Courting the man in the middle

Ross Douthat, writing in a recent NY Times editorial, said that the story of religion in the West for the last 40+ years has been one in which traditional groups show resiliency while liberal groups tend to atrophy.

“Of late, this process of polarization has carried an air of inevitability. You can hew to a traditional faith in late modernity, it has seemed, only to the extent that you separate yourself from the American and Western mainstream. There is no middle ground, no center that holds for long, and the attempt to find one quickly leads to accommodation, drift and dissolution,” he observed.

And this is where he believes Pope Francis is seeking to make a difference. Specifically, Douthat  believes that Francis has an “obvious desire to reject these alternatives” which he views as “self-segregation” (on the part of the traditionalists, aka, triumphalists) or ultimate “surrender” to the popular culture and a loss of faith.

He credits John Allen Jr. for calling Francis a “pope for the Catholic middle,” positing that he is “positioned somewhere between the church’s rigorists and the progressives who pine to Episcopalianize the faith.”

“Francis,” Douthat observes, “seems to be determined to recreate, or regain, the kind of center that has failed to hold in every major Western faith.”

Perhaps Douthat is correct, but if so, is this desire to make nice with “the man in the middle” truly laudable?

Our Blessed Lord seemed rather clearly to say, to Hell with the middle!

“Being that you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth … One is either with me or against me.”

Douthat ultimately proposes, “The question is whether that attention [to the middle] will translate into real interest in the pope’s underlying religious message or whether the culture will simply claim him for its own.”

Clearly, Douthat doesn’t quite grasp the real question; at least as it is being asked by traditional Catholics, and that is precisely this: What exactly is Pope Francis’ “religious message?”

Consider that this is a pope who, in the course of allegedly engaging this “middle,”  has:

– Deliberately withheld the Sign of the Cross and refrained from invoking the Blessed Trinity in the presence of a mixed audience of Catholics and non-believers “out of respect for the consciences of all.”

– Publicly proclaimed that religious diversity, consisting of those who worship false gods or worship God falsely, is a “gift.”

– Expressed on more than one occasion an utter distaste for calling on non-Catholics to convert to the one true faith.

– Has suggested that if individuals would only follow “the good” and combat “the bad,” according to their own idea of which is which, this alone will lead to a better world.

I could go on, but presumably you get the point. Based on these and other incidents, one is hard pressed not to wonder if the pope’s “religious message,” much of which appears blatantly humanistic, is even primarily Catholic.

My conservative Catholic friends, people I respect, are content to assume that the Holy Father is carrying out a well-considered plan of evangelization, and that his admittedly troubling words and deeds must be humbly accepted and placed within the context of the mission to capture this middle ground, the same of which Our Savior spoke so harshly.

For my part, that sounds an awful lot like “ends justifying means,” as if doctrinally confusing and misleading statements today are OK since they will somehow magically lead to converts tomorrow.

At this point, I have yet to hear even one compelling argument in favor of overlooking the dangers associated with the pope’s now officially acknowledged lack of concern for precision in the way he speaks, and so I will not.

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