Boniface asks us to recall our first impressions of Pope Francis. Cardinal Ratzinger became pope a few weeks after I entered the Church. I remember feeling truly excited and happy, partly due to my newly converted zeal I'm sure. When Pope Francis stepped out onto the balcony for the first time, I too felt that sinking feeling and sense of foreboding that many of his commenters mentioned. I didn't know him from Adam of course. Hardly anyone did. He looked strange at first and I couldn't put my finger on why until someone pointed out that he wasn't wearing the traditional signs of papal authority (I can hear Mark Shea cranking up his furious scorn already.)
I've pretty much given up trying to make heads or tails of anything Pope Francis says. I understand why so many Catholic bloggers scramble to reconcile the pope's public remarks with the Church's traditional teaching. I get why everything is blamed on bad translations, on a malicious media, on faulty memories. If those are the source of all the pope's communication woes, than how am I supposed to be confident that his orthodox quotations are being accurately reported?
In their efforts to pour fulsome praise upon the person of Pope Francis, many Catholics end up smearing the Church. For example, a common trope is, "Pope Francis is bringing the Church's message of mercy to the world!" As if the Church had failed to speak of Christ's mercy for the two thousand years of history before Francis came along. "Finally, the world is paying attention to the pope and giving Catholicism a hearing!" As if the Church had utterly failed in her mission to preach the Gospel before Francis. I'm aware of all the buzzwords, i.e. "meeting people where they're at." I've noticed that clergy who make a lot of noise about meeting people where they're at seldom break a sweat in lifting them up to where they ought to be.
I know a lot of Catholics think that Francis is being a Jesuitical genius in saying things that make the world sit up and take notice, and then after the furor has died down he speaks directly to Catholics with a wink and a nod: "This is what I really meant." Some of those "this is what I really meant" clarifications are actually good. But the world doesn't hear them. Or if they do the message they take away from it is, "Well, Catholicism is too big and ugly and reactionary for one man to change, but man, if anyone can do it, it's Pope Francis!" It's a pity the Holy Father can't stick to the script more often.
Sometimes I'm haunted by the notion that the progressives and Modernists might be right. In the past, heretics were generally easy to identify. They either left the Church of their own accord or they were shown the door by a vigorous Church government. These days the heretics have not only stayed in the Church, they continually assert that the Church has always taught what they have taught. The stripped altars, the ugly churches, the embarrassing music, the saccharine platitudes, the Buddy Jesus stories, the comfortable worldliness... what if these are logical extensions of the principles of the Catholic faith? What if this really is the way the Church is supposed to be? What if the Catholic Church really did get everything wrong for a thousand years and it was only those enlightened men of the twentieth century and the Second Vatican Council who truly understood what the Christian faith is all about?
As our Blessed Lord said, "By their fruits ye shall know them." It'd be one thing if the Modernist chaos of the last fifty years put butts in the pews so to speak. But everyone knows that it doesn't. The story of Catholicism has been one of corruption and decline for decades. Paradoxically, that gives me some hope. I pray it happens in my lifetime, but even if it doesn't, I'm confident that some day the Church will awaken from her long slumber and end the Modernist nightmare. She will undoubtedly shrink even more before then. Eventually the Church will have no choice but to resolve her identity crisis.