A (liturgical) new year’s resolution

If the civil new year is an occasion to resolve to Do Better in the future, the liturgical new year, the real new year that begins at First Vespers on the First Sunday of Advent, is an even better moment for such resolutions. So permit me to suggest a Real New Year’s resolution to those who think it necessary to support Pope Francis by rewriting recent Church history: Stop it.

There was an awful lot of this airbrushing before and during the recent consistory for the creation of new cardinals. And I regret to note that one striking example of it came in a Catholic News Service video-interview with Cardinal Kevin Farrell, recently transferred from Dallas to Rome to lead the new Vatican dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. In that interview, the cardinal, who in 2014 was eager for me to give the University of Dallas commencement address in order commemorate the recently-canonized St. John Paul II, seemed to have forgotten that John Paul ever existed.

Thus Farrell, praising “Pope Francis’s great charisma” and “how the people flock to him” and the “amazing” way “he comes down to the people,” finished his tribute to the man who had named him cardinal by saying that all of this was “unthought-of and unheard of twenty years ago.”


Was John Paul II shot in his apartment by an interloper who had snuck past the Swiss Guard? Or was he shot by a would-be assassin standing in the midst of one of the vast throngs the Polish pope drew to St. Peter’s Square for over twenty-five years? Has Cardinal Farrell forgotten that, just before Mehmet Ali Agca’s shots rang out, John Paul had handed a small child he had embraced and blessed back to its mother? That was thirty-five years ago this past May 13. Which means that it’s preposterous to say that it was “unthought-of and unheard of twenty years ago” that a pope should mingle with crowds and embrace the people who were flocking to him. It was happening fifteen years and more before that.

This rewriting of history often goes hand-in-glove with attempts to celebrate Pope Francis’s welcome stress on the divine mercy – another key John Paul II theme – by subtly reinforcing the secular world’s stereotypes of Catholicism’s pre-Francis leaders as hidebound, rule-obsessed reactionaries. Thus Cardinal Farrell worried that “we keep pushing rules and regulations to excess.” Who, one wonders, is the “we” here? And why set “rules and regulations” in contrast to “an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ,” from whom, as the cardinal admitted, “we derive our doctrine”?

Wouldn’t it be better strategy (and better catechetics) to challenge secular stereotypes by reminding the Church and the world that a “yes” stands behind every “no” the Church must say in fidelity to Christ’s teaching? Wouldn’t it make more sense to remember, with John Paul II, that the Christian moral life is intended to foster happiness, and that the magna carta of Christian morality is the Sermon on the Mount, and especially the Beatitudes? By all means, concede that the Church, meaning all of us, sometimes does a lousy job of articulating that “yes” to beatitude so that the “no” can be heard in its proper context: as a warning against acts that lead to unhappiness and sorrow. But please don’t confirm those false and vicious stereotypes of Catholic moral teaching as soul-crushing and freedom-denying: a manual of nay-saying for killjoys.

Finally, may I suggest that Cardinal Farrell and others celebrating what they deem a Franciscan revolution in the Church refrain from the harsh biblical analogy the cardinal deployed when he said that defenders of the Church’s classic teaching on marriage, and on worthiness to receive holy communion, are like the cranky older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son? Some of those defenders may fit that description. But the vast majority do not and it is really hitting below the belt to suggest otherwise.

Pope Francis’s contributions to Catholic life are obvious enough that they needn’t be promoted by falsifying history, playing to the Church’s secular critics, or defaming brothers and sisters in Christ. Neither the Holy Father nor the New Evangelization is well-served by such tactics.

Photo credit: © L’Osservatore Romano

COMING UP: On our need for the real Thomas More

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Next month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the film, A Man for All Seasons. And if it’s impossible to imagine such a picture on such a theme winning Oscars today, then let’s be grateful that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got it right by giving Fred Zinnemann’s splendid movie six of its awards in 1967 – when, reputedly, Audrey Hepburn lifted her eyes to heaven before announcing with obvious pleasure that this cinematic celebration of the witness and martyrdom of Sir Thomas More had beaten The Sand Pebbles, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Alfie, and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming for Best Picture.

Intriguingly, though, A Man for All Seasons is a magnificent religious film – perhaps the best ever – despite its author’s stated intentions.

Robert Bolt’s introduction to his play, which led to the movie, makes it rather clear that author Bolt saw More less as a Catholic martyr than as an existential hero, an approach befitting the hot philosophical movement of the day (which was, of course, the Sixties). As Bolt put it:

“Thomas More…became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what areas of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases, for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at last he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self.  And there this supple, humorous, unassuming, and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff…

“What attracted me was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death.”

Yet this portrait of Thomas-More-as-Tudor-era-existentialist doesn’t quite convince, because Bolt, perhaps in spite of himself, gave us a different More in his drama and later in his screenplay – a More who “grasps” his death, not as an existential stalwart, a courageously autonomous “Self,” but as a Catholic willing to die for the truth, which has grasped him as the love of God in Christ.  Thus when More’s intellectually gifted daughter Margaret, having failed to argue him out of his refusal to countenance Henry VIII’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, plays her final card and cries, “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?”, More replies, haltingly, “Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”

And not love of self, but love of God and love of the truth. For the God who is truth all the way through is also, St. John the Evangelist teaches us, love itself. And to be transformed by that love is to live in the truth – the truth that sets us free in the deepest and noblest meaning of human liberation.

There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed today in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances – some quite legitimate – in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.

In this unhappy situation, we need the real Thomas More: the Thomas More who bore witness and ultimately “grasped his death,” not to vindicate his sense of Self, but as the final and ultimate act of thanks for his having been grasped, and saved, by Truth itself, the Thrice-Holy God.