February 12, 2018

The Penitent Who Hates The Pope

A pastoral issue came up during table talk among the friars recently: what to do for a penitent who comes to confession and says he hates Pope Francis.

For my part I don't think this has ever happened to me. Back when I was assigned to pastoral ministry, which was during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, I don't remember anyone ever confessing hatred for him either. Perhaps there was less overlap between the faithful afflicted with hatred for Pope Benedict XVI and the faithful who go to confession. But that question goes with another topic.

The question stuck with me and I gave it some thought.

Hatred for Pope Francis could have roots of various kinds; disappointment, fears and anxieties, issues with abandonment, authority, or trust, or low tolerance for ambiguity, just to name some possibilities. It may very well be that what propels the penitent to confession is not the hatred itself--which is probably more of a feeling than a chosen stance and is therefore not a moral issue--but an emotional charge of guilt that follows immediately upon the awareness of hating.

But confession is not psychotherapy or spiritual direction. It is not counseling, though the ritual gives the penitent the right to suitable pastoral counsel.

In my opinion a confessor should always be very careful about asking questions, but this is a case where I think it might be useful, just to bring out some direction for pastoral care.

Perhaps a good, open question could be to ask the penitent what bothers him the most about what he has confessed. What the penitent says might suggest certain paths for suitable counsel.

It seems to me likely that in many cases what the penitent is experiencing is not a sin but a chain of temptations. The penitent, for whatever reason, is tempted to hate the Pope; that is to say that a feeling of disdain or dislike arises in the penitent and he is tempted to nourish and cultivate these feelings such that he is then tempted to follow through with some other sin, which could be as simple as speaking about the Pope without charity to actively trying to assassinate his character in writing or on the internet. Those would be sins against charity and religion. But presuming that the penitent has not done any of these hateful things, what he is probably experiencing is only a temptation. Temptation is unpleasant and can feel like an imperfection, and so often we feel guilty about being tempted and so imagine that we have sinned.

If on the other hand the penitent has done some hateful act against the Pope (or anyone), there is your matter for confession.

Of course, a confessor should only take up a line of counsel if he has confidence that the penitent will be able to appreciate it. Confession is a very short and focused encounter, and for this reason is very powerful. As everyone knows, it can do a lot of damage when a confessor says the wrong thing to a penitent, and that includes saying something objectively right but not suited to the particular situation. Conversely, when thanks to a mutual openness to the action of the Holy Spirit, a penitent hears the right thing, great graces are experienced.

Another temptation that could follow upon the temptation to hate the Pope is that of abandoning the practice of the faith, which can occur anywhere on the spectrum from lapsing and giving up to outright apostasy. Presuming that someone coming to confession has not yet fallen into any sin of this nature, this is an important moment for pastoral care.

Think about how much you have learned about human frailty and imperfection from having experienced it in yourself and in others. Now think that the devil knows it even better than that. By our frailty and imperfection we are often tricked into hurting ourselves and each other (and this is what sin is) and the devil wishes that the situation would be ever more so.

So even though we know from St. Paul that the presence of Christ comes to us in 'earthen vessels' precisely so that the power of Christ alone might shine through more clearly, it still happens that the weakness and unworthiness of his ministers obscures the presence of Christ that they bear. So we dislike our pastor and we don't have the spiritual energy or depth to see Christ in his ministry nevertheless, so we go to another parish. We hate our religious superior so we ask to go to another house or we suffer until he is replaced. But when it's the Pope we don't like, there's no other parish to join. So we are tempted to give up the faith. Here the angle for pastoral care can be very simple: the Catholic faith is much bigger than any one pope. The devil doesn't care why someone doesn't like the pope, because in fact he doesn't care about you at all. But he would like to use that dislike to get someone to abandon God and the Catholic faith he has revealed. The devil hates God, and only wants to use our imperfections and sins to express that hate. So here the penitent can be helped to see the trick and to not let the devil turn his dislike of the Pope into damage to himself. Everyone likes to rebel, so why not rebel against the devil?

Another direction that might suggest itself in the pastoral care of someone who confesses hatred for the Pope might be the reassurance that we are under no obligation to like everyone. The Gospel commands us to love. But in our time we must always be rescuing this love--among many other things--from the over-emphasis on feeling and subjectivity we have all learned. To love someone in the sense of the commandment means charity; to strive to bend our choices, both interior and exterior, to willing the good for the other. Ultimately it means to learn the habit of desiring that others have God and the graces God wills for them. But this doesn't mean we have to like other people or approve of the choices they make. That this distinction seems to be lost sometimes, even by those who ought to know better because of the philosophical and theological education they have been offered, i.e. clergy and even members of the hierarchy, is one of the great challenges and sufferings of our time.

I have lived with a lot of different friars. Plenty of them I didn't like. With some of them I could find no way to agree with or approve of their choices. With a few of them--and thank God only a few--I could not help but question if they were even moral men. But I have been called to love them, to will and desire their good, and to form my behavior with regard to them around this charity. And this goes both for external behavior and internal behavior like how I think about and pray for them.

There is a salutary self-possession and sense of identity that comes from this spiritual practice of charity, when we realize that we treat people not because of how they are but because of who we are. I'm good to you not because you're good--or worse, good to me--but because I want to be good. This is the way to try to learn to imitate the God who makes his rain fall on just and unjust alike. A penitent struggling with temptations or sins against charity could be encouraged to desire the grace of this spiritual peace and poise.

So it's ok not to like Pope Francis or approve of every choice a pope makes. I'm sure there are plenty of saints in heaven, probably even canonized ones, who didn't like the popes they had during their earthly lives. But according to charity one must love the Pope. This means that how I pray for him, how I speak about him, how I put things about him on the internet, all of this must have roots in willing his good and desiring that he have the graces God wills for him. And since I have a hard time knowing even what graces God wills for me, I certainly don't presume to know what graces he wills for someone else and especially someone whose experiences and burdens are probably very different than my own. A penitent may benefit from this point, especially if he is tempted to want to tell the Pope what to do, though probably not directly in most cases.

Finally, I think it's also important to remind ourselves, and this goes for everyone, not just a penitent struggling with dislike for the Pope or sins against charity with regard to him, that the Pope is not, in fact, the celebrity that the world and the mainstream media set him up to be (that is, when he says something that pleases them). The world and the media have no use for the Petrine ministry nor any interest in coming to understand what it means, so they put the Pope in one of their categories, something that they understand. But that's not who he is. The Pope is among us as a member of the Body of Christ with a very specific ministry of oversight and unity among the Churches. Just like one odd decision of a pastor doesn't radically change the nature of a parish, one odd word from a Pope on an airplane or at daily Mass doesn't change the course of the Church in history very much. Similarly, for example, Pope Benedict XVI's notorious remarks in Regensburg, which were easy to take the wrong way, didn't change the course of history. So even though TV and the world try to make it seem like every little thing a Pope says is earth-shattering--and why not, because this is their job, to make things seem this way so that people will pay attention and pay for more TV--this, in fact, is not how the Petrine ministry works. So, to make a long reflection short, don't let the world and the mainstream media get you worked up. They don't understand--and nor do they wish to understand--what they think they are talking about. Unfortunately, this goes for some Catholics too, and even clergy, horribile dictu, which is another suffering of our time. So pay good, spiritual attention in choosing to whom you pay attention.

What about a penance?

It seems to me that the obvious penance would be to make a prayer for the Pope. This would also have the benefit of a certain charitable obedience, given that Pope Francis always asks the faithful to pray for him.

But if a penitent is really struggling with feelings about the Pope, this might not be the best idea. In my pastoral opinion, the completion of a penance assigned in confession is a time for grateful thanksgiving and not spiritual struggle. So it might be good to ask the penitent if he felt able to pray for the Pope in a peaceful way. If he says yes, there's the penance, and the strength of that assent will come to the penitent's aid when he goes to do it, should there be any interior struggle involved.

If someone doesn't feel able to pray for the Pope peacefully, I might recommend a prayer for all the people in the world afflicted by hate. After all, the hatred that some faithful might experience in themselves for one of their pastors is probably a very small thing in terms of human suffering when compared to some of the other hatreds with which humanity is afflicted. Our brothers and sisters afflicted by those hatreds need very much to come to know the love of God, and praying for them is a good start.


Louis M said...


Brilliant (again). Thank you (again).
I was moved to ask you to write a book. Please :)

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the encouragement!