An excerpt from an article that appeared in the Telegraph:
On Saturday, in what was interpreted as veiled criticism of his earnest, theologian predecessor, Benedict XVI, Francis said the Catholic Church often uses language that many ordinary people found baffling and overly intellectual.
The Church was “perhaps too cold, too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas,” he said. At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people,” he said.
Context is crucial. Was this really an intentional critique of Benedict? I doubt it. Ever since Francis was elected, the media has been relentlessly billing him as the anti-Benedict. More humble, more simple, less “baroque,” the “people’s pope,” more down to earth, and so on. It’s getting way too predictable. Francis would object to such tactics, I think.
That said, I can’t agree with the suggestion that a problem dogging the Catholic Church over the past forty years has been “intellectualism” or “rigid formulas.” If anything, we’ve traded in the intellect for the purely sentimental, even saccharine. For two generations and counting, Catholics have been reared in an anti-intellectual ethos, from Catholic schools to liturgy. Have you been to a typical Catholic parish recently? It’s almost all touchy-feely: name tags, silly songs, liturgical dancing, hand-holding, Father Personality and his cringeworthy jokes, backslapping, high-fives, zero substance, etc. It never ends.
Having attended Catholics schools for most of my youth (Saint Sebastian, Christ King, and Marquette High here in Milwaukee), I can’t say that “intellectualism” was a cause for many of my peers leaving the Church (which many of them did). We simply weren’t taught the essentials of the faith. Period. Feelings and self-esteem, coupled with a watered-down theology of “being nice,” took precedence. At times, outright hostility towards the Church hierarchy was evident from theology teachers.
Are people abandoning a church that is “too cold”? Look at the evidence. Judging by the “Latin Bishops Do the Brady Bunch” shtick on Copacabana last week, it’s difficult for me to swallow the “we as a church have been too cold” proposition. Maybe that’s happening somewhere, but I don’t see it. What’s happening is a reaction to the opposite extreme, that of boredom with sentimentalism. Many are tuning out because faith rooted in a solitary reliance on sentimentalism and emotions, absent a personal encounter with Christ and solid formation, quickly dries up. There’s no depth.
Along with his humility, sanctity and unrivaled experience, Benedict brought his much-needed intellect (not intellectualism) to the papacy. George Weigel called Benedict the greatest papal preacher since Pope Saint Gregory the Great. Hard to disagree.
It is true that intellectualism is a threat (as an –ism) that can sometimes eclipse conversion and that necessary, personal encounter with Christ. That would be a problem, no doubt. Few people are more grating to me than arrogant, stuck-up, so-called “traditional” Catholics who are all mind, and no heart. The faith isn’t an academic formula. I get it. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more mind, a little less schmaltz, and a lot less dancing bishops, in our Church.