Why join a church whose priests are little monsters?

New York Times opinion writer asserts that Pope Francis has failed to bring fallen-away Catholics back to church
(image: Nicolas Ortega/NY Times)

(image: Nicolas Ortega/NY Times)

The following comes from a September 28 New York Times op-ed by Matthew Schmitz:

When Pope Francis ascended to the chair of St. Peter in March 2013, the world looked on in wonder. Here at last was a pope in line with the times, a man who preferred spontaneous gestures to ritual forms. Francis paid his own hotel bill and eschewed the red shoes. Rather than move into the grand papal apartments, he settled in the cozy guesthouse for visitors to the Vatican. He also set a new nondogmatic tone with statements like “Who am I to judge?”

Observers predicted that the new pope’s warmth, humility and charisma would prompt a “Francis effect” — bringing disaffected Catholics back to a church that would no longer seem so forbidding and cold. Three years into his papacy, the predictions continue.

Last winter, Austen Ivereigh, the author of an excellent biography of Pope Francis, wrote that the pope’s softer stance on communion for the divorced and remarried “could trigger a return to parishes on a large scale.”

But are Catholics actually coming back? In the United States, at least, it hasn’t happened. New survey findings from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate suggest that there has been no Francis effect — at least, no positive one. In 2008, 23 percent of American Catholics attended Mass each week. Eight years later, weekly Mass attendance has held steady or marginally declined, at 22 percent.

Of course, the United States is only one part of a global church. But the researchers at Georgetown found that certain types of religious observance are weaker now among young Catholics than they were under Benedict. In 2008, 50 percent of millennials reported receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, and 46 percent said they made some sacrifice beyond abstaining from meat on Fridays. This year, only 41 percent reported receiving ashes and only 36 percent said they made an extra sacrifice, according to CARA. In spite of Francis’ personal popularity, young people seem to be drifting away from the faith.

Why hasn’t the pope’s popularity reinvigorated the church? Perhaps it is too soon to judge. We probably won’t have a full measure of any Francis effect until the church is run by bishops appointed by Francis and priests who adopt his pastoral approach. This will take years or decades.

Yet something more fundamental may stand in the way of a Francis effect. Francis is a Jesuit, and like many members of Catholic religious orders, he tends to view the institutional church, with its parishes and dioceses and settled ways, as an obstacle to reform. He describes parish priests as “little monsters” who “throw stones” at poor sinners. He has given curial officials a diagnosis of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” He scolds pro-life activists for their “obsession” with abortion. He has said that Catholics who place an emphasis on attending Mass, frequenting confession, and saying traditional prayers are “Pelagians” — people who believe, heretically, that they can be saved by their own works.

Such denunciations demoralize faithful Catholics without giving the disaffected any reason to return. Why join a church whose priests are little monsters and whose members like to throw stones? When the pope himself stresses internal spiritual states over ritual observance, there is little reason to line up for confession or wake up for Mass.

Francis has built his popularity at the expense of the church he leads. Those who wish to see a stronger church may have to wait for a different kind of pope. Instead of trying to soften the church’s teaching, such a man would need to speak of the way hard disciplines can lead to freedom. Confronting a hostile age with the strange claims of Catholic faith may not be popular, but over time it may prove more effective. Even Christ was met with the jeers of the crowd.



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  1. Your Fellow Catholic says:

    ESCUSE me. He hasn’t been pope for 8 years. And anything he did make happen, wouldn’t have been captured by this survey!

  2. schmitz twists francis’ ‘little monsters’ phrase. he used it in early january 2014, addressing a group of religious involved in seminary formation and warned that if there is not a good spiritual formation program going on, seminaries would merely be creating little monsters. the press barely picked up on this expression at the time, from what i remember, do any of our readers of CCA know of another citation of ‘little monsters'”

    • The pope’s dislike of diocesan clergy has been pronounced throughout his reign. I don’t know whether he had a negative experience of them in Argentina, but the “little monsters” comment is just part of a piece. I’m fully in agreement with this NY Times piece, as well as an associated article by Carl Olsen in the Catholic World Report. The “Francis Effect” in my experience is a morale boost for dissenting Catholics and a warm fuzzy for non-Catholics to remain non-Catholics. I’ve yet to encounter anybody to join RCIA citing him.

      • FromThePew says:

        Fr Michael, You may like this article by Cardinal Ruini. It is found @ http://www.pewsitter.com Go to the site and then look for the title — Cardinal Ruini’s Mission to Pope Francis: “In seeking after the lost sheep, do not put faithful sheep in danger.”
        An excellent concept. God Bless Cardinal Ruini!

    • david drewelow says:

      typowatch: CCA should be CCD

  3. St. Christopher says:

    Francis has truly made his bones at the expense of the Church, not in its aid or validation. He is an obvious revolutionary, spitting out that the “institutional” Church is wrong because its priests belief in “rules” and “demands” and the need to “confess.” Mass is little more, to the Jesuits, than an excuse to get together for a meal, and, one assumes, to smell each other.

    Of course, the Catholic Church is meant for an entirely different thing. Salvation is what it is all about, not creating a Pope-Oprah preaching his brand of “I’m OK–You’re OK” Catholicism. Very sad, showing how powerful is Satan.

  4. “Why join a church whose priests are little monsters and whose members like to throw stones?” indeed! This is why conversions in the U.S. are about half of what they were in the year 2000, to say nothing of cradle Catholics leaving in droves. There’s something seriously amiss in our seminaries, and this has been the case for a long time. Why can’t Catholics see that?

  5. i have heard ‘little monster’ stories from latin americans that are beyond the pale by U S standards/ in Guatemala City, Guatemala, there was an urban church located next to a very popular public park, often full of strolling and kissing young people on Sundays. the pastor was outraged that mass attendance was basically low for the younger crowd, only a few feet away, right next door, So he set up loudspeakers throughout that park that would blare the entire servicce cum angry homilies at any and all. ‘church-state separation’ did not stop this in guatemala city. it seems that in some cultures the local pastor has much more authority than we see…

  6. Francis is a failed pontificate….

    • Then he’s the perfect match to tell many of the failed Catholics who post here that mass said in latin won’t solve the Church’s problems.

      • Preaching the hard truths, purging all gays from the clergy, and teaching with clarity would be a fine start along with the TLM….

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