By Charlie Johnston
Some friends and readers have quizzed me on how I can be so indifferent to Pope Francis’ often provocative comments on environmental issues, the economy, and the philosophical infrastructure that make human freedom possible. After all, I firmly believe, with historical evidence to back me, that many of the practical “solutions” the Pope sometimes espouses actually impoverish all but a few and often enslave multitudes.
Climate Change is the third great environmental scare of my lifetime. A decade and a half ago it was Global Warming. Two decades before that it was the unstoppable new Ice Age. Whatever the latest scare fad, the answer the statists give is always the same: destroy the livelihoods of millions and make them absolutely dependent on the state while centralizing power in a very small elite cadre. In less than a decade, the environmental hoaxes of the last half-century will be recognized as the great scandals and perversions of scientific inquiry they are. From the intentional distortion of data at East Anglia, the ruthless suppression of dissenting views in peer-reviewed publications, and the relentless rent-seeking of the politico-media-environmental complex, this house has been built on lies, corruption, and the raw pursuit of power. When your primary tools of inquiry are banishing and suing critics and threatening to imprison any who dispute you, that is not science at all, but the ruthless pursuit of a political agenda.
Most of the economic enthusiasms of the Pope are those that have impoverished vast wastelands of humanity, from the Soviet Union to Eastern Europe to Cuba and those countries in the Americas that succumbed to the seduction of a planned economy.
Pope Francis sometimes seems downright dismissive of the principles of subsidiarity in political and economic affairs so clearly enunciated by his predecessor, St. John Paul the Great, in the Encyclical, Centesimus Annus. In fact, the Pope seems to be a bit of an enthusiast for centralized, comprehensive governmental power. The puzzle is that he seems oblivious that this very philosophy brought the world the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Nazi Germany – which murdered more innocents in a century than all the religious wars in history combined ever killed.
A century ago, the political and economic ideas the Pope seems taken with were respectable, if not particularly well-conceived. That was before they were tried extensively and proven to be universally and consistently disastrous. There is little reason to support them now except for the pursuit of power at the expense of evidence, logic and experience. They are merely an idealistic fig leaf to cover a ravenous zeal for power.
So why do I remain not only supportive, but downright enthusiastic, about this Pope? Well, there is the fact that for all the sturm und drang, Pope Francis has been completely solid on faith and morals. That is more than enough to remain supportive, but does not really explain my enthusiasm for him. The enthusiasm comes from things I have been shown over the years, and my experience with the unexpected. God’s ways really are not man’s ways – and sometimes we have to wait for Him. But with patience borne of experiencing how surprising the Lord can be, you can see tantalizing hints of what He is up to.
First, while frequently annoyed by stale leftist nostrums, even in politics I took a bit of a cavalier attitude to them. I was shown long ago that, as the Storm entered its fullness, all those progressive nostrums which seem so consequential, would be quickly blown away like so much chaff. There is really nothing of substance to them. Already we see it begun. In America, political officials refuse to take Islamic radicals serious, even refusing to call it by its proper name, while insisting the best way to defend ourselves is to disarm potential victims. Not surprisingly to anyone except denizens of the Washington Post and New York Times, public support for gun rights and the NRA are at an all-time high. Reality intrudes. Given the anemic quality of our economy (and to merely call it anemic is charitable) even staunch leftists are occasionally, in baffled wonder, writing essays on whether massive government spending and regulation of all sectors of the economy are, in fact, the way to prosperity. Reality intrudes. Some of those same leftists, with black humor and grim irony, are now heard to occasionally say that “racist” is a term to haul out when you are losing an argument. Reality intrudes. Nowadays, when the president speaks, no one but commentators and politicians care much what he says. The commentators and politicians only do so because it is their job. Most people have already dismissed him as not being a serious man. He can add to our problems, but not relieve them. Reality intrudes. The statists have crippled themselves: having taken the willing media captive, almost all they hear is what they want to hear, so it is very slow to sink in that they have already lost the argument as the debate rages on. Their ideology has become as substantial as dandelion puffs on a windy day – and they think they remain in control because the wind has not yet carried them off. When it does, it will effortlessly blow it all away. I was warned that, in the fullness of the Storm, the greatest danger would be posed by those who pretend to orthodoxy; orthodoxy of faith and commitment to the ideals of human freedom. So why should I get over-excited on the errant temporal things that I was long ago shown would be blown away by God, Himself? I get annoyed, but I don’t waste much time with those problems. Meantime, I durst not ignore the more obscure problems that soon enough will loom large. For me, the temporal things the Pope speaks errantly of are things I was shown decades ago that the Lord will wipe away. Since those are the only substantial areas in which I disagree with him, why get overly excited about it? I don’t.
Though I had no clue what the Pope appointed to guide us through the Storm would look like physically, I did know much about some of his characteristics. He would be filled with missionary zeal, which he would exercise with a joyful, downright swashbuckling panache. He would clearly be a man on a mission. I was disturbed at the election of Pope Benedict. I love him. What a refined, approachable intellect he has! His book, Jesus of Nazareth, is, in its way, every much as sublimely a breathtaking achievement as Handel’s Messiah. But he didn’t match up with the characteristics I had seen. I was also given to expect that he would endure the Storm. Though I was kind of gleeful in telling my priest director that Benedict would NOT just be a caretaker Pope because of that, I remained a bit unsettled. I figured I must have misunderstood something along the way. When Benedict announced his resignation, I was shocked and shaken. I told one of my Priests that this was a specific error on my part that brought much into question, for I had expected Benedict to endure the Storm. My Priest, wiser than I at the moment, gently said, “He may well endure, Charlie. Just not as Pope.”
When Pope Francis was elected from Argentina, my heart leapt in my chest. In explaining to my Priests about Our Lady of Tepeyac before the turn of the millennium, I told them she had come to evangelize the New World from the Old under the European title of Our Lady of Guadalupe – but now the Old World was in worse spiritual shape than the New, and she would re-evangelize it under her proper American title of Our Lady of Tepeyac. I saw this Pope coming from the New World as the beginning of the fulfillment of that prophecy. Within a month, my heart was leaping again, for Pope Francis completely fit the characteristics I had been shown of the Pope who would guide us through the Storm.
Shortly afterwards I saw an astonishing picture of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict standing together. The thought came to my mind that, dressed all in white, they looked like two pillars. I immediately was taken by the thought, for I had long been taken by Don Bosco’s vision of the ship passing through two pillars out of a storm. It was imagery that resonated with me, for I had always seen the Storm as a ship of refuge passing through a violently stormy sea, ultimately to safety. In his vision, the two pillars represent Our Lady and Christ in the Eucharist. Here I was seeing a visible manifestation of the two pillars. Again, my heart rejoiced, for I thought God in His mercy had, indeed, given us two pillars of faith in these times, a Holy Pope filled with missionary zeal, going forth to all the world and a Holy Pope Emeritus who, like a rudder, would remain largely hidden and silent, but would give stability to the ship as it made its perilous way to the shore of safety.
All that I had expected up to that point had been fulfilled, but in a way I had not expected at all. It deepened my trust of God even as it reminded me that God’s ways are not man’s ways – and that I, too, must be careful of judging by human expectations.
I was again caught off guard as I slowly realized how ill-informed Pope Francis is on the secular matters of economics, science outside his specialty, and the philosophical infrastructure of human freedom. I was appalled at how superficial his analysis of such things were. On temporal matters except for the social issues, Barack Obama and Pope Francis are near mirror images of each other. In Obama’s case, he knows his objectives advance the Culture of Death and concentrate power in a few hands. Pope Francis truly intends to help the poor…but in this case, his misguided idealism empowers the advocates of the Culture of Death, even though it is not what he intends.
I know something about misguided idealism. When I was a young man, I was obviously both very idealistic – and very talented at mobilizing people and getting them to march for a common cause and at enunciating a message that resonated with people. My naievete made me easy prey for some shrewd politicians at the local and county level who wanted to benefit from my talents to enhance their power. I was an environmentalist. Actually, I still am, but at that time I took my fellow environmentalists at their word as to their motives. A flaw of human nature is that we usually think our own motivations and drives are the same as most everyone else’s. I did not yet understand that “professional” environmentalists use their nice-sounding cause as a fig leaf to cover their naked grasp for power – and that most of their policies actually do serious damage to the environment. But my imputation of my own motives to those around me was the leverage they needed to manipulate me to the service of their ends.
It reached a head when I was chairman of a regional sanitary commission. As their influence grew and their position was solidified, my allies got more radical. They had embarked on a project of forcibly taking farmers’ land through eminent domain at bargain prices. They would not win in court, but they worked from the “deep pockets” theory: if they just appealed every courtroom loss, the county’s money would not run out but their targets would grow weary or go broke. It worked. They also put a near halt to necessary infrastructure improvements, such as roads and sewer lines. Internally, I was fighting them on these things and our disputes were growing more public. At one point, my mentor’s sidekick (most believed him to be the leader of the movement, but he was only its mouthpiece) plaintively asked me why I was fighting them, for I had been one of the county’s original environmental activists. I archly told him, “If I loved horses, I would not think it obliged me to become a horse thief.”
My mentor was both head of a municipal government and Chairman of the County. Things came to a head when he summoned me to his municipal office for a meeting. He began by saying everyone knew I was his heir apparent when he retired and he fully supported that, but we needed to maintain unity during this controversy. I asked him to just tell me what I was missing. I was adamant that, at least, farmers should get a fair price for their land. I was particularly upset about the denial of sewer lines. We had one unincorporated area on septic that could not continue that way. It had already had three cases of hepatitis and was a danger to children. It was unconscionable that the county would not approve sewer lines when the money was there. “This causes real environmental and health hazards,” I said, “ it looks more like power is the issue than the environment.” He exploded. “Of course it is about power, Charlie, it always has been. It’s time for you to grow up,” he said. “Now look, here’s what I’m going to do for you: I’m going to put you on the slate for assessor at election next year.” I was stunned. The sitting assessor had been entirely loyal to him. I asked what would happen to the man. “He can’t help me much. You can. He’s out,” he said. I can’t describe how horrified and shocked I was. He had made the same mistake I had been making: he assumed that my foundational motives were, at bottom, the same as his. But I was not a wolf.
Though my mentor was a 20-year incumbent, I started working to find and manage a slate of candidates against him and his slate (eight seats total). Most everyone laughed at my fool’s mission and how I had gone crazy, tilting at windmills. On election night, I went up to the courthouse where everyone around the county gathered to wait for returns. Several people told me consolingly that I had run a great campaign for my slate, but you can’t unseat a 20-year incumbent. When a prominent judge told me the same, I had had enough. “The surprise of the night is not going to be that we win, but how big we win,” I growled. When the returns came in, the weakest member of our slate garnered near 62% of the vote against his opponent. We cleaned house in a landslide. In the process I learned that if you want to be true, you must vet the things you are inclined to agree with more vigorously than those you are not. To judge righteous judgment, you truly must be as wise as serpents as well as gentle as doves.
I was appalled to see that the Pope’s sometimes gauzy idealism ignited a certain triumphalism among the worst elements in the Church. The wolves no longer hid in the woods, but thought sure their hour had come round at last and boldly took to the open field. Before the first session of the Synod on the Family, some of the heterodox Bishops claimed they “spoke” for the Pope. Imagine their surprise when the Pope closed the session with a marvelous statement of charitable orthodoxy. But it was only a setback, they thought. Those who would consign spiritual means to the service of transitory political ends stacked the deck to assure the Pope that dubious claims of “climate change” were the greatest crisis facing the world. He followed their lead.
After the mixed results of 2014, losing the assault on faith and morals at the Synod despite their high hopes but winning the temporal tug-of-war on temporal matters, the wolves upped the ante, using a little raw power to try to muscle things their way. In the follow-up to the Pope’s Encyclical on the Environment, the Vatican Secretariat shut out all credible skeptics of climate change, inviting only those pro-abortion, pro-state centralization voices from around the world to their conference on how to address the matter. Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chairman of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, proclaimed that the Pope’s opinion on “climate change” is Magisterial teaching and to dissent from it is mortal sin. Never mind that the Pope, himself, said in the encyclical, itself, that it is NOT Magisterial teaching. Bishop Sorondo is determined to bind the consciences of the faithful on what is their prudential responsibility AND authority. It is not the first time a Bishop has been determined to have his way regardless of what the Pope, the Magisterium or Canon Law says. Ask St. Joan of Arc. Some of the German Bishops, stunned by their unexpected loss at the first session of the Synod, threatened to break away and exercise their own magisterial authority in Germany. Shades of Henry VIII! The Vatican Secretariat, the political arm of the Vatican, having the press on its side, was determined not to have a repeat of the embarrassment of the first session of the Synod. It wrote its own working document for the second session and set up the process so that Bishops were not allowed to vote on items in it. Heaven forbid that the political arm of the Vatican actually allow the men charged with the actual decisions have any real influence on their plans! Thirteen Bishops corrected that by sending a private letter to the Pope. The General Secretariat tried to mischaracterize it to the public, but the Bishops took back their decision-making authority. An unsung hero, Cardinal Peter Erdo, put a stop to the affront of the politicized working document. This marvelous piece in First Things about what really happened at the Synod, by George Weigel, covers how the majority of Bishops took back control from a General Secretariat that tried to impose its heterodox will on them. Though it is a long article, you should read the whole thing. You will become a fan of Cardinal Erdo and see how seriously the great majority of Bishops took their responsibility to both the faith and the faithful. As Weigel notes,
“Thus, in the first half hour of his talk, Erdő set the discussions of Synod 2015 on a solid foundation built from the Scriptures and the magisterium of the three preceding pontificates, thereby tacitly rejecting the false premise that the fathers could start from scratch in considering marriage and the family in the twenty-first century. The signs of the times, he concurrently made clear, should be read through the lens of divine revelation.”
Entirely unheralded, this session of the Synod went a long way to reforming the Synodal process – firmly re-establishing that synodal managers and the general secretariat are the servants of the world’s Bishops, not their masters. The final document was entirely orthodox. It was a far more ultimately crushing defeat for those who seek to assault Church doctrine than the first session of the Synod was.
On substantial matters of faith and morals, the wolves have accomplished absolutely nothing. Though they had high hopes because of his congeniality to them, on theological matters of substance, they have not swayed Pope Francis a single inch. They have NO substantial victories. They have created divisions on temporal matters on which the Pope has none but routine advisory authority. Pope Francis is an idealistic man; one who, I suspect, credits those around him with the same altruistic idealism. He is also, I suspect, a more charitable man than I am. He has remained as solid as steel on faith and morals, even as some wolves he is congenial to continually misrepresent him as “their man.” Those who do not recognize his congeniality for the patience it is and his unbending proclamation of orthodoxy with charity as the strength it is -rather than a source of leverage – will ultimately see him clean house as intensely as I did when I realized how badly some had manipulated my idealism.
What the wolves have accomplished with the help of their sometimes willing and other times ignorant media allies, is to sow confusion among the faithful. Not one in a hundred faithful Catholics know what a triumph for orthodoxy the final document of this session of the Synod was. Some orthodox Catholics have gotten on such a heresy hair-trigger that they are ready – even eager – to believe the worst about the Pope and skeptical of the solid, consistent evidence of his theological orthodoxy. Some orthodox Catholics have gotten so dismayed by the Pope’s often klunky political statements that they are ready, even eager, to believe he is equally klunky theologically. Judge righteous judgment. Before pronouncing judgment on any action of the Pope, first fully vet it to make sure you know what you are talking about. If you think the Pope was talking about homosexuality when he made his “Whom am I to judge” comment and you have criticized him for it, you are almost as guilty as the defamatory media. He was talking about whether the subject priest’s expressed contrition was genuine. This routine defamation of the Holy Father is an important accomplishment for the wolves.
But in their reckless vanity, the wolves have unwittingly accomplished some other things. The same false picture that is dismaying some orthodox Catholics, combined with the authentic missionary zeal of the Pope, have led some people who had abandoned the faith to take another look. Some who were alienated have developed a real affection for Pope Francis. Many who came for the sizzle will end up unexpectedly staying for the steak.
Meanwhile, all the wolves stand exposed and revealed. This could not have happened under Popes Benedict or St. John Paul, where the wolves were careful to maintain their camouflage. I do not say this is the Pope’s plan…I do not think he could have accomplished this without sin if it was intentional. But an honest heart with some blind spots could. God has a plan – and as I have often said, when we love Him and hold fast to Him, He uses both our virtues and our flaws to accomplish His will. Pope Francis is an absolutely honest servant of the Most High and a Missionary of Mercy and Love to all the faithful.
The satan knows he cannot defeat the Church or destroy the Lord’s Anointed Holy Father. So he uses every stratagem he can to separate as many of the faithful from the Church and to their destruction through this rising Storm as he possibly can before he is routed and the faithful are Rescued. That is what all this confusion is – and always has been – about: to lure the orthodox away from the ship of safety, to gain leverage from their doubts that God really meant it when He said that the faith of Peter would not fail.
There are many wolves who stalk Pope Francis, but he is not their prey. We are.
I tell you again. Pope Francis IS the Pope of the Storm. God knew what He was doing when He allowed his election. Stay to the Barque of Peter as the Storm rises, hold fast to Christ, take cover under the mantle of Mary – and love your Papa.