This Lent I have been reading the Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being. They may not seem like proper Lenten reading. The letters are not a spiritual manual or even particularly concerned with spiritual improvement. But when O’Connor does give spiritual advice it is of intense focus and reading the letters with the knowledge that O’Connor was dying of Lupus makes the advice even more poignant.

I’d like to focus on one letter in particular and how it gives Catholics, who find themselves troubled, even scandalized, by Francis’s pontificate a framework to make sense of and come to terms with the bitterness they feel. The letter I will focus on is to the writer and playwright, Cecil Dawkins.

It appears — we can only see O’Connor’s reply to Dawkins — that Dawkins wrote to O’Connor to express her displeasure regarding the state of the Church at the time (1958). In particular, Dawkins appears to have been concerned about the “vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, [and the] lack of intellectual honesty” found in the Church.

The reasons for Dawkins’s distress are not all that important. It is O’Connor’s diagnosis of the problem as not being so much with the Church but with Catholics who allow themselves to be scandalized by human fallibility as it is found in the Church. O’Connor writes that “We have our own responsibility for not being “little ones” too long, for not being scandalized. By being scandalized too long, you will scandalize others and the guilt for that will belong to you. “

I’ve been highly critical of Pope Francis, but even more than that I have allowed myself to be scandalized by his actions and inactions. In allowing myself to be scandalized I have indulged in a sort of childish fearmongering that could lead to scandalizing others, and at the very least is damaging to my own faith and how I relate to the Church. I have allowed myself the indulgence of being a “little one.”

I’ll point out quickly here that Pope Francis is not beyond reproach and that viewing his actions critically is without a doubt worthwhile at times. But among traditionalist Catholics (myself included) there has been a distressing tendency to view almost every aspect of this pontificate through a narrative of irreversible decline. And this has led to bitterness among many traditionalists in how they relate to the Church.

Why is this? To answer this question I will return to O’Connor and her advice to Dawkins along with a quick overview of how many traditionalists viewed Pope Benedict XVI. O’Connor advises Dawkins that “to expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and that is a softness that leads to bitterness.”

Many Catholics viewed Pope Benedict as an intellectual giant, one of the last great men of Europe. They saw in him an ally in their fight for liturgical beauty and a man of philosophical brilliance. He is undeniably all of those things, but along the way in some quarters that admiration gave way to a sentimentalist hero worship. As O’Connor wrote, sentimentalism is a softness that leads to bitterness.

Many Catholics were stricken when Pope Benedict abdicated but they believed or stridently hoped that an even more tradition-friendly Pope would be elected and when Francis was elected they were confused, and as Pope Francis’s pontificate has gone on this confusion has turned to bitterness.

This bitterness is the result of viewing the papacy through a lens of sentimentality. Taking a sentimental view of life is immature and spiritually damaging and when the sentimentalist is inevitably scandalized by human nature he will likely spread his scandal to others. When you read the laments of, especially traditionalist Catholics, about Pope Francis with this in mind, you will immediately see that often these are not people suffering for their steadfast refusal to turn away from the ugly truth but instead these are people suffering from an excess of sentimentality.

O’Connor goes on to advise Dawkins that “the Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on water.” It is often assumed that the bitterness of traditionalist Catholics comes from being realistic and un-sentimental, but just as often, it’s the opposite. Think of how disappointing it can be for an adolescent who grew up idolizing a baseball player to find out that his hero is actually a cretin. This is not a perfect analogy, but it does get to what O’Connor means by being a “little one.”  We must work hard to have a grown up faith that doesn’t indulge in sure-to-be-disappointed papolatry or the false realism that leads to cynicism.

My purpose, and I believe O’Connor’s, is not to counsel stoicism or quietism in the face of distressing trends, but to argue for a mature response to them. We must resist the childish urge to luxuriate in bitterness and scandal about Pope Francis. Many conservative and traditionalist Catholics have replaced their spiritual life of prayer and hope with bitterness. They’re not always aware of it though because they believe they have earned their bitterness. Indeed, most have fooled themselves into believing that it is concern, and not bitterness. A mature response, as O’Connor says in the same letter is “to try to change the external faults of the Church” for the better, but she ends by saying that just as often we do this “by suffering on account of it.”

Catholics who find themselves bitter over what they perceive to be the new direction of the Church would do well to keep O’Connor’s advice to Dawkins in mind. I tend to find myself on the same side as those who are dissatisfied, but the main lesson I take from reading O’Connor’s letters is that that suffering must be borne in a spiritually mature way. O’Connor was no stranger to suffering as we see in her own struggle with Lupus and also when we encounter the grotesque renderings of human disfigurement (both physical and spiritual) in her stories.

O’Connor began her letter to Dawkins by saying that “Glibness is the great danger in answering people’s questions about religion.” She’s right. It has also been a great danger whenever people write about “trads” or “neocon Catholics,” or “Novus Ordo Catholics.” I hope I have avoided this danger in this piece. This Lent we should all pray that we are like the “little ones” Christ called to Himself rather than the childish “little ones” that O’Connor describes as we make our way toward Easter.

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  1. Of course an awful lot of us reject this pope and all of his predecessors for reasons that are anything but sentimental.

  2. A great Lenten reflection. I am not Catholic (at least not of the Roman variety) but scandal, back-biting, and just overall gross ecclesiastical politicking abounds in the hierarchy of my own church. May God grant us grace –

    I am reminded of what St Gregory of Nyssa says in “The Life of Moses,” and I paraphrase: neither the shrewdness of the serpent nor the innocence of the dove are traits to be sought, but the one who embodies the mean therein between has attained to virtue.

  3. And then there are an awful lot of us who think Francis embodies what it means to be Christlike. This is the first Pope that has made me think the Catholic church can be cleansed, redeemed and made new. A Pope that walks humbly, hangs out with the rejected, and champions the poor. And it was that “intellectual giant” Benedict who sat mute and did nothing while allegations of sexual abuse crossed his desk, and then when he was confronted with all the corruption in the Vatican as Pope he did not have the stomach to confront it. Good riddance to the cowardly Benedict, and godspeed courageous Francis! I prefer my Popes to be men of love, mercy and action, rather than remote “intellectual giants”.

    It is precisely the lo what you lament

    • Hi Jordan,

      I’m glad you find much to admire about Pope Francis. I do as well.

      I wonder though if you haven’t confused pope Benedict’s role in the sex abuse crisis with Pope John Paul II’s.

      Pope John Paul II did not handle the sex abuse crisis well at all and we are lucky that Cardinal Ratzinger largely took over for him on handling the crisis. When Ratzinger became Pope he continued to fight against clergy sex abuse.

      I can’t comment much in Benedict’s intellectual remoteness other than to say that many people who have met him found him to be a warm man.

      • My information may be incorrect, but I remember from the Frontline documentary on Ratzinger and his abdication of the papacy, that he was in charge of dealing with the sexual abuse allegations before he was the Pope, and it was his desk that letters detailing rampant sexual abuse and corruption were sent. I remember one particular case surrounding a very prominent priest in Mexico (I believe it was) where letters were sent from those who were abused, and the letter went entirely unanswered. Whether or not this information was passed along to John Paul, I have no idea. You may be right that Ratzinger wanted action but John Paul ignored him. But not long after this the Mexican priest in question was given an incredibly high honour or promotion or something along those lines. The video of John Paul kissing the corrupt priest made me ill.

        I recognize that documentaries portray only part of any picture, but Frontline is usually pretty solid, and the picture it painted of Ratzinger was not flattering. It’s a worth a watch.

        • Hi Jordan,

          I don’t want to drag this out too much so I’ll just say a little more and leave you with the last word if you care to respond.

          The way the sex abuse scandal was addressed by the clergy is shameful and horrifying. That should be said at the outset of any discussion on this.

          That said, I believe an impartial observer would see that out of the last three Popes (JPII, BXVI, and Francis) Benedict has done the most to address these issues. I think Francis has done much but has become largely a disappointment on this issue.

          But, if it’s not too tendentious, I’d direct you back to the point I have tried to make, that we must view the office of the Pope for what it is and not what our sentimental side may desire it to be.

          I have not seen the Frontline doc but I will say I have found them to be quite a mixed bag in terms of objectivity. I can’t comment on this one specifically. The truth though is horrifying as it is.

      • Some Christians don’t worry about the papacy in their understanding of the faith. So is it possible to have Christianity without the papacy? If so, then an attachment to the papacy could be sentimental.

  4. I’m so glad these commenters are actually engaging with the important message of this post, rather than their own confessional or ideological differences with the author’s identity.

    Mr Mason, thank you for this Lenten reminder. I find myself often in need of it. You’ve hit upon faith, hope, and charity here, and I am truly grateful.

  5. Sentimentalism certainly has infected many traditionalist critiques of this pontificate, but I think for many it comes from real life experiences rather than immature emotionalism (although it can often be a mixture of both). With all the moralistic therapeutic deism that passes for Catholicism at the parish down the road, orthodox and traditionalist Catholics in the past at least had the Pope and the Magisterium in their corner. I had such an experience last year: I was told by the local pastor that Catholics who insist on not using birth control as an important aspect of living out one’s vocation to marriage have missed the point of being Catholic. “Cohabitation is tolerated by the Church today.” I, a convert, have been taught that “there’s no urgency to convert to Catholicism or even Christianity”. “Jews have their own covenant; “Muslims also have their scriptures”. Backed up with appeals to the teaching of the Pope and his endorsed friends like Kasper. Don’t underestimate how much ammunition Pope Francis has given local clergy to marginalise faithful Catholics and their children. This is not sentimentalism, but real life concern for the preservation of the faith.

  6. As yet another non-Catholic, I appreciate what you’ve written here as well, Mr. Mason. On the one hand, if you’re not scandalized and angry about what goes on in this fallen world, then you really need to check to see if you have a pulse! And yet, the excessive idealism and sentimentality I confess I’m all too prone to, flies right in the face of reality, as if somehow Our Lord didn’t make it clear enough (Jn. 16:33) that in this (fallen) world, we’d know our share of trouble (I’m including in this church leaders at all levels who are made of the same sinfully flawed stuff as I am)!

    And we were expecting . . . what exactly?

    This isn’t intended as cynicism, but, rather, as an encouragement to me to keep my sure hope in Him properly tempered with reality!

    Thanks again!

  7. Should we not be scandalized by scandal? Francis proposed heresy, the Phillipine bishops expressed their support publicly. Objectively scandalous, no?

  8. To respectfully agree with what I believe is dg’s “sentiment”, I would imagine most traditional Protestants view the Roman church’s ACCEPTANCE of the office of the pope (“papa”), as well as the high view of Mary, saints, and relics, as being characteristically sentimental.

    • It’s incredibly odd that any moderately informed person would view doctrine of the church of Aquinas as something founded in sentiment. The disagreements between your sects and ours are intellectual, not emotional.

  9. Yeah, I wonder if sentimentality is one of the standards of the modern and post-modern era? I am Roman Catholic and I have noticed bitterness among some Roman Catholics who may be considered “traditional.” I have also found this bitterness among some of the “Vatican II era” generation. I think both seem to have a naive sense that we can create an earthly utopia. I am a pastor of a small parish, and I am amazed when people twice my age are scandalized my personality conflicts and impatience and squabbles; I am amazed that people expect complete absence of conflict and suffering. This is not limited to the Church though. I think looking at the people’s hopes for the presidential election are absolutely unrealistic, and, unfortunately, as the noted in this article, this can only lead to bitterness, and even more, despair. Sentimentality and despair are perhaps characteristics of our society.

  10. Yes, Christianity can exist without the papacy, but dgwired’s OldLife blog might be out of business. He would have to find a new subject for daily ridicule.

  11. If there is one outstanding quality that characterises the papacy of Bergoglio it must be that it is awash in sentimentality of the most populist kind. To pin the label of sentImentality on his critics, and tracing it to a sentimental attachment to Benedict’s intellectual attainments, borders on the bizarre. Sorry, I find your argument simply unconvincing.

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