Playin’ Church with Francis

A great opportunity must not be lost by Church infighting, writes John L. Allen Jr.

An old joke tweaking life in Church circles goes like this: A dad is sitting in his living room when he hears a ruckus upstairs. He goes up and is startled to see the kids sitting in a circle on folding chairs, screaming their lungs out at each other: “You’re an idiot!” “You’re completely wrong and I can prove it!” and so on.

The father steps in and demands to know, “What in the world is going on here?”

“Ah, don’t worry, dad,” one of the kids says. “We’re just playin’ Church.”

However middling it may be as a punch line, the joke captures something real. Perhaps because religion is about people’s deepest passions, it seems to breed division almost as reliably as devotion.

I’ve been using this joke on the lecture circuit lately because amid all the ferment generated by the new papacy, there’s a risk that some Catholics may be tempted to ‘play Church’ with Pope Francis, turning what ought to be a tremendous missionary opportunity into yet another bone of contention.

World’s attention

No matter where one stands on the spectrum of reaction Francis has elicited, from the most enthusiastic to the most ambivalent, it’s undeniable he’s got the world’s attention. In theory, that should represent a boon to the new evangelisation, the effort to relight the Church’s missionary fires that became Catholicism’s highest internal priority under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

One reliable method for squandering the momentum, however, would be to divert it into the Church’s internal battles. The world may now be looking at Catholicism in a new light, but if what it sees primarily is squabbling over who Francis is and what he represents, then he may remain a mere curiosity or pop culture sensation, not an invitation to faith, and his magnetic pull may never extend to the Church he leads.

For those most positively inclined to the new Pope, the temptation to ‘play Church’ primarily means using the words and deeds of Francis as a club to beat up on other people in the Church they don’t like.

During the John Paul and Benedict years, one by-product of the emphasis on Catholic identity under those Popes was the emergence of a caste of self-appointed guardians of loyalty who ran around ‘outing’ bishops, parishes, schools, hospitals and so on that they felt were insufficiently Catholic. Critics derisively dubbed them the ‘orthodoxy police’, concluding that in at least some cases, this was mean-spirited and reflected an untoward lust for judgment.

One wonders if we’re witnessing the emergence under Francis of an equal-and-opposite form of the same impulse, which we might term the ‘enlightenment police’ – people taking it upon themselves to pronounce whether someone is sufficiently humble, collaborative, forward-thinking, etc., to claim consistency with the direction being set by the new Pope.


For a certain kind of liberal Catholic, the temptation to engage in such finger-pointing is probably especially strong. These are folks who felt the sting of charges of not ‘thinking with the Church’ for the last 35 years and who delight in the sense that the shoe is now on the other foot.

One good rule of thumb, however, is that the best person to judge whether a given figure or group is consistent with Francis’ vision is, well, Francis. His most ardent supporters might do well to resist the tug of setting themselves up as his Mutaween (the religious police in some Islamic societies), especially given that the spiritual cornerstone of his papacy is the importance of mercy.

On the other side of the equation, there are several constituencies in the Church feeling angst over aspects of the new Pope’s direction, including:

Some pro-life Catholics, who worry that his inclination to dial down the volume on abortion, gay marriage and contraception risks unilateral disarmament in the culture wars;

Doctrinal purists, who think his shoot-from-the-hip style courts confusion on Church teaching;

Liturgical traditionalists, who don’t see him fostering the same reverence for the Church’s worship they associate with Benedict XVI;

Political conservatives, who fear that his emphasis on the social Gospel could shade off into an uncritical embrace of the agenda of the secular left;

Church personnel, especially in the Vatican, who are weary of hearing the new boss take pot-shots at them because they don’t see themselves as careerists or lepers infected with the trappings of a royal court.


For these folks, ‘playing Church’ occasionally may mean directly criticising the Pope. More often, however, it takes the form of accusing the media, in tandem with certain voices inside the Church, of misrepresenting his message. One can already spot a new rhetorical trope, patrolling the borders between the ‘real Francis’ and the ‘mythical Francis’ of the popular imagination.

What avoiding ‘playing Church’ means for these folks is resisting the urge of a rush to judgment, and in the meantime, not feeling the need to push back against every bit of breathless commentary that floats through the ether.

Fr John Wauck, an Opus Dei priest in Rome who’s an expert on communications and a frequent commentator on church affairs, recently supplied a useful dose of perspective.

“It’s important for everybody to calm down and look at the big picture,” Wauck said.

“Pope Francis, the successor of Peter, is the most popular man on the planet,” Wauck observed, adding wryly: “There are worse things that could happen.”

Indeed, and one of those ‘worse things’ would be to see his popularity siphoned off as raw material for ecclesiastical infighting rather than galvanising a new Catholic moment.

John L. Allen Jr. is Senior Correspondent with National Catholic Reporter