As the crucial family synod approaches, his critics could prove his greatest allies
Does the Pope really have enemies? Catholics used to pray in the liturgy that he would be saved from them, but it was taken for granted then that we were referring to enemies outside the Church. There remain terror groups like ISIS that would like to harm him physically. But what might shock some Catholics is the notion that the Pope might have “enemies” inside the Church. And, as I will argue, they may actually turn out to be his greatest allies at this October’s crucial family synod.
Since the Counter-Reformation, and the definition of papal infallibility in 1870, the authority of the Roman pontiff has seemed absolute. But after the Second Vatican Council what was always a reality has become more visible: all popes encounter questioning and even opposition in implementing their policies for the governance of the Church.
Resistance is often to be found not only in the diverse reality of the wider Church, but even within what has to many appeared as the inner sanctum of absolute papal power: the Roman Curia. Benedict XVI resigned precisely because he believed that only a younger and stronger man could overcome this insidious internal foe.
Cardinal Burke’s response to the French reporter highlights an important fact: if we are to understand who the Pope’s enemies may be, we have to start by asking to whom he may at least appear as an enemy.
Looking at Catholic opinion worldwide, all the indications are that the Pope enjoys enormous and unprecedented popularity among the ordinary faithful. A cursory acquaintance with Catholic bloggers, however, will reveal there is no unanimity about the wisdom of much of Francis’ action and teaching. To the extent that the unease often comes from some of the most committed and informed circles of Catholic opinion, their minority status should prevent us from dismissing them out of hand.
The Pope has been unswerving as a critic of untrammelled capitalism and its effects on the poor. This has won him critics among those who adhere to the more dogmatic versions of free market ideology. In general, the more strident of these voices come from the other side of the Atlantic and have relatively little influence among British Catholics.
In America, in particular, the critical voices come from both outside and inside the Church. Those who are Catholics, who come usually from more theologically conservative quarters, suffer from an embarrassing disadvantage. Criticism of papal teaching has hitherto been associated with theological liberals, and those who are now feeling the heat were often wont to club the “dissenters” over the head with enthusiastic assertions of papal teaching authority.
In fact, the Pope’s combative statements on social justice contain nothing new. They are essentially in continuity not only with those of his immediate predecessors, but also with papal social teaching back to Leo XIII. The selective moralising and loyalty of some of the culture warriors should be seen for what it is. We can expect more of it when the Pope releases his environmental encyclical on June 16.
Another important group of critics are those who argue that Francis is replacing the clear Magisterium of recent popes with a style of teaching that seems unclear and even contradictory. Their worries were reinforced when loyal servants of Benedict XVI were ejected from positions of influence and when Francis explicitly disavowed the retired pope’s projects, such as the liturgical “reform of the reform”.
The disarray of some laity is evident from the blogs, where expressions of legitimate concern sometimes stray over the boundary into disrespectful carping and, shamefully, even insult and invective.
Yet concern goes beyond the ranks of conservative laity. Francis often talks as if he has an animus against the pious, even against the clergy as a whole. It’s true that the latter can exhibit a caste mentality and a sense of entitlement. That these faults seem resurgent among the young is largely a reaction against the dilution of the priestly identity, which occurred from the late 1960s as the teachings of Vatican II were poorly interpreted through a secularising lens. Similarly, some pious people show little compassion towards the less virtuous and little understanding of their struggles.
Nevertheless, some feel that Francis is overlooking the positive elements of the witness of those clergy and laity who are trying to follow the Church’s teaching, often at the cost of real sacrifice.
Few will admit it, but let’s be honest: Francis also has critics in the episcopate. Some bishops privately express serious misgivings about both the style and substance of his governance. The Italian episcopate, I am told, is seriously divided. Although his position at the head of the bishops’ conference reinforces his natural discretion, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco is said to be prominent among the discontented. There is also reportedly much disaffection in Poland, where bishops are worried that the legacy of St John Paul II is being dismantled. In the United States, the promotion of reputed liberals such as Archbishop Blaise Cupich, who blazed a lonely trail among an increasingly conservative episcopate until Francis catapulted him to the major see of Chicago, has heightened a sense of unease among some bishops.
And what of the Roman Curia, that traditional hotbed of faction and intrigue? It is becoming increasingly apparent that reform is not only destined to be a slow and piecemeal process, but is unlikely ever to assume the revolutionary proportions many were hoping for. The diplomats, whose dominance Benedict had sought to diminish, seem firmly back in charge of the structures, while a kitchen cabinet of curial outsiders is said to be guiding a Pope who seems determined to bypass curial structures and proceedings to achieve his goals.
Since many cardinals voted for Francis precisely in the hope of a root and branch pruning of the Curia, the sense of disappointment is bound to grow. Many of his electors were Ratzingerians frustrated by the barely concealed way in which Benedict’s projects were hindered or ignored by his collaborators, and they were assured that his legacy would be respected. Some of these imply they are feeling not merely disappointed, but cheated.
The promotion of officials who have leapfrogged more experienced colleagues because of their closeness to those who have the Pope’s ear has reinforced a sense of resentment among many who have no theological axe to grind. They argue that, rather than moral reform, the change of atmosphere conceals nothing more than the very classical triumph of a faction.
In no area has the existence of opposition to the Pope become more visible than in the discussions surrounding the family synod. The outpourings of frustration from those who thought that last year’s synod was being manipulated were directed at the prelates whom Francis had put in charge of the proceedings rather than at the Pope himself. But the fact that Francis had seemed to favour the proponents of a relaxation of discipline, with the German theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper at their head, meant that the Pope was often seen as the real target.
Of those who have stood up for the traditional teaching and discipline, it was Cardinal Burke who came closest to direct criticism of the Pontiff, saying openly that it was a mistake to allow discussion on an issue inseparably linked to doctrine.
The Italian Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister has reported that curialists who believe the Pope is on their side are worried by the attacks and have formed a “Cenacle of the Friends of Pope Francis”, meeting monthly under the guidance of Cardinal Kasper and the Italian Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio. They may have reason to be worried, but it may be that the danger is real not for the Pope himself but for their pretensions to be his authentic interpreters. There are signs that the Pope is retreating from their advanced positions. Recently his teaching on the hot-button issues where the Church is most in conflict with modern society has been sounding much more traditional. Expectations are that the next instalment of what is in reality a single synod in two acts will not deliver the outcome the progressives are hoping for.
If that is the case, we will soon discover who the Pope’s true friends are. Already there are signs that the secular media are discovering that Francis is not the flower child they were hoping for, and are beginning to turn on him. The Pope himself has recognised that he has perhaps aroused expectations than cannot be fulfilled, and we must hope that the “friends” of today do not become the enemies of tomorrow, as happened to Paul VI after he issued Humanae Vitae.
In reality, honest and open critics like Cardinal Burke have never been anything like “enemies” of the Pope. Francis has called for honest and open debate, and those who have respectfully taken up his invitation, without careerist acquiescence, are more than “His Holiness’s loyal opposition”; they are his real friends.
The duties of faithful Catholics towards the Pope are respect, obedience in matters of Church law and submission in matters of doctrine, not acclaim for his every word and action. It has been distressing recently to see attacks from quarters that were hardly Ultramontanist, or even particularly courteous under Benedict, against those deemed to show insufficient enthusiasm for Francis.
It was a mistake to demote loyal servants of the Church like Cardinal Burke who, as even his opponents concede, is wholly innocent of careerism. It goes against the political wisdom of keeping your friends close and your “enemies” closer (and, in fact, the cardinal has been freer to defend and promote his views more widely since his demotion).
Disappointed advocates of change may openly turn on Francis after the synod. Others, including some of the better disposed observers, suggest this is a pontificate running out of steam. The Pope’s immense popularity gives him a unique opportunity to heal the internal wounds of the Church and to promote the Catholic faith in all its beauty, as a promise of mercy and a call to conversion. This opportunity must not be wasted.
There are embittered and ideological Catholics who mistake rigidity for orthodoxy and venom for fidelity. The Holy Father is right to seek to challenge and convert these people. But if he is to do so effectively he must convince them first that he understands their concerns.
No true Catholic can be an enemy of the Pope. This year’s synod is the ideal moment for Francis to show some of them that he is not theirs.
Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique in Paris, and has also studied in Germany and Rome. He currently serves at St Wilfrid’s, York
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (05/6/15).