Among the greatest turn-offs that people—especially young people—sense from the Catholic Church is that it is arrogant, gnostic, and self-referential. Though this may no longer be a true characterization, it is a popular perception that church leaders are more interested in being faithful to the church than to Jesus. Pope Francis, in his brief pontificate, is doing much to address these institutional misnomers and shortcomings; he, above all else, wants to transition the church from this bad reputation. He realizes that apologists with a strong need to “defend the faith” as a means of attracting people usually do more harm than good.
Regarding arrogance, some church leaders have a pharisaical attitude which gloats that the church possesses the sole and complete answers to faith’s most important issues. But Jesus belongs to everyone, not just Catholics. Author Jen Hatmaker drives this point home in her book, For The Love; she writes that instead of saying, “We have all the answers and, if you join us, you can too,” we should tell the truth: We don’t have all the answers and you don’t either but, if we work together to carry out Christ’s mission, we can make the world a little better place, perhaps even a lot better. As we seek the Truth that is Jesus, we should be humble before God and others.
Regarding Gnosticism, it is erroneous to think that God imbued secret divine knowledge to one group of people while intentionally hiding it from other godly people. Certainly Catholics can celebrate and rejoice in doctrine that is graced with beauty and goodness and oriented toward heaven but it is wrong to suggest that others live in the dark, or are children of a lesser god, or will miss out on the promise of eternal life. Christ’s light shines everywhere. As we seek life in Him we should recall His ongoing argument with Pharisees to recognize that those whom they suspected to be farthest from God’s kingdom are closer than themselves. Superiority and haughtiness do not play well in Jesus’ Life or mission.
Regarding self-referential behavior whereby church leaders point to catechisms, encyclicals, and other ecclesial doctrine to justify the correct way, the Pope also rebukes this attitude. He essentially has said—many times—that any institution which points only to itself in order to justify what is right and wrong, good and evil, cannot be a very healthy organism. To be healthy, holy, and happy, we must consistently point to Jesus, similar to the way in which Jesus consistently pointed to the Father. He will show us The Way.
Those who have been critical of, or are turned off by, the church’s arrogant, gnostic, and self-referential history should give it another look since Francis has taken the helm. They will find a humble, welcoming, and inclusive leader whose style is impacting local parishes. He is assisting us all to do our jobs better, i.e., to point to Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.