Tom Hoopes, writer in residence at Benedictine College, Kansas, recently published a book of reflections on the message of Pope Francis, What Pope Francis Really Said: Words of Comfort and Challenge. MercatorNet asked him about the controversy surrounding the Pope.

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MercatorNet: What prompted you to write a book about the message of Pope Francis?

Tom Hoopes: The book didn’t start out as “What Pope Francis Really Said.” It started out as “Where Francis stands on hot-button issues.” I was going to catalogue what he is saying on same-sex marriage, abortion, the environment, immigration, etc.

It still does that – 10 issues in 10 chapters. As the project developed, however, it was clear that American Catholics had deep and abiding reservations about Francis. The tone changed to be less descriptive and more defensive.

How would you define his distinctive message? Whom is it aimed at? Is it a break in continuity from John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

I think there is a difference in style, not substance, in Francis from his predecessors. None of them can be classified as “conservative” or “liberal.” They all have “liberal” views on economics, the environment and immigration and “conservative” views on sexual ethics, the role of religion and “old fashioned” Catholic truths such as the Devil, Mary and Confession.

One stylistic difference is Francis’s harsh attitude toward economic sinners and his red-hot contempt for the Western “myths” he calls out: individualism, consumerism, and blind faith in technology.

But Francis also has some positive stylistic differences: His culture of encounter is a very helpful guide to evangelization. He is basically saying “Quit talking to each other about evangelization and go out and meet people.” Also, his emphasis on service. His predecessors agree with him on both, but his style has caused many of us to do way more service than before, and actually engage others.

You stress how positively young people respond the Pope. What do they see in him?

They see authenticity. They didn’t know John Paul II except as an elderly man … actually, not even that. I know and you know that Benedict XVI was authentic, but they didn’t see it. I remember the magazine Vanity Fair called Francis a “free man.” That’s what they see him as – a man not beholden to others.

They also don’t have our defences. Francis sets many of us on edge because we have been through tough times in the Church, clinging to faith in a defensive crouch because it seemed that even many Catholic institutions were trying to take it away. We spent our lives developing hypersensitive radar for dissent. They never had the need for that. So alarm bells don’t ring in their brains when they hear Francis, the way they do in ours.

In the controversy over Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has been accused of wanting to change traditional Catholic ideas on sexual morality? What's your take on that?

That question is above my pay grade. I am not a theologian or a bishop – or a cardinal like those who wrote the Dubia. What I do in the book is list all the supportive statements from him about the indissolubility of marriage.

One thing I can say is this. The question of divorce and remarriage has been treated as a bit of a game in many Catholic circles. Marriage situations are such a mess, that a lot of winking goes on and behind-the-scenes solutions to difficult problems. What often happens are ad hoc answers that a bishop or pastor gives to make the most of bad situations.

Francis has opened a can of worms, but it may be true that the can had to be opened and sorted out. The only solution is for the Church to apply the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the mess. That still needs to be done.

In some circles, there is an air of suspicion over everything the Pope does — his appointments, his documents, his interviews, his guests at the Vatican… Why are some people so relentlessly negative? 

I’ll give three reasons that are his fault and three reasons that are our fault.

Three ways Pope Francis makes us not like him: First, he provokes us. He uses “fundamentalist,” “Manichean,” “rigorist” and other words that seem designed to condemn rather than correct. Second, Pope Francis is imprecise and that gets him into trouble and makes life difficult for Catholics who have to address misunderstandings. Third, because he seems clearly to be following a strategy that balances “doctrine-focused” appointments with “social justice-focused” appointments. That frightens many Catholics who have seen poisonous dissent in the Church all our lives.

Three fails on our part:

First, we are too thin-skinned to take Francis’s advice seriously. OK, some of what he says sounds like name-calling. But anyone who reads Catholic com-boxes knows that harsh, fundamentalist, “rigorist” Catholics absolutely exist. I remember the vitriol we received continually at the National Catholic Register. The harshness of Catholics startled a nice Catholic woman who came to work for us. She had never seen anything like it in the secular world, where she went back to work.

Second, his critique of American conservativism is true, and that bothers us. It’s true that economic opportunity has come at a gigantic moral cost that we decry but don’t correct – pornography streamed to our children, abortion exported worldwide, the destruction of Third-World families (and lakes and streams), and an entertainment-centred technocratic generation.

Our personal-comfort-focused consumerist lifestyle would destroy the world if it were adopted worldwide, Francis points out. He’s right. It would. And he’s right. That hasn’t made us correct course.

Third, there’s just something about him that sets our radar off. As I said before, our radar is hypersensitive but absolutely understandable. 

The Christian message is under threat in many Western countries. Is Pope Francis the man to give Catholicism renewed vitality?

I think he is, and I think the tragedy of our times is that, at least in America, Catholics aren’t rallying around him.

Imagine if we took him seriously.

Imagine if the best lay Catholic minds were searching out ways to make the culture of encounter work. Imagine if we took him seriously and carefully evangelized “in every conversation” – at Little League games, at office lunches, in waiting rooms.

Imagine we were trying to find ways to purify entrepreneurism, which Francis praises, such that it aims at the common good – more jobs and more beneficial products more widely available – instead of consumerism and comforts and profits-at-any-cost.

Imagine we all lived his spiritual life: Eucharistic hours, nothing in our pocket but a rosary and a Way of the Cross, a serious attempt to live the Beatitudes.

Imagine if we were filling out the picture whenever he left something out, instead of getting angry at his omission. Imagine if we were loudly repeating all the great things he has said instead of loudly denouncing and repeating all the not-great things he says.

You know what would happen? Instead of being known as complainers, we would be known as dynamic, attractive, saints.

Tom Hoopes is Writer in Residence and Vice President for College Relations at Benedictine College, in Kansas.