5 Ways to Avoid Unhelpful Pope Francis “Mind Reading”

(photo: Register Files)

It has been interesting to see the varied reactions to Amoris Laetitia, or The Joy of Love, the new document by Pope Francis on the family. I have learned a lot from the positive, the negative, and the mixed reviews. But I also think that some of the responses to the document, positive and negative, have been a disservice to the Church. After digging around online just a day after the document was released I had to stop because I was feeling depressed and full of despair, not because of the document itself but because of the negativity of some writers, the effusive praise of others (who see only their own agenda in anything the pope says or does), the lies in many of the headlines, and the general confusion.

Disturbed by the unrest in my soul, I decided to choose to read articles online based on a few rules of thumb. These guidelines helped me to avoid reactions to the document that are unhelpful. I particularly wanted to stay away from anything that contained many assumptions and conjectures and employed what I call a “mind reading” approach to Pope Francis.

The guidelines I use may also be helpful for others who are trying to find balanced, objective assessments of this new document (or anything else on Pope Francis for that matter). Of course, the best route is to read the document first and then look for commentary; it will be available shortly in paperback.

So, without further ado, here are five strategies to help you choose what you read wisely:

1. Avoid Assumptions without Evidence: When I read articles on the new document, I ask myself, “What are the assumptions the author has made about Pope Francis and his intentions?” It is fine to wonder what is motivating another person. But assessments must be based on what the person actually says and what he or she actually does. The articles that take huge liberties in their assumptions about Pope Francis’ intentions are usually not based on hard evidence.

2. Look for People Who Give the Benefit of the Doubt: When I first entered the convent, I was amazed at some sisters who were able to respond to difficult situations by seeing things in the best possible light and to make excuses for other people. These sisters are not naïve; they realize that their positive, hopeful assessments may be wrong but they also realize that negative, worst-case-scenario assessments don’t help any situation. I like to read people who are able to write this way, trying their best to see others in a positive light, even when they are upset and disagree. Most likely, the people who give others the benefit of the doubt are those who pray before they write.

3. Shun Stereotypes: If an article stereotypes Pope Francis as a “liberal” or a “conservative,” it’s probably best to just stop reading it. Many of these assessments of Pope Francis are based on a narrow point of view that is rigidly rooted in American politics and the culture of the United States. We forget that Pope Francis is a universal figure in the Catholic Church, not the pope of the United States. When he seems to speak like he is a member of one political party or another, it’s important to remember that this means absolutely nothing outside of the United States. It is unhelpful to assume Pope Francis speaks within the confines of our own cultural cues and to judge what he says according to the divisive political atmosphere in our country.

4. Steer Clear of Black and White Thinking: The articles that I have enjoyed the most about Pope Francis and his pontificate have been subtle and nuanced, frankly assessing both the good and the bad. If an article either paints Pope Francis as a villain who will be the downfall of the Church or as a progressive undercover hero who is trying to bring about a liberal agenda, it’s biased. It helps no one when writers paint Pope Francis into the corner of their own worldview and then are unable to break free of its rigid constraints, even when the evidence demands it.

5. Avoid Articles that “Tell Stories:” When I was growing up and would complain about someone who was bothering me, my mom would always say, “Don’t tell yourself stories!” I never really understood the wisdom in her advice until recently. When I entered the convent, I quickly realized that there are two ways to cope with the natural collision of different cultures, backgrounds and personalities involved in living with so many different women. I could “tell myself stories” and see malice and plots around every corner or I could assume I never really know the whole story. This life lesson, which I am sure many of you have learned too, applies even more so to people we have never met and do not have the opportunity to spend time around. If an article “tells a story” about Pope Francis according to one person’s (or a group’s) own pet narrative, it will probably not be edifying to read, or true for that matter.

Of course, this is not to say that we cannot show dismay, concern or worry when Pope Francis, or anyone else, does something that we disagree with. But generally, if we can avoid these dangerous attitudes and tendencies, it will be helpful both to us and to the health of the Church.

Appropriately, the dynamics at play here are similar to those in a family. The Church is a family, (a dysfunctional family at times, but truly a family). If family members have a problem with one another, it is not healthy or mature to team up against one another, to form schisms, and factions. Rather, we try to find the attitude that promotes unity and is most charitable to other family members. This is particularly important when we consider our attitudes toward Pope Francis and his unique leadership role in our family of the Church.

A good question to ask oneself when reading online is, “Does this article promote charity and unity within the Church?”

And then, “Am I being a good family member in the Church, or is my behavior causing unrest, division, and fractures?”

It requires hard work and lots of grace to keep blood families together. In the same way, it requires hard work and God’s grace to be a member of the Body of Christ who promotes unity, charity, and peace.

As St. Augustine once wrote, “[Christ] loved us so that we should love one another. By loving us he bound us to one another in mutual love, and by this gentle bond united us into the body of which he is the most noble Head.”