Tom Hoopes is a lay Catholic writer-in-residence and professor at Benedictine College in Kansas and director of the Gregorian Institute. He is a former editor at National Catholic Register and a former press secretary for U.S. House & Ways Chairman Bill Archer.
Mr. Hoopes’s latest book, What Pope Francis Really Said: Words of Comfort and Challenge, was released by Servant Books on Oct. 21. On Oct. 19, I interviewed him by email about the book.
Why did you write this book?
I’ve spent two years now deeply disturbed about two things. First, the increasing criticism being heaped on Pope Francis and second, the words of Pope Francis himself!
The Catholic criticism of Francis by some has gotten steadily worse such that it now looks like contempt. People seem to have gone from having doubts about Francis to being certain that he’s up to no good. But in one sense, who can blame them? Francis’s own words have often been confusing.
In his first homily, he said: “When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.” I asked theologians here at Benedictine College: Did the Vicar of Christ really just condemn all non-Christian religions as Satanic? Of course not, they said. You have to look at the context and figure out what he really meant. That has become the “hermeneutic of Francis.”
Before Francis, we had two former university professors as pope, men who spent their careers speaking in measured, precise ways to people who were writing down what they said.
Now we have a pope who is casual, imprecise and a fan of hyperbole. That is a new, hard thing.
What role does your journalism background play in this new book?
I found writing the book that the best way to explain Pope Francis was to be neither a spin-doctor on the one hand or a “gotcha” critic of him on the other, but simply to be a reporter. The book includes lots of commentary, but it was a reporting job, ultimately. And, as often as not, I needed to correct misreporting of the pope.
Who is your audience?
I had in mind the people I talk to after Mass who are surprised or confused by something the pope has said. But I also had in mind people who don’t have a Catholic background but are interested in the faith because of Pope Francis. The book will help them go deeper, I hope.
The book gives a chapter each to a number of hot-button issues, following the order in which they came up in his pontificate: economics, homosexuality, war and peace, abortion, marriage, church unity, immigration, environmentalism, religious freedom. I tie each chapter back to the Gospels because that is Pope Francis’s whole project and I want to help him direct people to Jesus Christ.
What are the “words of comfort and challenge” mentioned in your subtitle?
In a way, that’s Pope Francis’s style, isn’t it? [And it’s] the Gospel’s [style] too. It is the message of the incarnation: The comforting news is that God so loves us that he became man to reach us. The challenging news is that God so loves us that he became man, raising the bar on what he expects of us.
Pope Francis wants to reassure us that God loves us, which is nice, but then he wants us to actually be what we’re supposed to be: Christ-centered people who live simply and love radically. And that’s tough.
What is the message of this book?
That we can trust Pope Francis. No, more than that; that we should follow Pope Francis. He isn’t trying to fundamentally change the church’s doctrines. He is trying to look honestly at where people actually are today and redirect the church to meet them there. They will no longer come to us. We need to go to them.
What is it about Pope Francis that inspires you?
He refuses to accept the kind of polite dishonesty we cherish about so many things.
We live in a narcissistic culture—which Pope Francis never tires of pointing out—a culture in which we are constantly celebrating our wonderfulness.
We point to the charts showing decades of economic growth worldwide. Francis impolitely points to what makes that possible: the rootless working class of separated families, the poisoned Third World streams and the soulless consumerism—epitomized by pornography—that those charts also represent. As we celebrate ourselves as environmental heroes preserving nature he asks, “What about preserving the human embryo? What about preserving human nature as male and female?”
Francis is helping with the kind of post-anti-Catholicism problem the church faces in the 21st century. People no longer bother to hate the church or oppose the church—they simply dismiss the church. The Catholic Church went from being a force in history to a historical curiosity. Francis is helping new people see that the church answers their deepest questions, or, heck, that the church even addresses their deepest questions.
How has your own Catholic faith grown or evolved over the years?
The same way my marriage has. It’s grown from a romantic, idealized faith that was shocked and scandalized by every fault in the church to a mature, realistic faith that is surprised and delighted by the beauty and strength of the church despite all its faults.
What people, living or dead, have influenced your Catholic faith the most?
Two Jesuits were absolutely key, actually: Father Cornelius Michael Buckley and Father Joseph Fessio. Father Buckley was a true pastor to college students and was the concerned, authentic face of the faith that I never met before college. Father Fessio reached me intellectually. His Great Books program and his publishing house showed me that truth is knowable, God is active in history and that my youthful passion to better the world could best be realized in the church.
What are your hopes for the future?
I’m bullish on the church’s future. Secularism is a spent force, I think. It sure won’t seem that way in the short term, but it is. Demographics will dictate its demise, for one. Any system that refuses to have children won’t last—Puritan heresies found that out the hard way and so will our contraceptive culture.
But at the same time there are reasons for enormous hope for a better future. The virtues of our culture mean it is primed for the faith. Our culture is concerned for the marginalized—to a fault perhaps—but it speaks well of us that we are willing to spend so much money to accommodate people who face difficult challenges in life. That concern also points to a nascent belief in the equal dignity of every human being that we Catholics need to help ripen and broaden.
Our culture desires global unity and harmony between all races, a desire that we Catholics know is only fulfilled in the church. Our culture values authenticity—we hate phoniness—an instinct that leads us to desire transparency in all our institutions, which is extremely healthy. We are concerned for the environment, which is really a proxy for the value we put on beauty. Beauty is the big unsung achievement of our culture. Even our car commercials are often breathtakingly beautiful. The art of film has reached Michelangelo-level craftsmanship. This hunger for beauty, as three popes have now told us, will save us.
What is your favorite Bible passage and why?
I like the first chapter of Colossians, verses 15-23, which puts human life into perspective by first describing Christ and then describing me.
It tells me that not only am I important, but my every action is filled with cosmic drama. It also tells me that not only am I not the center of the universe, but I am totally unnecessary, and that all of my value derives from my relationship to the real protagonist of my life and every life, Jesus Christ.
What do you want people to take away from your life and work?
I often talk to students who want to be journalists or write in one capacity or another. I was going through my spiel recently with one young woman and when I was done she kind of paused and said, “I just don’t know if I want to add to all the noise. Do I really have something that needs to be said?”
That’s an excellent question. I’ve thought a lot about that ever since. Do I really have something that needs to be said?
This book about the pope needed to be written. It won’t do to have the Holy Father roundly dismissed. So I am glad I wrote it. I think a real-world, not-romanticized book on the sacraments needs to be written. So I am trying that. In the end, I guess I want to have said things that needed saying.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.