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Is Pope Francis Converting ANYONE to the Church?

by David Gray, November 5, 2014

modern catholic comic

My friend Ellen emailed me a recent article by Catholic pundit Mark Shea entitled, Elton John and the five stages of Intentional Discipleship, which was a follow-up piece to his article written four days prior on October 31, 2014, entitled, Elton John greatly admires Pope Francis. In the former opine-palooza, Shea used 1932 words and 11055 characters to simply say what I’m about to paraphrase in 51 words and 313 characters immediately below:

    – It is abundantly awesome that there are millions of people like Elton John who love Pope Francis and are attracted to him, even though they hate what the Catholic Church actually teaches, because it demonstrates that they are in the early stages of intentional discipleship, which are initial trust and curiosity. –

What Shea is referencing here is the well-promoted book Forming Intentional Disciples, by Sherry Weddell, which describes the five stages that people will matriculate through on their way to becoming intentional disciples of Jesus Christ (i.e., initial trust, curiosity, spiritual openness, spiritual seeking, and intentional discipleship).

Is Elton John Really an Intentional Disciple of Christ?

In his two-part series of articles Shea was responding to recent comments that were made by British singer, Elton John, about Pope Francis. The Guardian quoted Elton John having said the Pope “his hero”, “make [Pope Francis] a saint now”, and “[Pope Francis] is a compassionate, loving man who wants everybody to be included in the love of God.”

In 2010 Elton John also told Parade Magazine “I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems.” In 2006 he told The Guardian, “Religion promotes the hatred and spite against gays. But there are so many Christian people I know who are gay and love their religion . . . From my point of view I would ban religion completely, even though there are some wonderful things about it.”

I’m not saying that because Elton John is a man suffering from the demonic spirit of homosexuality and is married to another man suffering from the same condition who he is raising a child with, and that he has some clear mental and emotional issues regarding organized religion, that he is, thereby, immune from becoming a true disciple of Christ. To the contrary, all I’m saying is that there is no proof for Shea to assert or to make the clear claim that Elton John is in the early stages of becoming one. Shea asserts no personal knowledge of Elton John’s spiritual life, nor does he assert personal knowledge into the spiritual life or eternal-life trajectory of any other person who loves Pope Francis, but hates the Church. There is no proof whatsoever for Shea to state that Elton John is “developing a curiosity about” Jesus. Therefore, his argument is illogical and without merit.

Pope Francis, Master of Sleuth of Conversions?

I found the more tragic weakness in Shea’s article was his insistence in grounding his argument in an ‘us’ (he calls, ‘pious conservative Catholics’) versus ‘them’ (he calls ‘Elton John and others’) framework. He then presumes to press this idea further by comparing ‘pious conservative Catholics’ to the Pharisees who were upset with Jesus because He didn’t comport with their notions of holiness.

He uses this ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rhetoric to create false narratives and to perpetuate emerging stereotypes about ‘conservative Catholics’. He writes, “Much of what conservative Catholics are doing is imagining that we need to grab somebody by the lapels, shove them against the wall, and hiss, “You have to change.”” He then compares Elton John and others who love Pope Francis, but hate the Church to Saint Peter. He writes, “When Peter says “Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” Notably, Jesus does not say, “Go away from me, Peter, for you are a sinful man”, the very thing so many Catholics are eager to tell Elton John and other disaffected-but-curious people.”

For three reasons, it completely befuddled me that someone would make a case that the personality and faith expression of Pope Francis is motivator for people to convert to Christ.

First, Pope Francis has made it abundantly clear that he is indifferent, if not altogether, uninterested in people converting to Catholicism. Therefore, how could his disinterest lead anyone to be interested? Being that I haven’t eaten pork in over twenty years, how could my disinterest in pork lead someone else to desire it?

Second, as I stated in my article The Three Great Dangers of Evangelizing through Beauty, “We must always begin with the truth, because it is God’s most powerful weapon. To begin with anything less than the truth is to begin with something less than what the world deserves to hear.” Therefore, knowing that Pope Francis tends towards posing the bold question, only to follow it up with a confusing/less than certain/less than clear answer, how is it that anyone could find their way to the truth (namely, Christ Jesus) through that fog? I always tell people that a key factor in me converting to Catholicism during the height of the sex abuse scandal in 2006 was Pope Benedict XVI. He was the sure, steady, clear, and consistent ship that I needed to see off in the distance as I made my way across the Tiber River. When I became certain that what the Church taught is true, but all I saw were ordained priests who were not behaving true, I saw in Pope Benedict XVI a man who found truth on his knees. If Pope Francis was Pope in 2006, I would not have crossed the Tiber. Nothing against him! I think he is a wonderful man, with a heart of compassion, but he was not what I needed in 2006. I needed truth and certainty, not questions and more confusion.

Lastly, it concerns my own empirical evidence, which isn’t true for everyone. Unlike Shea, I do have personal knowledge of the spiritual life of some people who hate the Catholic Church. One of them, who is a die-hard Calvinist, likes to call me and laugh whenever Pope Francis says something confusing. His main bone in not becoming Catholic is that the Popes over the centuries have erred. To be sure, that’s a ridiculous reason not to become Catholic, but it’s his reason, and Pope Francis is his confirmation in that contention. And there are others I know who have become more firm against becoming Catholic since Pope Francis began speaking.

In Conclusion

One thing I’m not is a slave to my own thoughts and experiences. My friend Ellen, who sent me Mark Shea’s article, believes (has circumstantial evidence) that people are coming back to the Catholic Church because they feel more ‘welcomed’ thanks to Pope Francis. While, she too would like more clarity from the Holy Father, she contends that it is up to the people in the pews and the pastors to meet those who feel they now have a place in the Church. These people are not my experience, but I think she was able to succinctly say what Shea meant to say in nearly 2,000 words.

It’s my prayerful hope that the promise of God will be fulfilled on earth, that “everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), but let us not make leaps and assumptions in regards to where people are in that journey. Our only duty is to evangelize in a manner that manner that saves and transforms. To do such means that we can not presume or assume the faith journey of anyone.

40 Comments


    • chap
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    • November 5, 2014

    That's my son and I am proud of him. Mom from Columbus

    • Thanks Mom!!! :)

        • Jude
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        • November 5, 2014

        Now that's a good mom.

    • fredx2
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    • November 5, 2014

    The people who suddenly love the Pope are not interested in the slightest in becoming Catholic. To them it is all politics. They see the Pope as affirming their politics. They like that. It doesn't mean they are suddenly going to become religious. After all, people like Elton John already have their perfect church: The Episcopal church. Did they run and join the Episcopal church when it caved in to everything on the liberal wish list? No.

    • chezami
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    • November 5, 2014

    I say no such thing. You are attacking a massive straw man.

      • Murray
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      • November 5, 2014

      Irony!

        • Jude
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        • November 5, 2014

        Exactly. The man who runs a straw man factory is accusing someone else of setting up a straw man.

    • I find it to be a pretty accurate paraphrase of your article. Whether Mr. Gray is right about the Pope is another question entirely, but it is kind of silly to deny that he got the essential thrust of your article correct. Maybe "abundantly awesome" was a bit over the top.

      • Jude
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      • November 5, 2014

      The grabbing them by the lapels comment on its own was positively laughable. Your inability to understand or appreciate the depth of traditional Catholics (and cradle Catholics in particular) is probably why you manage to offend so many. You don't want real, complicated, faithful Catholics, whose thought processes don't mirror your own, especially not anyone who isn't using their Catholic faith to pull down a buck. You want to set up caricatures and attack them. Somewhere along the way your faith became part of your "Catholic apologist personality," and it has been cheapened.

    • To falsely accuse someone of setting up a straw man is an ad hominem. Without any proof, you made the case that Pope Francis is coveting Elton John and others like him. In response, I raised the question whether that is true or not. When there is no evidence, the statement demands examination.

        • chezami
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        • November 6, 2014

        No, David. It is not an ad hominem to say you are badly misreading me. Ad Hominem means "against the man". If I said you were wrong because you are tall or ugly or couldn't sing or some other irrelevant aspect of your person that would be ad hominem. I say you are wrong because I don't claim that Pope Francis is "converting" Elton John. I merely say that Francis inspires a certain trust for EJ and that this is an opportunity, not a threat. I then go on to point out that the process of conversion *begins* with trust but emphatically does not end there. Our task is not to prognosticate prematurely that such trust will evaporate, but to do what we can with to help the person meet Jesus instead of drive them away for being sinners.

          • Murray
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          • November 6, 2014

          So hang on. You're arguing with the headline? Let's search for strawmen by comparing Gray's claims with Shea's clarifications. As it turns out, Mark, Gray only makes two references to your argument that Elton John may be more open to Christ thanks to Pope Francis. From Gray's paraphrase: "It is abundantly awesome that there are millions of people like Elton John who love Pope Francis and are attracted to him...because it demonstrates that they are in the early stages of intentional discipleship, which are initial trust and curiosity." You're talking about the same phenomenon, to wit, the initial stages of conversion. Sure, Gray uses "early stages" compared to your *begins*, but surely not even you would attempt to claim a significant distinction here. No strawmen here. Gray again: "I’m saying is that there is no proof for Shea to assert or to make the clear claim that Elton John is in the early stages of becoming [Christian]." You could argue about whether "proof" and "clear" are warranted here, and I would have phrased things more tentatively, but this is a pretty thin reed to hang a strawman from. The rest of Gray's treatment of your article is devoted to your habitual and poisonous rhetorical excesses, in particular your fondness for risible cartoon portraits of "Pharisees" or shoving people against walls and hissing at them. For you, of all people, to squeal about strawmen.

        • Mark, I follow you and if that is the case then your language should have been much more precise. As it stands now, you referred to a conversion 'process' and then (without proof) listed who Pope Francis is leading to the first stages of that process. That's not a strawman. Neither was the us vs. them response a strawman. You said that as well, but above with more clarity and nothing apparently offensive.

        • Mark, I follow you and if that is the case then your language should have been much more precise. As it stands now, you referred to a conversion 'process' and then (without proof) listed who Pope Francis is leading to the first stages of that process. That's not a strawman. Neither was the us vs. them response a strawman. You said that as well, but above with more clarity and nothing apparently offensive.

        • Mark, I follow you and if that is the case then your language should have been much more precise. As it stands now, you referred to a conversion 'process' and then (without proof) listed who Pope Francis is leading to the first stages of that process. That's not a strawman. Neither was the us vs. them response a strawman. You said that as well, but above with more clarity and nothing apparently offensive.

            • chezami
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            • November 6, 2014

            David: I gave two links giving background the five stages converts typically go through in the article (the book Forming Intentional Disciples and a piece I wrote for OSV providing just the sort of detail you are asking for). My claim is not that Francis is "leading" anything here. It is that, in Elton John's case, Francis happens to be the person for whom he feels an initial sense of trust. In most cases, that person is not the pope. It can be anybody, especially you, that a non-believer feels a basic sense of trust in. That elementary bridge of trust is by no means "conversion". It is what Weddell calls "pre-discipleship" (as is curiosity and openness). They are steps toward the possibility of becoming a disciple. That's why I call them opportunities, and not threats.

          • Jude
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          • November 6, 2014

          I would like to challenge this neat and tidy "process of conversion" theory, which, after all is not much more than pop psychology. There is not one cut and dry process. Here is an equally viable process: context, crisis, quest, interaction, commitment, outcome. Anyone whom has read interviews with Elton John about his sexuality will know that he is attracted to Pope Francis because he sees a possibility that the Church is going to change doctrine. It's not about conforming his life to Christ, it's about the Church conforming its laws to his world view.

    • Bill
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    • November 5, 2014

    I agree with you, David.

    • A J MacDonald Jr
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    • November 6, 2014

    Vatican II had the goal of converting the Church into the world. That's what Francis is doing.

    • kcthomas
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    • November 6, 2014

    One thing I noticed is that Pope Francis is a great lover of the Church, its truth, its wonderful lineage, its compassion and so on. The problem comes from the words he utters. It is very difficult whether he sits on the fence or he stands on safe grounds. He must be told that words that cause confusion should not be used and truth should be bare , naked and transparent. If not, many will abandon the truth itself. Let us hope he gets correct feedback so that he can assess his own utterances

    • That use to be my contention KC Thomas, but then the Synod happened and it was his silence and behind the scene actions that became the problem. Job #1 for a Pope is to be a visible sign of unity. His path to get there is to start leaving his opinions on his pillow.

        • kcthomas
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        • November 6, 2014

        Let us not jump into conclusions. Waiting is a great virtue I learn from the Bible. We shall pray to the Holy Spirit. "Do not be afraid I am with you always" He said.

    • RaymondNicholas
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    • November 6, 2014

    So, David, what happens when the newcomers first learn the real teachings of the Church, and they step back and say, "Now hold on, that's not what the Pope said!" ? The 2015 Synod could be the catalyst for uncloaking the truth in public, resulting in major confusion, resentment, and push back.

    • Good question Raymond. Ever meet a woman you met online and when you saw her she looked nothing like her picture? If she looks better you might stay, but if she looks worse you leave immediate.

        • RaymondNicholas
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        • November 7, 2014

        LOL! I've been married since 1972, so I wouldn't know about all that high tech dating stuff. But I get your point. Christ's command to his disciples was to go and preach to all nations, not to make every single person they met convert.

    • AugustineThomas
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    • November 6, 2014

    Mark Shea is as Catholic as Elton John.

      • chezami
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      • November 6, 2014

      God bless you.

    • fniper
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    • November 6, 2014

    Deconstruction and destruction are the goals of Pope Francis. That will only lead to sterility.

    • Michael Dowd
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    • November 6, 2014

    Good article David. Pope Francis has the same relevance to the Catechism as President Obama has to the Constitution.

    • s;vbkr0boc,klos;
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    • November 6, 2014

    Never forget that Pope Francis is the first pope who became a priest AFTER Vatican II, he is the 'first fruits' of Vatican II in the Chair of Peter. Confusion, muddled thinking, undefined terms, , feel-good rhetoric and oh, did I mention....confusion?

    • yeshuarose
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    • November 6, 2014

    If anyone did come to the Church, or come back to the Church because of Pope Francis and the post concilliar church, they would not be coming to, or coming back to, the True Roman Catholic Church - that Church of 2000 years has been hiding with the remnants and not been taught for 40 years. They would be converting to just another protestant sect called "Catholic".

    • Not a good conversation until a Sedevacantist shows up :D

        • yeshuarose
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        • November 6, 2014

        Thank you Mr. Gray for acknowledging my comment. After reading it again myself, one would think that I am a Sedevacantist, but I'm not - I wasn't very clear on what I meant by my comment - sorry. I don't know how to get my thoughts across well enough. Thank you for giving us a place to express our thoughts! God bless you.

        • Oh, sorry for the assumption! I love your handle. It can be thought to mean the sweet aroma of God's salvation in spite of thorns.

    • jacobum
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    • November 8, 2014

    Good article. Great Question. Answer? IMHO, If you have to ask the question you already know the answer in your heart. It's doubtful one would need a calculator or iPhone to determine the number. As to the pronouncements of Mark Shea? Oh well. How's your golf game?

    • maudieNmandeville
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    • November 8, 2014

    Why would Elton John be on his path to conversion bc of anything the pope said in his most confused manner, ie, don't judge, accept homosexuals, get off abortion, etc. He could have long ago joined his Church of England, Episcopal, United Church of Christ...almost any Protestant denomination out there. What makes Shea think Elton was waiting all his life for the Catholic Church to FINALLY change? As usual, very weak rationale by Shea while playing very well to his troopettes.

    • BillyBob Bob
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    • November 8, 2014

    What an inspirational story!! 'Meanwhile, the church's slow decline has continued. According to the Pew Forum, 76.8 percent of Argentina's population is at least nominally Catholic, but only 33 percent of Catholics interviewed in Argentina in 2010 cited religion as very important in their lives, down from 40 percent in 2002, and only 19 percent said they regularly attended mass.'

    • If you hire a CEO you'd expect for them to have a track record of success in their previous positions.

    • little nothing
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    • November 30, 2015

    Prophecy is The Almighty's way of steering the Catholic Church ....the true Catholic Church. The Remnant Church! Pray that folks are not sucked into the coming one world religion " the new global catholic church". Pray no one follows that schism which francis is trying to create and will eventually invite the antichrist to sit on the altar of his (church of pope francis) church...claiming it to be the true (NOT) compassionate catholic church....we are living in the Book of Revelations. The Warning has to happen, then the final purification, then come in the clouds LORD YESHUA! Thanks for all the good intentions, but the truth sets us free :)....David's a sheep hearing the voice of the TRUE SHEPARD...POPE BENEDICT! Jesus says in the Holy Scriptures "MY sheep know MY VOICE". Pope Benedict, ( I do not think Pope Benedict is God, But God's chosen Pope!) listens to and obeys the HOLY SPIRIT! Pray for his health, intentions and safety...not for francis' intentions....yikes!

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