By Dr. Jeff Mirus | Sep 08, 2016
Over the last thirty days my own criticism of Pope Francis has been more pronounced than usual. Given last week’s extensive criticism of the Pope’s suggestion regarding the works of mercy by both myself and Phil Lawler, it may seem that CatholicCulture.org is in the midst of a crescendo of criticism. I know from feedback that our readers tend to reflect seriously about the wisdom of criticizing the successors of Peter, and I want to emphasize that our writers do as well, pretty much all the time.
This does not mean that we always strike the perfect balance when it seems important to explain and evaluate something the Holy Father has said or done. That would be humanly impossible. But it does mean that there is a proper balance to be struck. It is my purpose in Part 1 of this essay to consider the overall considerations which lead to the decision to criticize. In Part 2, I will explore the many different ways in which criticism can be offered, including some of the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Not a new problem with this Pope
This is not an entirely new problem, of course, at least not for me. During the pontificate of Paul VI, I lamented his administrative weakness in the face of the neo-Modernist revolution (that is, the rapid rise of theological secularism) in the Church. He himself said that all he had been able to do for the Church was to suffer: There was, almost self-evidently, little doubt about his sanctity. But in the context of Paul VI’s common inability to successfully pursue his own ends, his courageous promulgation of Humanae Vitae in 1968—a brilliant exposition of the nature of marriage and the consequent immorality of deliberately impeding conception in the marital act—could only be received as a signal demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s protection of the Magisterium.
During the next pontificate, I criticized Pope John Paul II’s rather widespread failure to discipline (a failure he himself acknowledged toward the end of his pontificate). But he was extraordinarily forceful when it came to teaching about faith, morals and the duties of bishops. This, along with the sheer charisma of a personality magnified by travel and media coverage, stimulated significant forces of renewal within the Church as a whole.
Under Pope Benedict XVI, I found myself questioning the pope’s ability to translate his incomparable theological clarity into effective ecclesiastical action, a weakness which was one of his own reasons for retiring. He has acknowledged this again in his latest book-length interview with Peter Seewald. Yet Pope Benedict, like John Paul II before him, excelled at both leading and fostering that deeper interior appropriation of the Catholic Faith which alone can lead to authentic renewal.
Like both his predecessor and his successor, Benedict spoke his mind. But John Paul II and Benedict were remarkably gifted in this respect. They possessed minds that were extraordinarily deep, precise, practiced and clearly illumined by grace. To listen to them speak and to read what they wrote was, at all times, an opportunity to participate in a significant intellectual facet of genuine Catholic renewal.
In other words, despite acknowledged points of failure in governance, the Catholic Church has been led by spiritually and theologically astute popes during the last 53 years of intense Catholic turmoil, popes who have magnificently strengthened our understanding of and commitment to those deep truths which are necessarily central to Catholic renewal.
Yet faced with a difficult new twist
I do not think there is a Catholic commentator alive, on any side, who does not see Pope Francis as deviating from that pattern. Here we have a highly affective man, meaning that he seems driven more than his predecessors by feelings. He is not prone to marshal his thoughts carefully. By his own admission, he prefers to stir things up, to make a mess (as he has said on several occasions). He regards this as a characteristic of the prophetic voice, which gives the Holy Spirit room to work.
As I wrote last year, “To put the matter bluntly, Pope Francis is very good at opening the window or pulling the drain plug, but not particularly good at explaining the differences between the bathwater and the Baby” (The other side of the Francis effect: Hypersensitivity and hysteria?).
The impact of Pope Francis’ personal style on public reaction is enormously interesting. What we find is that Francis is widely beloved by those who would have been regarded by his predecessors as posing obstacles to renewal, because of their refusal to accept the fullness of the Catholic Faith. These see Francis as always on the verge of changing the Church’s traditions and teachings to accommodate the various manifestations of their own secularism. But at the same time, Francis is widely distrusted by those who had been devoted to his predecessors precisely because of their ability to deepen rather than secularize the Catholic mission.
The interesting point is that both groups read Francis in exactly the same way. What this means is that, for the first time in a great many years, the most highly-committed members of the Catholic faithful have been placed in an awkward intellectual position. They are faced not just with criticizing the effectiveness of papal administration, but of criticizing the priorities of Pope Francis and his expressions of them, both of which they often see as detrimental to Catholic faith and identity.
The conviction is growing stronger by the day that this pontificate will lead to greater secularization in the Church, in contrast to the opposite impact of his predecessors. Many sincere, committed and knowledgeable Catholics are convinced that continued renewal deriving from papal leadership is unlikely during this pontificate. Now, after a generation of admittedly slow but highly significant gains, they see the pendulum of renewal swinging back toward the rampant secularizaton of the 1960s, and they are becoming discouraged.
One aspect of this reaction is that those we tend to call “orthodox” Catholics (which should, of course, be a superfluous modifier) are dropping off the media grid. This is true, for example, of page views at the vast majority of Catholic websites. And it is understandable. Tired of the interior “churning”—the anger and frustration—that are so frequently stimulated in them by Pope Francis, they realize they will be more relaxed, more recollected, and just plain happier if they simply refuse to participate in the news cycle. In this respect, it is dangerously like the feelings of strong Catholics when following the current American Presidential race.
A question of responsibility
This leaves Catholic outlets like CatholicCulture.org with a serious problem. One of our major responsibilities is to report news of interest to Catholics, and to comment on current events and ideas in ways that create better understanding—so that Faith can deepen and grow. One of the biggest obstacles to this task right now is the need to deal with the many misunderstandings that arise from following what Pope Francis says and does. These things not infrequently give people an incomplete—and therefore sometimes incorrect—idea about what it means to be a Catholic.
For Pope Francis this often seems to take the form of emphasizing parts of the truth which he believes the uncommitted will find attractive (such as mercy, the refusal to pass judgment on others, service to the poor, and care for the environment) while de-emphasizing the parts which the uncommitted find unpalatable (such as the call to repentance, the moral nature of new life in Christ, spiritual impoverishment, and the natural law). It is not that he speaks exclusively on his favorite themes. But I believe it is more than fair to note that Pope Francis is very strong on “accompaniment”, but not nearly as strong on the “destination”.
Unfortunately, the Pope also appears (at least) to regard those who are habitually strong on the “destination” as mere “doctors of the law”—that is, Pharisees. But a loving insistence on the difference between truth and falsehood or the difference between right and wrong has little to do with a Pharisaical insistence on human traditions or group status. This apparent blurring imposes on Catholic commentators an obligation to present the words and actions of this pope in ways that will minimize the danger to the readers’ faith (through unperceived error) or to the readers’ hope (through unnecessary discouragement).
At the same time, criticism can give scandal. We receive a small number of emails (sometimes even from non-Catholics) who insist that a good Catholic must not disagree with a pope in any way, and that we should be ashamed for doing so. The argument is faulty, but the scandal can be real. Moreover, criticism can also be, or appear to be, corrosive. The art of criticism can present significant dangers to both writers and readers. It can diminish love, and it can encourage pride—which goes before a fall.
If, then, we have a duty to guard against harm that may be done by a pope’s weaknesses, or even his oversights, what is the best way to do it? For writers and teachers, I can think of at least a dozen different methods, and I can enumerate at least seven different caveats which ought to shape our use of these methods. Some of them overlap, but there are probably even more.
Many readers will have seen all of these, at one time or another, used on CatholicCulture.org. Undoubtedly, many will have also noticed at least an occasional mismatch between real situations and our reaction to them—or, to speak only for the writer I know best, my reaction. But with so many possibilities to consider, this methodological analysis is best postponed to Part 2.