Pure prayer politics

The Catholic Church would benefit from moderation and ideological unity.

Brian Reinken

In August, Pope Francis alluded to the increasing liberalization of the Catholic Church’s adherents by saying that the church can’t afford to focus on social issues “all the time.”

To those who read the interview in full, it becomes clear that Francis’ comment stemmed not from an ambitious desire to reverse Catholic opinion on social issues such as contraception, marriage equality and abortion — “The teaching of the church,” Francis asserted, “is clear” — but rather from the need to avoid alienating the devout and any potential converts. His words constitute a reactive, not a liberal, message that is designed to protect the Vatican’s
interests.

More questionable than the message’s intent, however, is the manner in which the Catholic bureaucracy will interpret the pope’s call to action.

John Nienstedt, archbishop of Minneapolis and St. Paul, serves as a good example of how the message could be lost in translation.

A few weeks before Francis’ comment, Nienstedt assured his congregation that the “Father of Lies” is “the source” behind “sodomy, contraception, abortion” and “the redefinition of marriage.”

Nienstedt’s rhetoric is perhaps the epitome of the language Francis has renounced. The pope, for what it’s worth, could feel exactly the same way as Nienstedt. What separates Francis from his subordinate is that he knows better than to vocalize his political opinion in such a polarizing way.

Ultimately, of course, Francis will be unable to control how his message is received by church leadership. Renowned for his continual harangues against marriage equality and homosexuality, Nienstedt doesn’t seem the type to back away from the social war that he’s become (in)famous for waging. It’s almost certain that some local parishes will disregard Francis’ message and continue to focus the limelight on social issues.

In the eyes of the church, however, a message from the pope is a message from God. Francis is literally infallible, and to dismiss his orders sets a dangerous precedent. When a highly centralized bureaucracy begins to defy its supreme commander, the state’s center doesn’t hold. It should be remembered that one of Martin Luther’s foremost grievances with the Catholic Church was its doctrine of papal infallibility — and look where he ended up.

For better or worse, the Catholic public is now sufficiently powerful to influence politics within the Vatican. In an age when skepticism and secularism are becoming more and more ubiquitous, the church cannot afford to squabble within itself. It would benefit from the pursuit of political and rhetorical moderation. Extremism and partisanism will decrease both the church’s legitimacy and its political efficacy. If Catholicism is to remain relevant in a globalized world, it needs to be willing to consider new viewpoints, not merely those who hail from the ancient regime. Compromising with a changing world doesn’t necessarily mean compromising the church’s beliefs.

Francis appears to recognize the delicate situation of the Catholic Church. Nienstedt does not. The archbishop should realize that Satan, occupied by his 9-to-5 job at Planned Parenthood, cannot threaten the Catholic Church nearly as well as can the church’s very own bishops.