is simply pastors taking predictable paths: “conservatives” speaking of the truth and “liberals” speaking of the exceptions (in what seems to be obvious contradiction to Magisterial teaching).   It doesn’t answer the problem: how did so few Catholics learn to know and love the truth?   We are in chains because the truth has been under a bushel basket.

Love in Action

When this controversy first began at the Synod on the Family I felt this in my bones.  I was actually angry.  I did not hear once the critical self-reflection that a father and leader should have when I read the words of our shepherds.  “Our number one question today,” I wish someone would have asked, “Is why in the world we let out people be devastated in this way by the Sexual Revolution?”  Or perhaps: “John Paul II gave us amazing teaching, especially the Theology of the Body, which would have taught people the truth of marital love and probably saved marriages the world over.  Why was it never taught?”  Or even better: “Maybe we should have listened to the prophecies in Humanae Vitae…” ; or maybe, “Do we want favorable headlines with the world or favorable judgment in eternity?”

During the year of mercy I encountered a sweet old woman who had fallen away from the Church.  According to Church teaching, which she knew well from the more solid days of catechesis, she was in a state of mortal sin.  She told me a terrible story of being mistreated by a pastor, hurt by a father.

“You are outside of the Church right now,” I said to her, looking directly in her eyes.  It was uncomfortable, but still personable because I had grown to really know her as a person.

“I’m on the inside,” I continued.  “But from the inside, as a representative of the body you left, can I ask you something?”

She looked worried at this point.

“Will you please forgive me for hurting you?”  She cried.  And she’s back at Mass.

In God, “mercy and truth have met” (Psalm 85:10).  My point is that I think the whole conversation that Francis is inducing is working against its goals, which is bringing people closer to Jesus Christ, because instead of talking about Him – the Way, Truth, and Life – we’re talking about the letter of the law.  As many have pointed out, it’s hard not to think we are in a moment when the world is changing the Church, not the Church changing the world.  And here we sit, talking of policies.

Let’s talk about our cowardice at bringing the truth to the streets, not how we can adjust a policy and send a memo and press release to the world about it – with an air of self-congratulating “mercy” and ostentatious humility.  Has a memo ever worked?

What we need is fathers.

Jason Craig works and writes from a small farm in rural North Carolina with his wife Katie and their five kids. Jason is the Executive Director of Fraternus, a mentoring program for young men, and holds a masters degree from the Augustine Institute. He is known to staunchly defend his family’s claim to have invented bourbon.

Jason Craig

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Reader Interactions


  1. AvatarRodrigo Fernández says

    Brother in the faith, Jason Craig, I believe your concerns are important and shared by many catholics throughout the United States, but your approach inadequate.

    You still envision the Church’s present ordeal as a conflict between “‘conservatives’ speaking of the truth and ‘liberals’ speaking of the exceptions (in what seems to be obvious contradiction to Magisterial teaching)”, as you stated yourself. And that is a projection of the political struggle happening in a large part of the western world, particularly in the US. And both that dichotomy of the political spectrum and the projection of it into the Church, may be wrong. Coming from a culture with deeper catholic roots, and a keen interest in the Church’s history, I can say that the dichotomy you speak of is already “liberal”. What you call “conservative” is already a modern view, it comes from the previous liberal generation, and thus it appears to be more traditional that what you call the “liberal” side. Liberalism moves in successive waves, a step-by-step degradation, in the same way the “progress” discourse offers a slow advancement towards an ideal. And the Church has not been immune to this. Today’s “conservative” stance was yesterday’s “liberal” thesis, but appears to be traditional only when confronted with a more radical liberal stance, a more progressive one. Which is why we must become pre-modern and return to our real roots. That must be hard for americans to achieve, for they have no pre-modern roots, unlike the rest of the world.

    You speak mainly about the latest controversy spurred by Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which you compare to an executive memo on how to administer God’s sacraments to a specific sector of the Church’s clientelle. I believe it is much deeper. The Pope rescued from oblivion a commentary by Saint Thomas Aquinas which had been a constant battlefield between the moral-theologians for centuries, but became rather unknown after it ceased being polemic due to the triumph of the jesuits’ thesis over the jansenist thesis; it had become a “terminated discussion”. The jansenist thesis regarding that issue was the idea that a few general principles are enough to solve every moral issue through the mechanical application of a syllogism (being the general principle the “major premise”, the specific case the “minor premise”, reaching that way a simple conclusion). Well, Thomas Aquinas explained that that method may be useful in solving most cases, but not all, condemning the “generalist” approach. And the thesis that was supported by the Church then (the jesuit one), is exactly the one Pope Francis brings into the open now. The Pope is affirming the immovable position, for he is the immovable Rock to which we must cling. The rest of the Church has shifted due to the pollarization of the political spectrum.

    The King is coming.

  2. AvatarDave says

    You know seriously.. What a bunch of xyz. And you can say what you want about that word.
    What the Catholic laity want is 2 fold:
    1. A ONE unchangable truth ( this I guarantee is what attracts evangelicals and non Catholics)
    2. A rock to hold onto when times get choppy.. When raising families

    We don’t want a fracking debate. We want the Pope to teach what Christ taught, not thumbsuck and manipulate family conferences by proxies, and ‘clever Jesuit’ manipulation. He is not Christ. You don’t get to define teaching.
    If Francis wants to be a St Francis.. He needs to become a Franciscan

  3. AvatarDave says

    Remember one thing.. Fancy words and theological expertise means zip.. Your language must be palatable to the most simple of persons.. Just as Christs gospel was.. And that implies consistent simple application , no subjectivity bar for for contemporary moral issues e.g contraception or vitro

    • AvatarRodrigo Fernández says

      I agree with what you say Dave. Even though some questions are dubious and difficult (some of them so difficult they even require councils to clarify), the hierarchy must be smart enough to present the faithful a simple “right and wrong” guidance. Even at the expense of hiding to the faithful some of those dubious and difficult issues. Unfortunately Dave, we just stumbled upon one of those. Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia was aimed at confessors who are not just well-versed in moral and sacramental theology, but also spiritually equipped with the ability of discernment, which is not easy to harness. Unfortunately most people nowadays have been educated to have an opinion about everything, a very democratic approach, when this is actually a for-theologians-only issue. And what is worse is that though the comment by Thomas Aquinas that the Pope refers his opinion to was useful in the past to defeat the jansenists, is now being used to cause division in the Church.

      I believe this is a catastrophe. The “conservatives” in the Church rebelling against the Pope when he grounds his opinion on Saint Thomas? This is indeed a dark time.

    • Greg B says

      Dave, with all the “lackluster” (and occasionally even heretical) catechesis and the extremely lackluster liturgies the Church has had to suffer through over the past few decades, I sincerely sympathize with your feelings. But let’s try and dismiss some of the fog here.

      When I was a kid, I didn’t quite get it. When I’d be out somewhere with my mom shopping, she’d either pay for what she wanted with cash or would write a check for it. Occasionally, I’d ask for something and her response was, “We don’t have the money.” In my not yet fully developed mind, I had a simple solution: “Then write a check!” I’d tell her. That was what she always did before when she didn’t have cash, right? Why not now?? Obviously, I didn’t grasp the dynamics of a checking account and how there had to be money in it for the check to “work.” But whether I understood it or not, the truth remained, and so I was denied (and confounded).

      Absolutely, there are some truths in life that are now, have always been, and always will be simple. Period. And then there are issues that become more complex the more time goes on. They just do. Just as we human beings do, the older we get. And if we ourselves don’t happen to understand those more complicated matters, it’s ok. We can (and should) do the best we can with what we’ve got by holding fast to what we know (quietly in a lot of cases, not protesting something that supercedes our ability to grasp).

      In Amoris, Pope Francis is addressing some issues that are genuinely somewhat complex and a lot of people are freaking out, shouting, “Well, just write a check! Just write a check!”, not understanding. “That big bad meany!” many say. “It’s so simple! You want something that you don’t have the cash for, you WRITE A CHECK! What is all this nonsense about ‘cash flow’, ‘income to debt ratio’, ‘checking account balance’? All a bunch of phooey! They never taught us that in Kindergarten! Or first grade! Or third!!! Do you see a pattern there??”

      They simply don’t understand. And the really difficult part is that they don’t understand that they don’t understand. And so they shout and wave their fists and it’s all a big ugly mess.

      The Church’s teaching on marriage is the same now as it always has been, and it always will be the same. But just like the issue of finances, that doesn’t mean that the teaching is necessarily “really simple/easy.” Why is Pope Francis only now injecting this “silly Algebra stuff” into mathematics, analogously speaking? Because most of the Church hasn’t graduated from grade school yet and just haven’t necessarily been ready to grasp it.

      Peace be with you.

  4. AvatarChristopher Freeman says

    “In God, “mercy and truth have met” (Psalm 85:10). My point is that I think the whole conversation that Francis is inducing is working against its goals, which is bringing people closer to Jesus Christ, because instead of talking about Him – the Way, Truth, and Life – we’re talking about the letter of the law. As many have pointed out, it’s hard not to think we are in a moment when the world is changing the Church, not the Church changing the world. And here we sit, talking of policies.”

    I’ve understood Francis’ message to mean the opposite of what you seem to think it means. Maybe I’m wrong.

    He has talked about Jesus Christ. He has tried to steer people away from talking strictly about the letter of the law. He has tried to get people to talk less about policies, and more about people. Whether or not he has been successful in convincing others to do that and whether or not his methods are prudent is one thing to argue, but I don’t think he is just sitting on his throne issuing edicts about mercy. I think he really intends to make mercy personal.

    If we have a “cowardice at bringing the truth to the streets”, that isn’t this, or any other, Pope’s fault. That is our own failing that the Popes have tried to encourage us to overcome.

    • Greg B says

      Totally agree, Christopher. The article is thoughtful and thought-provoking but ironic at the same time, for reasons you spelled out.

  5. swimmingthedepths says

    This is excellent! I am not just saying that because I am also a “theology type”. Judging by the comments, magisterial authority and the Petrine office continue to confuse people. I trust in the Pope to lead the Church solely because of the power of the Holy Spirit to guide him in upholding the truth in charity. This promise is from Christ Himself. Peter is the foundation for the Church on earth but the Holy Spirit gives the Church life. Any Pope can still be erroneous in a non-formal manner. I cling to Christ and trust in His promises. We do ourselves a great disservice when we place an inordinate amount of trust in fallen men. That is why so many people are disillusioned by the in-fighting in the Church. The same in-fighting that has been present since the beginning. A little Church history would help clarify things for people. This age is no worse than any other. Heresies have always been a battle inside and outside of the Church.

    There is a great danger of Pope worship these days. Pope Francis is not the reason for my hope. It is Jesus Christ who draws us into communion with the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church, including the Papacy, are signs of the salvation Christ extends to all. Pope Francis is still capable of error and sin, but the Holy Spirit protects him from teaching formally in error on faith and morals. He is a shepherd of the flock, but he is not my reason to hope.

    The Pope is also required to be in communion with his brother Bishops. Clarification on teaching has been around since the beginning: Council of Jerusalem, anyone? I have never paid attention to every word uttered out of the Pope’s mouth and that includes my theological hero Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. I read the papal documents released and read them with the long history of infallible teaching in mind. Adultery is still a sin. We should be busy bringing the world into conformation with the Most Holy Trinity, rather than analyze every statement uttered out of a Pope’s mouth. We have the truth. Now, let’s start living it.

    • AvatarJoanna Ionescu says

      Spot on SWIMMINGTHEDEPTHS. Indeed the popes can err and sin like the rest of us. The history of the Church reveals all kinds of Popes, some of them pretty serious sinners. I also find most annoying this current tendency to analyze every utterance that comes from the Pope as if he is supposed to be infallible every time he opens his mouth. There is an excellent book by J.M.R. Tillard, “The Bishop of Rome”. The good news is this: whatever Pope we may have in Peter’s chair, whatever he may say or not say, which may appear or be interpreted as contradictory, the Catholic Church will stand till the end of time.

  6. AvatarDouglas says

    So, if any of all y’all men would be in Corpus Chriisti, Texas on the First Saturday of a month. you are invited to join me. I have been starting around 10:45 in front of the Cathedral, to walk down Lipan Street to Mexico Street to Leopard St. to North Broadway, and back to the Cathedral. We’ll pray the Rosary, sing some “Immaculate Mary”, have time for some St. Michael Prayers, and some Memorare. We’ll surround the Cathedral, Diocesan offices, the county courthouse, the county jail, the unemployment office, the Salvation Army center, St Teresa shelter, the local school district office, and a place which helps newly released from prison or jail integrate back into society. We’ll pray for the formation, defense, and strengthening of the family with a mighty spiritual weapon, the Rosary. First Saturday, 10:45 am, in front of the Cathedral. Men, I would suggest white shirts and black pants. This will not be weather dependent. If it is cold, put on a coat. If it is raining, put on a hat. (Of course, we’ll follow the advice given in mandatory hurricane evacuation orders.)

  7. Avataranna lisa says

    New converts can have a zeal that is good, but needs to be tempered with time and experience. The same thing can happen to cradle Catholics. They can have a life changing or even traumatic experience that “forces” them into the “arms” of God. There can be an accompanying temptation to blame everything and everyone who ever seemed to “water down” or distort the faith. A new found zeal produces an energy and impatience to conquer when you believe that your house is finally in order.

    I can recall attending a third order Carmelite meeting in which I expressed disgust for all of the years of Catholic education that had reduced God in my mind to “The Pillsbury dough boy in the sky” I railed about the “God is Love” crown that I’d kept pinned to the wall in my bedroom through high school, that I’d made in 2nd grade. Clearly, I thought this was the cause of sin in my life–this overconfidence which made me presume upon God’s mercy. I thought surely because of this I must share that blame with whomever had sold me that overconfidence in the first place.

    There was another older woman there at the meeting who expressed the opposite. After years of theology and struggles in life, she was finally just beginning to understand how lovable she actually was to God. She was so humbled and so grateful. It appeared to me that she had entered the land I had dwelt in, and I sought to enter the world of clear cut answers and rigor that she so foolishly couldn’t appreciate. I thought for certain that with my new, and enlightened sense of rigor, I would finally have the kind of self discipline in order to become the saint that God had always wanted me to be. I was eager to set forth on my great quest.

    The problem? After years of trying… It doesn’t work. It didn’t work. Did God reproach me with the train wreck? No, Hecontinued to love me, whispering, “what I require is mercy, not sacrifice.” The Truth wasn’t watered down by this. The Truth remained immutable, but the understanding that the pilgrimage toward embodying Truth requires accompaniment–my brother accompanying me, and I accompanying my brother wasn’t as simple and light filled.

    “Although by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to reteach you the basic principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food!” Hebrews 5:12

    “I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it.” John 16:12

    When it comes to the words of Amoris Laticia, we will only find praise for true marriage and the goods this lofty and noble state provides for human beings and society. –But the fact that we have also entered into an age of arrested development, stunted psychological maturity, and even a true hedonism that calls pleasure the greatest good, is the sobering, and grim reality of our present age. That the vast majority of failed Catholic marriages have *never* been brought to a marriage tribunal before a civil marriage was entered into is another sobering reality. In the past, that this process was a costly endeavor is another. And then there is the human element –we read of priests who were called to deliberate and could find no clear cut answers–who agonized wondering if they chose the proper course of action.

    Ultimately, there must be a dialogue between the penitent and God in the sanctuary of the soul. The priest and/or spiritual director is called to mentor this process. Only the violation of absolute, certain truth and certain conviction can result in mortal sin. For the wavering and the lost, Holy communion is not a *reprieve*–a “get out of jail and pass go card” from the damage caused by sin, it is not any guarantee that there will be no suffering in the next life as a result of the choices made. It is simply and powerfully, and beautifully the medicine of the Divine Physician for the truly penitent.

  8. Avataranna lisa says

    I’d like to add one more detail to what I wrote above–in 19 days my husband and I will joyfully celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary. Even though I have the Catholic paperwork to prove that we were married in 1985, the years that we have been actually married are less. We preferred to work together to truly have a real marriage rather than dissolve the pretenses of one. After a priest advised me that an annulment was pretty much a “slam dunk” –it didn’t even occur to me to stop receiving communion. That would have been completely counter intuitive.

    • AvatarDavid says

      This comment doesn’t make sense to me, what is the connection between a priest saying you have a slam dunk for an annulment and you receiving Holy Communion?

      • Avataranna lisa says

        I clearly wasn’t married to him even after a substantial amount of time, and after having some of our children.
        We worked through it. It wasn’t a “slam dunk” to repair the past damage–most of which happened *before* our marriage. What I do know? We always *loved* each other. That doesn’t mean that you have had the full, and proper formation to contract a marriage.

          • AvatarMicha Elyi says

            Apparently, there was a time when she was living with a man she believed she wasn’t married to in the eyes of God.

          • AvatarRodrigo Fernández says

            No, it means that though canonically and sacramentally she was married, she was not living marriage as the full-life communion and mystery it is supposed to be. Can happen with all sacraments, like when someone goes to weekly confession just as routine without realizing the moment before the King’s tribunal and the amazing gift that absolution means (after all, God is not bound to forgive us, but He does out of mercy). “In facto esse” marriage does have several notes in the sense Anna Lisa points, like the “affectio maritalis” the romans used to talk about. But then, I’m not married so it’s still a complete mystery to me.

  9. AvatarChristopher Elston says

    When Francis said shepherds should smell of the sheep what did he mean? Did he mean clergy should mix with the laity. Francis they do! Did he mean the clergy should catch diseases from the laity… well they do? I personally think it would be better just to ignore most of what Francis says because sadly his words are like eating food with poison or stones in. He sows distrust and ambiguity within the Church. Those who know what an abusive parent is like will recognize the deep instability in Francis. He is a nag! He is like a bad father whom children make excuses for with words like “I know he called me names but really he is a nice man”, or “He did not mean to say that or he must have meant….”. The words of Francis are tirades, abusive and misleading.

  10. AvatarRodrigo Fernández says

    Ever since Pope Francis’ pontificate I have experienced a wide spectrum of doubts and feelings. From pro-Pope to almost-lefebvrian, and all the gray areas in-between. You name it, I’ve thought about it and dwelled on it. But three things have helped me find my way.

    The first, that the Son of God is called in the Bible a “sign of contradiction” (elder Simeon’s words), who brought great confusion to the wise, and clarity to the ignorant. Despair to the confident and hope to the despaired. Peaceful, yet did not come to bring peace, but the sword. Heir to the throne of David, and treated like the lowest of the low. The Messiah, yet rejected by those who knew the Scripture. Confusing, and yet very fruitful in the Spirit. And I see this same sign, a Christ-like sign, in Pope Francis, who is usually described by journalists as not comprehensible and unpredictable. You never know what’ll he say next. Must be a sign of the times that the last Pope of the times be very Christ-like, and suffers too the attack of the wisest and the most “orthodox”. His suffering will come from them too, maybe his death as well.

    The second, the particular meaning of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a devotion privately revealed to St. John and St. Gertrude von Helfta, but concealed from the rest of the Church until future times. The Sacred Heart entails an abundance of God’s mercy in an excessive manner that overwhelms all classical theological paradigm, like the wine that spills when too much is poured into a cup. Like Atila Guimaraes and Marian Horvat said once: “Thus Our Lord wanted mankind to know His surplus of mercy, a kind of luxury that surpasses the common economy of grace”. It is no coincidence that the jesuits were the heralds of this devotion, and that the jesuit Pope embodies this blessed excess of mercy to the extreme of overwhelming all classical norms. A sign of the times.

    The third is more personal. My ancestors were the ones who, under the guidance of the jesuits, had to force the rest of Christianity (sword in hand) to obey the Council of Trent, advocating absolute obedience to the Pope. And we had to rough-up not just the german lutherans, but also the turks and specially the holier-than-thou french clergymen, along with a few english-speaking pirates. So I guess I’m naturally attracted to a latin-american jesuit Pope whose tridentine authority is being put into question by german, english and french-speaking prelates. Same fight, different times.

  11. AvatarAndrew A says

    The ancient Hellenics (and their modern equivalents) approach truth as some sort of abstract quality to be discovered through debate, analysis, and thought. Not so.

    Truth is a Person. Get to know the Person who is Truth, study Him, learn His ways, and make your personality reflect His personality as much as possible.

  12. AvatarElizabeth70×7 says

    Thank you Christopher E. Great insight. Instability–not a rock but a seismic fault line. Continually blaming, scolding, and one-upping the faithful. Bringing confusion, not clarity–separation, not unity. Pathetic how people try to clean up around the disaster that is this papacy. Just like abused children romanticize a sick dad who props his ego by habitually criticizing them. God help us.

  13. AvatarSettinitstrait says

    In these fallen, chaotic times within which we live — we need a leader with a CLEAR voice, guiding us and uniting us so as to strengthen us.


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