Five years ago this week I was the co-host of a local TV station’s week-long coverage of Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S. The TV station chose me because I was the local diocese’s Director of Evangelization, and to the media, that’s essentially equivalent to the Church’s PR guy. The station needed someone to explain to its audience the main themes of Francis’s pontificate, what he wanted to accomplish in his visit, why things were done the way they were in the Church, etc. So I dutifully sat in the co-anchor’s chair and explained as best I could.
However, at this point in my life my inner frustration with Francis was reaching a breaking point. During my commentary, I had to grit my teeth and not say the things that I was thinking: that Francis was harmful to evangelization, that he was allergic to tradition, that he had an abysmal record for purging abusive priests/bishops out of the Church, that he wasn’t giving a strong moral message to the world…the list could go on. Instead I said the boiler-plate pablum I was expected to say, which of course included absolutely no criticisms of the pope.
When my week on TV ended, I felt like I needed to take a shower. How was my putting a positive spin on an obviously bad situation helping the Church? Was it bringing anyone closer to Christ? I didn’t become a Director of Evangelization just so I could play Baghdad Bob for the Church. I wanted to draw people into a deeper relationship with Christ in His Church, not be a PR flak for a dysfunctional organization.
It was then that I realized I couldn’t work for the Church anymore. Although my bishop gave me a lot of leeway in my job, there were certain lines that were just impossible to cross, and criticizing the pope—in any way—was the most prominent of those lines (along with criticizing Vatican II). Yet these uncrossable lines were barriers to evangelization; they were barriers to honest, fruitful efforts to lead people to a deeper relationship with Christ. If I was required to mindlessly support every single thing the pope says and does, then non-Catholics—particularly evangelicals already suspicious about the dangers of the papacy—will be quickly turned off to the message. Further, thinking Catholics who know something is amiss will begin to think they are crazy for thinking that way and may begin to doubt their own faith.
It’s unfortunately a common misconception among Catholics that good evangelization means you can’t bring up the bad things going on in the Church. “Stay positive” is the number one rule of modern evangelization. If you bring up the bad, the belief goes, then people will be turned off to Catholicism and go elsewhere. Yet this isn’t true; in fact, the opposite is true. If an evangelist isn’t willing to publicly face head-on the problems in the Church, then people will know he’s just a slick salesman trying to cover up the warts. He won’t be trusted. But if an evangelist not only brings up those problems, but also directly addresses them and explains why they don’t negate the core message of the Gospel, then he will more likely be listened to.
We can see this principle in practice in the Bible itself. Consider the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians. Most people know of this epistle from Paul’s beautiful meditation on love found in its 13th chapter. Yet the main purpose of the letter is for Paul to air out the dirty laundry in the Corinth church and urge its members to reform their ways. If the Apostle took the view that we should ignore problems in the Church (as we see done by every institutional organ of the Church today), then he would never have confronted the Corinthian Catholics. And if God thought we should hide our dirty laundry, He would have never inspired the letter or had the Church include it in the Biblical canon.
To stop the downward demographic trend in the Church, we need to stop pushing the problems that are accelerating those trends under the rug. Only by being honest with our internal problems will we be able to go out into the world to effectively proclaim the Gospel. We need to be true evangelists, not PR flaks. We need to be like St. Paul, not like Bagdad Bob.
Postscript: the priest pictured with me in the photo above sadly left the priesthood a couple years later. It’s a poignant example of the all-too-common, and all-too-real, problems in the Church today.