Journey with the saints-Saint of the Week: St. Francis of Assisi (4)

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Journey with the saints

Saint of the Week: St. Francis of Assisi (4)

Most saints know they’ll heal the leper’s wounds when they kiss them, and the Capuchins have no reason to believe McCarrick will ever repent of his crimes. Yet St. Francis didn’t know the leper would be cured. He kissed his wounds for the love of Jesus Christ, “whose property is always to have mercy.” And so the Capuchins of Victoria, Kansas, show mercy to Theodore McCarrick all the same.

Our Holy Mother Church needs reform, to be sure. She needs diligent bishops and laymen to stand to watch for predators and their enablers—men like McCarrick and his ilk. The crisis will be on the frontlines of that battle. Yet one can’t help but think she’s best helped by men who not only remove the shrapnel in her leg but also cauterize the wound, too, so it can begin to heal.

Another Capuchin made headlines recently: Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Philadelphia. He turned 75 last week—the traditional age when bishops submit their letter of resignation to the Vatican. One doubts Pope Francis will be reluctant to see the owl-eyed prelate off.

Chaput has been known for decades as one of the most consistent voices for orthodoxy in the American Church. It wasn’t until last year, however, that he became the conservatives’ leading light in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—their conscience, if not their whip. Archbishop Chaput sent shockwaves through the Church by publicly calling on the Holy Father to cancel the 2018 Synod on the Youth. Revelations of widespread complicity by America’s bishops in McCarrick’s crimes were still fresh. The Archbishop of Philadelphia insisted that “the bishops would have absolutely no credibility in addressing this topic” until all episcopal predators and their enablers were brought to justice.

Rome ignored his request, of course, and the synod proceeded on schedule. Yet, in a subtle act of protest against the Vatican, members of the USCCB elected Chaput as one of their delegates to the synod—despite the fact that, as leader of the Conference’s committee on young people, he was already an ex-officio delegate. A clear majority of bishops agreed with Chaput, even if he was the only one willing to raise his voice

Last week, Chaput was again lauded by the traditional laity for warning against the chronic ambiguity of Fr. James Martin, SJ, who had recently delivered a speech at St. Joseph’s University, a Jesuit college in Philadelphia. Acknowledging the controversial priest’s work to advance the dignity of people struggling with “same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria,” he also noted “a pattern of ambiguity in his teachings” that “inspires hope that the Church’s teachings on human sexuality can be changed.”

Rather, those who struggle with sexual disorders “need support and encouragement in the virtue of chastity. They deserve to hear—as all people do—the truth about human sexuality spoken clearly and confidently. Anything less,” he concluded, “lacks both mercy and justice.”

Fr. Martin quickly replied to the Archbishop’s rebuke, explaining that it was never his intention to challenge “official Church teaching” on sexuality. Chaput pressed him further, saying:

“I’m sure Father Martin would agree that “official” Church teaching (as opposed to some alternative, imagined, unofficial system of belief and practice) is simply what the Church believes based on the Word of God and centuries of experience with the human condition.

Moreover, the point is not to “not challenge” what the Church believes about human sexuality, but to preach and teach it with confidence, joy, and zeal. Biblical truth liberates; it is never a cause for embarrassment.

Conservatives rightfully applauded Chaput for speaking up where so many other of his brother-bishops have kept quiet, terrified of reprisals from the LGBT lobby and the Vatican (Fr. Martin is a consultant to the Secretariat for Communications). Yet Chaput’s comments were beyond reproach. There’s no duplicity here: he really does want Catholics to treat gay people with the requisite amount of human dignity, and he really does want gay people to embrace the call to chastity. These are Gospel truths spoken with clarity, conviction, and charity—just as St. Francis would have it.

Lest there be any lingering doubt about the theory of St. Francis qua proto-hippie, I was thumbing through his essential writings to prepare for this essay when I came across his “Letter to Those Who Rule Over People.” In this short missive, the Poor Man admonishes mayors and magistrates to keep their final destination always in mind. So, too, may you foster the same honor to the Lord among the people who are entrusted to your care. Every night you could announce, via messenger or some other simple sign, that your subjects might take time to offer their prayers and thanksgivings to the one, all-powerful God.

It brought to mind the Ahmari-French debate, but not only in terms of liberalism vs. illiberalism. Yes: clearly, St. Francis would be more in Ahmari’s camp; he isn’t a proponent of value-neutral public spaces. But there’s no whiff here of the political salvation sought by some liberals—what the great Dr. Senior characterized as right-wing liberation theology. He simply asks that rulers help their subjects to improve their prayer lives and deepen their personal commitment to holiness.

The more momentum that illiberalism picks up, in the absence of any attendant religious revival, the more I wonder if it isn’t an effort to make the Great Commission less daunting by sort of “collectivizing” it. This new generation of Catholic intellectuals recognizes the desperate need of Western civilization to return to the Faith—not only spiritually, but also politically and culturally as well. And yet, whereas little as two percent of Americans are true-believing, Mass-going Catholics, the task seems virtually impossible. So, perhaps we downplay the need for penance and evangelism and emphasize the need for a politics of the common good.

That’s not to detract from the common good, of course, and I’m probably as “illiberal” as the next guy. But politics plays a grossly oversized role in our culture. I should think any Catholic thinker would take it as their mission to place religion back at the center of our common life—to say,

Right: now it’s time to log off Twitter, turn off the television, and shut down your phone. For every news article you read, go and read ten chapters of the Bible. For every minute you spend thinking about Trump, spend an hour thinking about Christ. For every person, you talk to about the 2020 election, talk to ten people about the good news of the Resurrection.

I know that’s apt to make you sound like a yobbo; it’s certainly not going to get you a column in The Washington Post. But sanctity isn’t measured in retweets, and the Gospel doesn’t always lend itself to spots on Fox News.

If we want to be saints—if we want to restore the Faith across our civilization—we can do no better than to begin with St. Francis’s first lesson: “that the spiritual merchant must begin with the contempt of the world, and the soldier of Christ must begin with victory over himself.”

St. Francis of Assisi, ora pro-Nobis.


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