Monday, November 18, 2019

Thoughts on Pope Francis

I rarely write about Pope Francis on this blog. His pontificate has become an explosive subject among many Catholics and I hesitate to venture into any discussion about him.

However, I thought I would risk a few remarks today. I'm going to write this blog post in the form of a numbered list, which might be appropriate to the subject-- since my thoughts, feeling and ideas about Pope Francis are often conflicted and confused.

1) Pope Francis is the Pope, the legitimate successor of St. Peter.

2) The role of the Pope, and the deference due to him, is defined thus in Lumen Gentium, the Constitution of the Church promulgated at Vatican II: "Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking."

3) Much that Pope Francis has said and done during his pontificate has caused me considerable alarm, distress, upset, and anxiety. I know I'm not alone in this. In fact, it's probably true to say that many Catholics now feel an habitual sense of apprehension about the Holy Father's next pronouncement or action.

The apparent compromise on the sanctity of marriage in Amoris Laetita is the chief of these, but there have been others. The change in the text of the Catechism regarding capital punishment also bothered me-- not because I am a fan of execution, but purely because it seemed like a contradiction of previously-held doctrine. The Holy Father's denunciation of "proselytism" is also confusing-- what is the difference between proselytism and evangelization? We should "use words when necessary", but when is it necessary, or even permissible?

4) Many conservative critics of Pope Francis say they acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope, but only when he acts in accordance with Catholic doctrine. This, however, seems like an empty formula, as well as a recipe for chaos. If every Catholic could be his or her own judge of doctrine, what would we need a Pope for? Isn't this like saying that you acknowledge a judge as long as he gives the right verdict?

5) Pope Francis often denounces "rigidity" in his homilies. This has become a sort of running joke among conservative Catholics, and we often ironically refer to ourselves as "Neo-Pelagians" and so forth. We also argue that laxity has caused far more damage to the Church than rigidity, in recent decades-- and this seems obviously true to us. Just look at the exodus of priests and the decline of congregations after Vatican II!

And yet, we have to admit...the danger of legalism (and of a complacent piety) is a dominant theme in the Gospels. Since the Scriptures are a living word, can we really write this off as purely historical, referring to the Pharisees and the Sadducees rather than to ourselves? Isn't it fair to say that, on paper, the scribes and priests often seem to have a slam-dunk case against Jesus? Why would this be such a central theme of the Gospels if it was not a continuing danger, relevant after the coming of Jesus as well as before?

6) The lack of charity among both defenders and critics of Pope Francis is lamentable. I have more exposure to his critics, since I am a conservative Catholic myself, and spend much more time listening to conservative Catholics than liberal Catholics. To hear the Pope described as "Bergoglio", mocked, sneered at, parodied, dismissed out of hand whenever he opens his mouth... this is a horrible spectacle.

A conservative priest I much esteem once said to me: "A Catholic should never publicly criticize the Pope." I think that's going too far, but I am more linclined to that priest's attitude than to that of the "Bergoglio bashers".

On the other hand, the defenders of Pope Francis often show a signal lack of charity themselves. They seem to desire "dialogue" and "encounter" with people of all faiths and none... except when it comes to conservative Catholics, who they often treat with a contempt they would never dream of showing to a Muslim, Hindu, atheist, gay rights activist, or pro-abortion feminist.

7) At Corpus Christi this year, I was very moved by a story I heard during a priest's homily, in Dublin's Pro-Cathedral. It concerned a Eucharist miracle which occurred in Buenos Aires in 1996-- a desecrated Eucharist was put into a dish of water and stored in the tabernacle. Upon the tabernacle being opened, it was seen to have become "bloodied flesh". When the bishop was informed, he immediately had the Eucharist photographed and investigated. That bishop is now Pope Francis.

I can't find that this Eucharistic miracle has been officially approved, but it seems convincing. Is it significant that it occurred in the diocese of the future Pope? At any rate, the future Pope's actions in this case certainly show no lack of conviction in the Real Presence.

8) Will Pope Francis's pontificate be looked back upon as a "blip" in Catholic history, a temporary wrong turning? Perhaps. But the current Pope has now appointed many cardinals to the College of Cardinals, and it seems highly unlikely that the next man to walk out on the balcony of St. Peter's will be a much more traditionally-minded Pope. (Unlikely, but not impossible.)

As well as this, when one reads the actual texts of the Pope's documents, homilies, etc. the differences between his pontificate and that of previous popes seem rather less pronounced. And the differences have surely been exaggerated. Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II also had much to say about environmental responsibility, fulfillment of the vision of Vatican II, and dialogue with other religions. Indeed, Pope John Paul II notoriously kissed a copy of the Koran. How does this compare to the presence of Pachama statues at the Amazonian synod?

Let us not forget, either, that the Pope emeritus has repeatedly thanked Pope Francis and affirmed that there is no contradiction between his own pontificate and that of the current Pope. 

9) Having said all this, I find myself somewhat disoriented in the pontificate of Pope Francis. I began to practice my faith during the pontificate of Pope Benedict. Much that I took for granted then now seems less straightforward-- especially, the manner in which we should evangelize and present the claims of the Church. I am more cautious of making a mistake in this regard than I used to be. This makes me less eager to write on explicitly religious or Catholic topics-- or, at least, to depart from the fundamentals.

I am somewhat more inclined, now, to be a Catholic writer on non-Catholic topics, than to write on specifically Catholic topics-- and least of all, controversial topics.

I think it is also true to say that my own faith, as a result of the recent controversies in the Church, has become somewhat more "mystical" and somewhat less doctrinal; more devotional and less intellectualised.

As ever, the thing I am sure of more than anything else in the world is the truth of the Catholic faith-- and, to use the words of the liberal Catholic Lord Acton, that Communion with Rome is "dearer than life".


  1. Thank you for writing this thoroughly sane piece. It's a blessed relief amid so many angry, CAPS LOCK articles. My thoughts are roughly along the same lines. Benedict will always remain my hero, as I was profoundly influenced by his teaching and thought and even demeanour at a formative age, and I number myself among the Pope Benedict generation, but Francis is Pope; he is the Pope that God has chosen for us, and we should pray for him.

    Moreover, I'm positively fond of Pope Francis. His written texts, just as you say, bear plenty of comparison with previous Popes. 'Christus Vivit' (an apostolic exhortation for youth) was full of fire and encouragement, taking no prisoners, and including (for instance) a stirring evocation of the beauty of marriage. And I'm fond of him because of certain ways in which he challenges me. For example, his constant insistence on a 'culture of encounter', taking the risk of talking to people, listening to them and studying them, has been a challenge to my shy and careful nature, but it has nevertheless changed me when I have approached conversations — even difficult conversations — through that prism.

    I agree absolutely with point no. 6. The spectacle you describe has been an instructive and sobering lesson. I know people are upset, and I know why, but there are tones of language that cannot be stooped to. The Church is one house, and a house divided against itself cannot stand. There are blogs I once enjoyed, with authors I respected, that I've stopped reading because of the tone they have adopted. Church politics have to be navigated very, very carefully, and with only brief exposure, I feel. Meanwhile the rest of us should carry on 'quietly working', as last Sunday's second reading had it.

    1. I haven't read Christus Vivit; I must do so. I was moved by the exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate.

      It's easy to mock "encounter", but it seems to me that the Gospels are full of "encounters". Yes, Jesus literally laid down the law, but he also related to people in a very personal way, a very individual way. For instance, in the road to Emmaus. And he does seem to have been gentler with notorious sinners than with the self-righteous.

      And personally I'm quite happy with inter-religious dialogue. I've always been interested in other religions and disliked the "you-come-in-ism" model of ecumenism. For instance, I have an affection for the Church of England (at least, up until very recent times) that makes me sad to see how withering Catholics can be towards it-- I know we've agreed on this before. Yes, I believe the Catholic Church is the one true Faith, and I want everyone to be Catholics, but it's not as simple as that.

    2. Yes, we still agree about the Church of England. And I am with you with what you say about ecumenism more generally. 'Going out to the peripheries' is something that is a challenge to my shyness and wariness, but it is absolutely, startlingly orthodox. I am reminded of the woman at the well, that difficult, slightly defensive character with a complicated history but a heart waiting to be transformed. That Jesus' conversation with her begins slowly and gently, with his listening to her, does not water down His teaching in the slightest.

      And I don't think it contradicts the wholeness of the truth of the Catholic faith that, as has plainly been the will of God, our relation to the truth, even that of people of good will, is complicated. Amongst other things, I suppose reminds us that faith is a gift, rather than something earned or deserved.

      I'm not necessarily informed enough to comment confidently, but my impression is that Pope Francis's priorities have been misunderstood, certainly in the West. For us, there is an understandably tremendous temptation to yearn for someone who will confront the secular-progressive Thing head-on — and a Pope might seem the ideal candidate. It isn't unreasonable to feel such longings, but it may not be what is really needed: after all, the Jews in the first century were not given what was needed for a straightforward tactical victory... Now, my hero Benedict XVI certainly challenged the Thing, as I believe he was absolutely right to do, and there are many whose faith and confidence was strenghtened by his doing so in his gentle and patient way. The fact that he was not spared the wrath of the Thing in spite of his mild manners, was, though upsetting and daunting for us, also a clear vindication of the Church's position, and a kind of moral victory for us (around the time of the papal visit to Britain in 2010, I felt the sensation of having to decide whose side I was on). But I feel that this was Benedict's vocation: with his peerless understanding of Europe, to equip the Church in the West with the intellectual clout and the tone of voice with which to tame the Thing and remind it of its real purpose.

      Pope Francis, however, has a different vocation. He doesn't bash secularism as heartily as fiery young men like me would like. But that is perhaps because his attention is on the Church elsewhere — the Amazon, for instance, which has come out of nowhere as far as I'm concerned, as in my ignorance I hardly knew there were Catholics in the Amazon! This may mean that from our perspective he has taken his eye off the ball. And I suppose I do sometimes wish that he would be stronger. But it doesn't mean he is a bad or even a lax Pope. Nor does it mean that we can't draw continually on Benedict's teaching for our own culture.

    3. Also, I wonder if there is a tendency for us to believe our own nightmares. Certainly, a lot goes on in the Vatican that is wrong, misguided and, I suppose, nightmarish. But it is just too easy, too literary, to suppose that the Church has been infiltrated by a gang of modernist agents. The idea that we have to rise up in a traditionalist counter-resistance has the fingerprints of gleefully divisive Satan all over it, it seems to me.

      Finally, these words do not seem to me wanting in orthodoxy in any way. It is from World Youth Day in 2013 (

      Today, there are those who say that marriage is out of fashion. Is it out of fashion? In a culture of relativism and the ephemeral, many preach the importance of “enjoying” the moment. They say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, “for ever”, because we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, I ask you to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love. I have confidence in you and I pray for you. Have the courage “to swim against the tide”. And also have the courage to be happy.

      Words that St JP II could have uttered.

    4. Well, yes, those words do indeed show an admirable orthodoxy. And yet the infamous footnote in Amoris Laetitia, in opening the door to Communion for those in irregular marital situations, would seem to undermine that. This is why I can certainly share the anxieties of the Pope's critics. Ultimately it seems almost a leap of faith to accept that doctrine has not been changed.

      It's a very good point about a temptation for someone who will confront the secular progressive world-- many of us who were culture warriors and who felt that we were doing the right thing, the hard and noble thing, now feel as though the wind has been taken out of our sails. It's certainly a disconcerting feeling and I'm having trouble adjusting to it myself. But the analogy with Jesus and the political situation of the time is very apt.

      There is so much to say about Pope Francis-- but also, it's such a very delicate subject!

  2. The mentioning of Lord Acton towards the very end of this well written eagle´s view made me happy. Here came a Liberal of the old school, from a generation far better educated than any of us would ever have had hopes for in our own poor time. His views may have differed (grandly) from Conservatism, yet his cultural and religious horizon were such as we would rather try learning from it than jumping into a dubious choir chanting easy ungrounded accusations converging just a little too much to something like "modern heresies *always* and *absolutely* and *unavoidably* having the upper hand in the Vatican today".

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Thomae. I agree. I don't know a huge amount about Lord Acton, but that quotation does speak to me.

    2. And 19th century England is an immensely fascinating panorama in history however one choose to approach...