By Phil Lawler | Jan 27, 2017
Every day I pray for Pope Francis. And every day (I am exaggerating, but only slightly), the Pope issues another reminder that he does not approve of Catholics like me.
If the Holy Father were rebuking me for my sins, I would have no reason to complain. But day after weary day the Pope upbraids me—and countless thousands of other faithful Catholics—for clinging to, and sometimes suffering for, the truths that the Church has always taught. We are rigid, he tells us. We are the “doctors of the law,” the Pharisees, who only want to be “comfortable” with our faith.
The Roman Pontiff should be a focus of unity in the Church. Pope Francis, regrettably, has become a source of division. There are two reasons for this unhappy phenomenon: the Pope’s autocratic style of governance and the radical nature of the program that he is relentlessly advancing.
The autocratic style (which contrasts sharply with promises of collegial and synodal governance) has never been quite so evident as this week, when he has tossed aside the independent and sovereign status of the Knights of Malta. Writing of that remarkable coup in the Wall Street Journal, Sohrab Ahmari observed that it “has divided the church along familiar lines.” Ahmari (a recent convert to Catholicism) continued:
As with other recent disputes—communion for the divorced-and-remarried; the status of the Latin Mass; Vatican engagement with China’s Communist regime—conservatives are on one side and Pope Francis is on the other.
But a Pope should not be on “one side” of disagreements within the Church. Certainly the Roman Pontiff must make decisions and set policies. But unlike a political leader, he is not expected to bring his own particular agenda to his office, to promote his own allies and punish his opponents. Whereas we expect President Trump to reverse policies of President Obama—just as Obama reversed policies of President Bush—we expect a Pope to preserve the decisions of his predecessors. Because Church is not, or should not be, divided into rival parties.
Every Pope makes controversial decisions, and every controversial decision leaves some people unhappy. But a prudent Pontiff avoids even the appearance of acting arbitrarily. Mindful of the fact that he serves as head of a college of bishops—not as a lone monarch—he does his best to propose rather than impose solutions to pastoral problems.
Although he exercises enormous authority within the Church, a Pope also acts under considerable restraints. He is empowered to speak for the universal Church, but in a sense he forfeits the ability to speak for himself. The Pope cannot be partisan. He is expected to settle arguments, not to start them. At the Council of Jerusalem, St. Peter set the standard for his successors: hearing out the arguments on both sides and then rendering a judgment (in this case, ruling against the stand that he himself had previously held).
By its very nature the Pope’s role is conservative, in the best sense of that word. He is charged with preserving the purity and clarity of our faith: a faith that does not change. Since our fundamental beliefs were set forth by Jesus Christ, no prelate can question them without subverting the authority of the Church that our Lord founded—the same Church that gives him his only claim to authority. While he is the supreme teacher of the Catholic faith, the Pope can only teach what the Church has always taught: the deposit of faith that has been passed down to him from the apostles. He can speak infallibly, but only when he proclaims and defines what faithful Catholics have “always and everywhere” believed.
In short the Pope cannot teach something new. He can certainly express old truths in new ways, but if he introduces actual novelties, he is abusing his authority. And if his “new” teachings conflict with the established doctrines of the Church, he is undermining his own authority.
Many faithful Catholics believe that with Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has encouraged beliefs and practices that are incompatible with the prior teachings of the Church. If that complaint is accurate, he has violated the sacred trust that is given to Peter’s successors. If it is not accurate, at a minimum the Holy Father owes us explanations, not insults.