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.
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.
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?
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.
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".