Saturday, November 15, 2014

Are Pope Francis’ defenders missing the point?

If you haven’t been following the story of Cdl. Raymond L. Burke’s transfer from Cardinal Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura (the High Court of the Catholic Church, if you will) to Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta … well, I can’t say as I blame you. Overall, the reactions have been a classic illustration of the Catholic Circular Firing Squad back in action: traditionalist overreaction, liberal jubilation, and my little group of ultramontanists — to be honest — somewhat missing the point.

There’s some fun to be had watching the Vatican Follies, and speculating over what happens backstage and in the wings. Nevertheless, I agree with Simcha Fisher: there’s much too much agonizing over the shambling monster Frank Weathers is pleased to call the KasperBurke.

A “Calamitous Pope”?

Michelle Arnold of Catholic Answers recently made the excellent point that to call St. John Paul “the worst pope ever” is to show an appalling ignorance of papal history. Similarly, to imply that Pope Francis is “calamitous”, as Rorate Caeli has done in a post uncritically copied and pasted by other rad-trad blogs, is to exaggerate hysterically.

But in our zeal to defend the orthodoxy of Papa Bergoglio against the cheers of the left and the jeers of the right, I’ve begun to think that we’ve discounted criticism we should be listening to, whether we agree fully with it or not. To put it differently, it’s past time for the honeymoon to come to an end and face the reality of Francis’ reign.

This started for me when The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named wrote a piece about the facepalm-inducing, completely Holy-Dude-what-were-you-thinking selection of Cdl. Godfried Danneels for the Synod on the Family — an appointment that could only be overshadowed in insensitivity by nominating Fort Lauderdale mayor Jack Seiler to head up the Office of Papal Charities. Whatever the choice says about Francis’ orthodoxy, it was a bonehead play.

A Pope Divided Against Himself

Cardinal Francis George, the soon-to-be archbishop emeritus of Chicago, recently said in an interview, “[The pope] says wonderful things, but he doesn’t put them together all the time, so you’re left at times puzzling over what his intention is. What he says is clear enough, but what does he want us to do? … I’d like to sit down with him and say, ‘Holy Father, first of all, thank you for letting me retire. And could I ask you a few questions about your intentions?’”

This lack of clarity at times becomes a distinct lack of consistency. One of the most damaging remarks Papa Bergoglio made was in the midst of the La Civiltà Cattolica interview last September:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. ... The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

Sadly, this isn’t an issue of translation. Rather, it’s the current Bishop of Rome validating the media-created impression that “the bishops don’t talk about anything else”, now a stock canard among progressives. From that interview, it was quickly spun from a mild negative observation into a more-or-less positive instruction to shut up. For example, in Rachel Zoll’s recent AP post about conservative US bishop dissatisfaction — evidenced mostly by out-of-context quotes — the reporter writes, “The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and individual church leaders have dedicated increasing resources over the years to the hot-button social issues the pontiff says should no longer be the focus [emphasis mine.—ASL].”

And yet, within days of the reprint of the interview in America magazine, Francis let loose a blast at abortion … ironically, just as NARAL was rolling out a meme thanking him (Marc Barnes’ response is still a treasure). It’s almost as if he were trying to create consensus by alternately indulging and criticizing each side. The overall impression it creates is of a man internally pulled in conflicting directions.

Lost in Translation Issues

Speaking of translation, the Pope’s problems in the Sala Stampa proceed unchecked. The head of the Holy See Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, is a holdover from the reign of Benedict XVI who took over from St. John Paul’s press chief, Joaquin Navarro Valls.

Even during Papa Bene’s reign, there were complaints from the Catholic chatterati about Fr. Lombardi’s judgment; a stellar example was the decision to release the pages from Light of the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald in which Benedict appeared to have endorsed the use of condoms (at least by gay prostitutes). Now, however, it seems Fr. Lombardi either has lost control of the operation or is in active connivance with certain elements bent at manipulating the media.

For one thing, the controversial mid-synod relatio was so little reflective of the actual discussions taking place that Bp. Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan called it a “prefabricated text”. Then, when the final relatio was released, it included “for information purposes” three paragraphs that had failed to achieve the required two-thirds consensus. Next, while the Italian translation appeared almost immediately, the English translation — the one with presumably the widest impact on the world — didn’t appear for two weeks. When it did, there was a disturbing omission in the text: a clause that speaks of support for the family “founded on the marriage between man and woman”.

While Francis can speak English, he’s reportedly not very fluent in it. In the modern papacy, that’s a vulnerability; and it appears to Robert Royal someone is exploiting it:

Even if this is merely a slip, I personally am not much reassured. It means that the whole Vatican apparatus for translating and carefully reviewing sensitive documents is unreliable, at best.
There’s a simpler explanation, I’m afraid. Among the current uncertainties in the Church, the “mistranslations” have all leaned in the last two years in the direction of progressive views. That certainly tells us something.

Bishop Schneider’s claim of manipulation of the Synod process appears accurate. What good reason could there be for not publishing the entire proceedings? … The argument that keeping them private would promote free and open discussion is not self evidently true. If anything, it was probably thought to promote the interests of those who produced the suspect interim report, and then wanted to keep the small group discussions private.


It’s tempting to blow off these analyses — especially considering the comments in Dr. Royal’s combox, some of which verge unto sedevacantism (how many times does it need to be said that St. Robert Bonaventure’s obiter dictum on heretical popes is neither infallible dogma nor canon law? that it doesn’t give anyone the spiritual authority to “unseat” the reigning pontiff?). However, neither author is disrespectful of Francis or of his actions. Like Cdl. George, they’re simply wondering: What the heck is going on in Francis’ mind? What are his real intentions?

It’s been suggested that we look at Francis’ actions rather than his words. Unfortunately, appearances can still be deceiving; looking at Cdl. Bergoglio’s tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires only tells us what resulted, not what was intended — the former doesn’t necessarily follow from the latter.

It also does no good to ask, even rhetorically, “How many converts has Pope Francis made?”, or to point out dramatically, as Inés San Martín does, that Francis’ popularity isn’t stopping the exodus of Latin Americans from the Church. No one pope, no matter how saintly or impeccably orthodox, can single-handedly fix all the Church’s internal problems, or completely undo the damage done by an increasingly secular and hostile external metaculture. He needs our help more than he needs our criticism.

But it would be nice if we had some clear direction, rather than contradictions and an unseemly talent for vituperation.

Trust and Prayer

This is not a jump onto the “Badmouth the Pope” bandwagon. As my Catholic Stand colleague Matthew Tyson says, the best response to the KasperBurke is to trust the Pope. Moreover, we should trust in the Holy Spirit Who guides and leads the Church (John 14:26, 16:13), and in Christ’s promise to St. Peter that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against” his Church (Matthew 16:18-19). What should be coming from our hearts is prayer, not a bunch of God-I-hate-Bergoglio smack talk.

Nevertheless, the Pope is a human being, too. When we fail to recognize his faults and failings, it does as much injustice to him as it does to refuse to allow him faults or failings. The pope is protected from teaching error in matters of faith and morals; he isn’t protected from sin or bad judgment.

No, Francis isn’t the worst pope ever. But he’s yet to show he’s the best possible pope we could have under the circumstances.