Tear Down this Papal Wall of Silence

Tear Down this Papal Wall of Silence

In the dark of an August night in 1961, the Russians threw up a barrier between East and West Berlin which came to be known as the Berlin Wall. On June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan stood at a podium in Berlin and delivered his famous speech, in which he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” What President Reagan called for in 1987, became a reality in 1989, when the head of the East German Communist Party announced that citizens could pass through the wall without restriction as of midnight on November 9, 1989. Oppressed civilians immediately began using hammers and pick axes to remove the wall. The authorities came in with heavy equipment and manpower only after the unscheduled start of the demolition by civilians.Walled cities have helped protect inhabitants from hostile attackers for centuries. Countries have walls as well. The Chinese, the British, and the Vatican all have defensive walls. More recent walls are those separating Palestinians from the rest of Israel and one being constructed along the U.S./Mexico border. Many international leaders, including Pope Francis, have frequently commented on walls. In February, 2017, Pope Francis told the general audience in St. Peter’s square, “In the social and civil context as well, I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges,” On March 18, 2017, he tweeted “I invite you not to build walls but bridges, to conquer evil with good, offence with forgiveness, to live in peace with everyone.” While Pope Francis is absolutely correct, it seems that he should follow his own advice.

Pope Francis has not constructed any physical walls, but he has been a master builder of an invisible wall which separates him from much of the Catholic Church. Unlike the brick and mortar wall surrounding Vatican City, Francis’s wall consists of ambiguity, inconsistency, passive-aggressiveness, and silence. He can be very clear on some matters, but when it comes to certain topics, he becomes vague, briefly stepping into the light, before slipping back into the shadows. His answers are typically in the form of cryptic rebukes, often through his press office or one of his close advisors. On certain issues his message is hazy and he becomes aloof and inconsistent when asked for clarification. He can even become living satire, such as his recent declaration that plastic in our oceans is an “emergency,” as if environmentalists need support from the pope, as he ignores a scandal in the Church which he himself could resolve with immediate and certain results.

Until recently, the prime example of Francis’s penchant for ambiguity and misdirection has been Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. The ambiguity in Chapter 8 is really unparalleled in the history of the Church, not because there has never been such ambiguity, but because there has never been such ambiguity regarding a settled Church teaching. Learned theologians and scholars disagree regarding the proper interpretation of Francis’s intentions regarding the receipt of the Eucharist by divorced and remarried Catholics. The teaching has always been that without a declaration that a first marriage is a nullity, a remarried Catholic must not present himself or herself for receipt of the Eucharist. As a result of the ambiguity of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, some bishops have concluded that there is no new teaching, and others have concluded that a divorced and remarried Catholic may still receive the Eucharist under certain circumstances. Because of this confusion on one of the most essential teachings of the faith, a group of cardinals issued formal questions to Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in an effort to produce a “Yes” or “No” response on the matter. This Dubia process is the formal and accepted way of addressing the Apostolic See in order to achieve clarity on a vague, ambiguous, or unclear, Church teaching.

One would think that the pope would respect the dignity of four cardinals who have posed very clear questions on a matter which is extremely important to the people of faith. Unfortunately, you would be wrong to think this. Instead of responding, Francis has totally ignored them. Unfortunately, a number of his close advisors have disparaged the “Dubia Cardinals” in one way or another, but the pope himself has not said one word about the questions posed by the cardinals for nearly two years.

However, the pope did find the time to informally respond to similar questions from bishops of the Buenos Aires region of Argentina, regarding Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitiaon September 5, 2017.

In his letter to the Argentinian bishops, Pope Francis confirmed that “pastoral accompaniment” allows Catholics who have not received a declaration of nullity regarding their first marriage, access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist in specific cases in which there are limitations that mitigate their responsibility and culpability, “especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union.” Please forgive an ambiguity in my effort to lay this out clearly. It seems that the Argentinian bishops also struggle with clarity.

In essence, Francis has informally attempted to change established Church teaching in a certain part of Argentina without speaking ex cathedra or from the throne of Peter, but his endorsement of the Argentine interpretation of Amoris did not come with a mandate that everyone follow suit.

After the Argentinian letter was made public, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, said that the pope’s clarification was intended “as authentic Magisterium.” However, even this statement does not make it so. At best, this is an artfully vague way of maintaining an ambiguity.

A Wall Is Built Over China
Another example of Francis’s lack of clarity is his decision regarding the state controlled Catholic Church in China.

In spite of receiving numerous letters from Cardinal Joseph Zen (one of which was hand-delivered in order to get past Francis’s staff) Pope Francis would not respond to Zen regarding his concerns over the pope’s dealings with the Chinese government. This is a new sort of Chinese wall.

The Chinese government has manipulated the Catholic Church in China since 1951, closing churches, jailing priests, appointing its own bishops and suppressing priests and bishops faithful to the Holy See. Faithful Catholics went underground, celebrating the sacraments and developing a community which was strictly forbidden by the Communist government. In January 2018, Pope Francis announced that he would recognize the bishops appointed by the Chinese government. Cardinal Zen responded to the announcement, stating that Pope Francis had essentially betrayed the faithful Catholics of China. At that point, Zen finally heard from the Holy See, through a rebuke by Pope Francis’s press secretary, Greg Burke. A few months later, Chinese officials arrested Bishop Guo Xijin for refusing to celebrate Easter Mass with a bishop who had been appointed by the Chinese government. He was detained through Easter, then released.

Without detailing other examples, such as his refusal to explain to Cardinal Gerhard Muller why he fired three theologians from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, we can now turn to the latest example of the pope’s wall of ambiguity: His lack of a response to the McCarrick scandal.

A Wall of Silence Over the Viganò Charges
By now, you are likely acutely familiar with Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s 11-page letter, alleging that Pope Francis knew of Archbishop McCarrick’s openly abusive homosexual lifestyle, before he made McCarrick a trusted advisor to the Holy See. When questioned by reporters about the letter on a flight to Rome from Ireland, Pope Francis could have denied it, explained how it was inaccurate, or offered any other sort of defense, but instead he replied: “I read the statement this morning, and I must tell you sincerely that, I must say this, to you and all those who are interested: Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment. I will not say a single word on this.”

How is that for clarity? It actually seemed like Pope Francis was going to respond to it. “I read the statement this morning, and I must tell you sincerely that, I must say this, to you and all those who are interested…” However, he changed course in mid-thought, and simply said we are to make our own judgment and he will not say a single word about it. This is a wall being built right in front of our eyes.

Uncharacteristically, Pope Francis has remained consistent on one thing, he has not said much if anything about the Viganò letter since he was first asked about it. None of Francis’ closest advisors have addressed the allegations either. Instead, they have lobbed personal attacks against Viganò. It is abundantly evident that Francis and his supporters are simply trying to divert attention to other matters, such as the environment of all things.

However, many faithful Catholics, from humble pew sitters to theologians, priests, bishops, and cardinals, have called for an investigation of the allegations in order to get to the truth. Did Pope Francis ignore serious immorality while elevating McCarrick to a very powerful status in the Church? Robert George, George Weigel, Scott Hahn, Patrick Coffin, and Dr. Janet Smith want to know. The priests I know, want to know. Bishop Robert Barron, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, Bishop Robert Morlino, and many other bishops want to know. Archbishop Salvitore Cordileone, Archbishop Paul Coakley, Archbishop Joseph Naumann, Cardinal Daniel Dinardo and other Archbishops and Cardinals want to know.

How can we come to know what Pope Francis knew? For starters, we could look at the official records on Archbishop McCarrick. These records are held in the Vatican, in the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., the Archdiocese of New York, the Archdiocese of Newark, and the Diocese of Metuchin, not to mention the offices of numerous seminaries on the East Coast. Unfortunately, the custodians of these records have been unwilling to make these files public. Instead, we have received silence from Pope Francis, and denials from Cardinal Wuerl, and Cardinal Tobin. More walls have been thrown up overnight.

Hide State Secrets No More
A cold war has erupted in the Church, replete with walls, opposing sides, and state secrets. How can Christ stand for such division and corruption? Only a Savior who suffered the Passion he suffered, could witness today’s Church and restrain himself from raining fire down upon the earth.

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you (Matt. 11:21-24).

Woe to Vatican City… Never before could the hierarchy be so thankful for such a merciful Father in Heaven.

It seems the papacy has come full circle. Shortly after Peter took his seat as the first pope, he too had to endure a rebuke like this. Peter, who had declared that the New Covenant came without dietary restrictions and that the gentiles and the Jews were both to be welcomed into the Church, hypocritically shied away from eating with gentiles for fear of offending his Jewish brethren. In Galatians 2, it took St. Paul to rebuke Peter for his behavior and thereby provoke him to humility in the throne.

If Peter would have ignored Paul, would he have remained the pope? Would the Church have thrived as it did? Would it have changed the papacy thereafter from one of humble service to one of prideful rule? Peter certainly talked a good game, but if he would have disregarded Paul’s rebuke, he would have been a hypocrite, unworthy to be the chief servant of Christ’s Church on earth (1 Peter 5:2-3).

Pope Francis has frequently spoken of his need to be a humble servant of the people of God. Many good people are now playing the role of St. Paul to the Chair of Peter. Will Pope Francis emulate Peter, or will he mirror the pride of Judas?

I’m no Ronald Reagan, but I say what many other good people are saying, “Pope Francis, tear down this wall!”

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One comment on “Tear Down this Papal Wall of Silence

  1. Pope Francis on Silence

    by Christopher O. Tollefsen – Public Discourse – September 9th, 2018

    Silence is not enough. The wounds of the Church cannot begin to heal until Pope Francis honestly responds to Archbishop Viganò’s allegations. He has a responsibility to do so.

    Pope Francis has remained notably silent in response to the allegations by Archbishop Viganò that he had been made aware of Cardinal McCarrick’s predatory behavior in regard to seminarians. When initially asked about these charges on the plane home from Ireland, the Holy Father invited journalists to reach their own conclusions, but said “I will not speak one word on this.”

    This silence is puzzling to many people, and the pope somewhat indirectly addressed the puzzle the following Sunday in his homily. As reported by the Catholic Herald, Pope Francis said: “‘With people lacking good will, with people who seek only scandal, with those who look only for division, who want only destruction,’ the best response is ‘silence. And prayer.’” Expanding on this in the context of the Gospel reading, the pope pointed to Jesus’s response to those who were challenging him and eventually sought to drive him away, while Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went away.” Thus, indicated the pope, “the truth is meek. The truth is silent. The truth is not noisy.”

    This seems to be an empirical claim, and one that is not always verified. Sometimes the truth is best served by silence, but sometimes it is not. Silence can be ally of dishonesty: as Matthew Schmitz has noted, the now-disgraced Marcial Maciel chose the road of silence, in an attempt to appear like Jesus. But his silence was no more than an appearance. It was, in fact, a form of lying. By suggesting that his silence was like Jesus’s silence, he falsely asserted his own innocence. In his case, silence was an enemy to the truth.

    On the other hand, there are cases where silence is the friend of truth. In at least some of those cases, silence brings the contradictions and inconsistencies in a false account to light. By remaining silent in the face of false and absurd charges, one might give the false accuser “enough rope” that he is shown for the liar he is. But this certainly does not always happen, and it does not seem that Viganò’s “testimony” obviously collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. That the pope should have rehabilitated McCarrick while knowing of his past offenses is shocking, but not impossible; there are tensions in Viganò’s account, and facts that do not fit all of his narrative, but it is simply not the case that it is self-evidently false in its entirety or essentials.

    Justice and Mercy

    I suspect there is a further thought in mind in the pope’s decision to remain silent, one in keeping with a primary theme of his pontificate. When a person is falsely accused of wrongdoing, it is eminently clear that such a person has a right to defend himself, a right that is a matter of justice. Lies against another person that defame him, take away his good name, and make false charges of immoral or irresponsible behavior do that person a wrong, and the person wronged is owed something: a clearing of his name, and a return, so far as possible, of what he lost as a result of being defamed. Accordingly, the first step demanded by justice in a case of defamation is an assertion of the truth: the charges must be denied, and a retraction sought.

    But Pope Francis has made mercy a theme of his pontificate, and mercy can require something more than justice. Consider, for example, Germain Grisez’s treatment of mercy and rights. Grisez notes that rights may be claimed for three reasons. The first is “to claim them precisely because they are one’s own.” This, Grisez holds, is always inappropriate for any one: this manifests a bias toward oneself that “leads one to act out of love of self rather than love of justice.” Others assert rights out of a concern for justice, and Grisez writes that since this is founded on “an impartial love of justice, this approach conforms to the common requirements of moral responsibility.”

    But, Grisez argues, Christians are called to a different response, one that emulates Jesus, and subordinates their own interests to those of others. Thus, “transforming justice into mercy, they should voluntarily forgo their rights and more than fulfill their duties.” This seems to me the truth in the pope’s approach: it is his right to defend himself, but mercy requires Christians in many cases to forgo the assertion of their rights in order to give witness to the specific task that Jesus has placed on his followers, to love one another as He loved them.

    But Grisez notes an important qualification to this principle. Christians “ought not to be concerned about their rights but about the responsibilities entailed by their personal vocations.” So “Christians should seek to vindicate their rights when this is required to fulfill their responsibilities, but not otherwise” (my emphasis).

    So the question is this: is it more called for by the pope’s responsibilities that he keep silent in the face of Viganò’s charges, or that he answer honestly and completely?

    A Pope’s Responsibility to His Church

    No doubt, there are cases where silence is the best policy. Any pope is the subject of harangues, defamations, and false accusations on probably a daily, if not hourly basis. No pope would serve the Church well by taking every personal slight as an opportunity for public correction.

    But the facts in this case are different. The accusation comes from a fellow bishop, a servant of the Church. The accusations are taken seriously, likewise, by many other bishops, and by many Catholic laypeople. Some people, zealous to defend the pope, have argued or asserted that virtually all who take the charges seriously are aligned in a quasi-conspiracy to overthrow the pope, oppose his reforms, and remake the Church.

    There are two possibilities: first, perhaps these defenders are correct regarding those who are concerned by the allegations; perhaps the majority of those expressing concern, and asking for greater transparency from the pope, are in fact seeking primarily to bring him down—they have “pounced,” in the uncongenial description given by the New York Times.

    But if so, surely the effective response by the pope, and hence the response required by his responsibilities, is not silence, but the silencing that comes when false accusations are met with truth and knowledge. No doubt these enemies will not be fully placated by mere “denials” (though they are hardly placated by silence at all). But denials backed by the presenting of evidence would “shine a torch” on their mendacity and malevolence. This would be for the good of the Church—the good the pope is pledged to protect. So, a renunciation of justice in this case seems ill-advised.

    On the other hand, the zealous defenders of the pope might be mistaken. Perhaps, rather than malicious plotters, many Catholics who take the accusations seriously include laypeople, priests, and bishops of good will. Perhaps these people wish, for the good of the Church, to know the truth of the matter, believing that the truth is the only source of hope for the reform of corrupt institutional structures.

    Such Catholics of good will need not be thought overly credulous in finding the accusations of Viganò credible. Their trust in their leaders has, after all, been deeply shaken in the past two months, first by the revelations concerning McCarrick, surely one of the most influential, yet also most depraved, clerics of recent decades, and by the evidence of extensive cover-ups by Church hierarchs in Pennsylvania over a span of several decades. Given what we have learned about the Catholic hierarchy in that short span (to say nothing of the history of the Church more broadly), the idea of corruption that goes all the way to the top hardly requires an act of faith.

    Such Catholics have genuine concern for the good of the Church; their worry that some or all of Viganò’s accusations might be true is neither groundless nor irresponsible; their great state of demoralization and distrust is a wound in the entire Church. What are this, or any, pope’s vocational responsibilities in such a situation?

    Silence is Not Enough

    The answer seems clear to me: silence is an inadequate way to meet those responsibilities. It gives the appearance that the pope himself has more to gain by remaining silent than by speaking the truth. But respect for the pope runs deep among these Catholics. If the pope says directly, letting his yes be yes and his no be no, that there are no grounds for the accusation as it bears upon him, and if he then orders a complete and transparent investigation into the allegations insofar as they bear upon numerous other high-ranking Catholic officials, even those personally close to him, then surely this will go a long way toward showing the faithful that the shepherd truly is one with the flock, that he smells like the sheep.

    Right now, American Catholics know that for many years, their leaders included wolves. No good pope would knowingly solicit and heed the advice of such a wolf, but Pope Francis very clearly did solicit and heed the advice of McCarrick. The wound of the Church cannot begin to heal until he can, and does, honestly assert or deny that he did so knowingly.

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