306 Assessing a Pontiff

Following his 2013 inauguration, Pope Francis I enjoyed widespread adulation, especially in the more progressive circles of the Catholic Church.  The secular media too proved notably fawning inasmuch as he seemed open to modernity and willing to abandon some of the Church’s traditional positions—particularly regarding sexual behavior.  Thus Actress Jane Fonda said:  “‘Gotta love new Pope.  He cares about the poor, hates dogma.’ Actress Salma Hayek, a supporter of abortion rights and gay marriage, asserted, ‘Pope Francis is the best pope that has ever existed.’  Fonda’s ex-husband, the late Tom Hayden, spoke for fellow 1960s radicals when he called the election of Pope Francis ‘the greatest moment in empowering spiritual progressives in decades.’  ‘Francis is on the side of liberation theology, working from within, towards his moment,’ he wrote. ‘His choice is more miraculous, if you will, than the rise of Barack Obama in 2008’” (George Neumayr, Political Pope, p. 25). 

Within a few years, however, conservative Catholics grew concerned with Francis’s off-the-cuff comments, spontaneous phone calls, interviews, and publications.  To understand such concerns, one of the best recent studies is To Change the Church:  Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism  (New York:  Simon & Schuster; Kindle Edition, c. 2018), by Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times.  “This is a book,” he says, “about the most important religious story of our time: the fate of the world’s largest religious institution under a pope who believes that Catholicism can change in ways that his predecessors rejected, and who faces resistance from Catholics who believe the changes he seeks risk breaking faith with Jesus Christ” (#32).  Douthat thinks we face “a hinge moment in the history of Catholicism, a period of theological crisis that’s larger than just the Francis pontificate but whose particular peak under this pope will be remembered, studied, and argued over for as long as the Catholic Church endures—and, if Catholics are right about their church, for as long as this world endures as well” (#113).  

During the past two centuries liberalizing currents have transformed Western Civilization by reshaping its political, economic, and cultural institutions, moulded by an ever-changing “adaptationist, evolutionist spirit.”  Protestant Liberals and Catholic Modernists have insisted Christians should “adapt or die” and proposed a multitude of changes designed to update the ancient faith by constantly revising and transforming its doctrines, making them “into the equivalent of a party’s platform or a republic’s constitution—which is to say, binding for the moment but constantly open to revision based on democratic debate” (p. 10).  It’s no accident that the most liberal segments within the Church are from Germany, still influenced by the Hegelian notion “that God’s revelation was perpetually unfolding in history, and that therefore it was a mistake to consider Catholicism a closed system in which questions were settled permanently. The liberal Protestant line, ‘Never put a period where God has put a comma,’ was the basic presupposition for this liberal Catholicism as well.  Nothing, save Christ’s divinity and not necessarily even that, could be closed to debate, and the message that the church was called to preach in one era might be very different in the next” (pp. 151-152).  As the decades rolled by virtually all the popes (most notably Pius IX and Benedict XV) have battled such currents, determined to conserve the “faith once delivered to the saints.”  But there has always been a determined faction within the Church working to modernize her—to essentially embrace the Liberalism emergent in mainline Protestant denominations.  To them, invoking “the Spirit of Vatican II,” getting a progressive pope would at last bring the Church into the modern age.  And with the current Pope Francis they may well have found, Dothan believes, the right man “to change the church.”  

Devotees of changing the Church constantly invoke the “spirit of Vatican II.”  Since both John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought to diplomatically implement their understanding of the council’s declarations, they avoided waging “a comprehensive war on modernism,” preferring to exhort the faithful and modestly reform the bureaucracy.  But liberals, waiting in the wings, saw their “era as a kind of temporary conservative coup, in which they had lost the levers of power but hadn’t lost anything permanent. After all, what one coup could accomplish another could eventually undo” (p. 25).  They blithely ignored the obvious:  “In the heartland of ‘spirit of Vatican II’ Catholicism, the Northern European nations whose theologians contributed so much to the council’s liberal voice, the church’s collapse was swift, steep, and stunning” (p. 27).  Scheming to overhaul the Church in modernist ways, they’ve engineered her suicide!  

Their opportunity came when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in 2013.  “That night, by interesting coincidence, a bolt of lightning struck the Vatican” (p. 45).  A small group of progressive German and Belgium clerics (known as the “St. Gallen mafia”) looked for a candidate who would be amenable to their designs.  They found “a plausible candidate” in Jorge Bergoglio, the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires.  Coming of age when liberation theology infatuated many Latin Americans, Bergoglio seemed to share the cabal’s commitment to “a synthesis between gospel faith and political activism, with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as a blueprint for social revolution instead of Das Kapital.”  As Pope, Francis, granted Gustavo Gutiérrez, “one of the godfathers of liberation theology,” a private audience and later featured him “as a key speaker at a Vatican event” (p. 68).  Alleviating poverty, not salvation from sin, became the Gospel!  Unlike Benedict XVI, Bergoglio was an activist.  “‘Hagan lío!’” he liked to say to young people.  It was a colloquial phrase—translated as ‘Shake things up!’  ‘Make noise!’ or ‘Make a mess!’ or even ‘Raise hell!’”  His St. Gallen supporters saw in him “hints of their own worldview in his focus on poverty and social justice, his seeming weariness with certain culture war battles, and his decentralizing instincts” (p. 60).

Following his election, Bergoglio certainly sought to “shake things up.”  He discarded some of the dress, residence, formality and symbolism of the papacy, portraying himself as an accessible, transparent man of the people.   He also sought to transform the image of the Church, frequently saying “that he wanted the church to resemble ‘a field hospital after battle,’ in which the most important thing is to bind up open wounds, to use mercy as a medicine, before offering the patient a meticulous blueprint for full health” (p. 66).  Such mercy was especially needed, he thought, in dealing with sex and marriage, as was evident in the prominence he gave to one of the St. Gallen mafia, Cardinal Walter Kasper, “Ratzinger’s old intellectual rival,” who had “recently written a book on the theology of mercy.”  Though Kasper reinforced many of the Church’s traditional teachings, “in the crucial passages” he proposed a novel “penitential path,” opening the way for “divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion” (p. 82). 

To consider this issue, Pope Francis called for a synod on “the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world.”  A preliminary, “extraordinary” synod met in 2014 beginning with an address by Cardinal Kasper.  Discussions ensued which were summarized in an unofficial relatio that gained considerable attention.  “Gone was the language of mortal sin and moral absolutes; gone were phrases like ‘adultery’ and ‘living in sin.’  It seemed to suggest that “the twenty-first-century church would recognize and celebrate the virtues of second marriages and second unions and cohabitation even as it continued to teach that they fell short of Catholicism’s official marital ideal” (p. 107).  The 2015 Ordinary Synod considered the positions advanced in the earlier synod, leading to the publication of the pope’s official teaching in Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love.”  It generally reasserted traditional Church teaching, but   in the section devoted to “Catholics in irregular relationships” it was not at all clear where the pope stood. 

What was clear was Francis’s apparently intentional ambiguity.  Whereas John Paul II had strongly opposed situational ethics, Francis seemed to invoke hard cases calling for relaxation of behavioral rules.  So he “piled up lists of mitigating factors that could make an apparent mortal sin less serious.  Where John Paul II had insisted that even in difficult circumstances the moral law is never impossible to follow, Francis discussed all the ways in which family turmoil and personal psychology and the exigencies of modern life could make the moral law seem either too hard to comprehend or too difficult to obey.”  To turn from John Paul’s Veritatus Splendor to Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, one conclude “that Francis wasn’t so much developing John Paul’s thought as arguing with it” (p. 130).  

Apparently Francis is reviving the “contextual” or “situation ethics” that John Paul II so sharply repudiated.  (Illustrating this a Twitter comment posted by one of the pope’s closes advisors, Cardinal Spader, who declared: “Theology is no Mathematics.  2 + 2 in Theology can make 5.  Because it has to do with God and real life of people.”)  It all depends!  Who’s to judge?  The controversial sections in Francis’s papal exhortation sometimes read a bit like the pop psychology of the ‘60s.  “Situation ethics is back,” says Thomas Pauken, author of The Thirty Years War.  “Francis was infected by the virus of 1960s liberalism.”  Thus, almost immediately bishops around the world interpreted the document differently.  Some, such as Robert McElroy in San Diego, authorized remarried Catholics to take communion, leaving the decision on the hands of individuals or priests.  Other bishops invited “to communion any remarried Catholics who felt “‘at peace with God’” (p. 136).  More conservative bishops, such as Charles Chaput in Baltimore, staunchly upheld the Church’s traditional ban.  Given such uncertainty, four prominent, retired cardinals wrote the pope a private letter asking for clarification.  Their letter set four dubia—simple questions—primarily asking “whether Veritatis Splendor’s declaration that ‘circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil . . . into an act “subjectively” good’ had been superseded, and whether the church now taught, as it had not before, that individual consciences could discern ‘legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms’” (p. 143). 

Such sharp disagreements regarding marriage and divorce reveal deep fissions within the Church under Pope Francis.  Whether ruptures or schisms develop only time will tell.  “Other communions have divided very recently over precisely the issues that the pope has pressed to the front of Catholic debates.  And for good reason:  Because these issues, while superficially ‘just’ about sexuality or church discipline, actually cut very deep—to the very bones of Christianity, the very words of Jesus Christ” (p. 182).  The pope is also working to permanently establish his progressive position by eliminating conservatives who dare oppose him.  Thus cardinals George Pell, Gerhard Muller, Robert Sarah and Raymond Burke have been demoted and shunted aside, to be replaced by Francis’s devotees.  

In multifarious ways Francis has indeed changed the Church—most probably for the worse.  Douthat concludes his treatise with a statement in a “sympathetic papal biography” detailing Bergoglio’s Argentine years.  The Jesuit writing the book said:  “As provincial [of the Society of Jesus] he generated divided loyalties:  some groups almost worshipped him, while others would have nothing to do with him, and he would hardly speak to them.  It was an absurd situation.  He is well-trained and very capable, but is surrounded by this personality cult which is extremely divisive.  He has an aura of spirituality which he uses to obtain power.  It will be a catastrophe for the Church to have someone like him in the Apostolic See.  He left the Society of Jesus in Argentina destroyed with Jesuits divided and institutions destroyed and financially broken.  We have spent two decades trying to fix the chaos that the man left us.  ‘Hagan lío!’ Francis likes to say. ‘Make a mess!’ In that much he has succeeded” (p. 207-208).

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In  Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock (Washington:  Regnery Publishing, Kindle Edition, c. 2018) Philip Lawler, a seasoned Catholic journalist specializing in Church affairs, duplicates much of the material found in Douthat’s To Change the Church.  But he is more personally distraught, for “every day (I am exaggerating, but only slightly), the pope issues another reminder that he does not approve of Catholics like me” (p. 43).  Though initially excited by the prospects of a fresh face in the Vatican, it quickly became evident that he was a divisive figure.  This is due to both his “autocratic style of governance and the radical nature of the program that he is relentlessly advancing” (#57).  

The very name Bergoglio chose—Francis—suggested his intent to differentiate himself from his predecessors.  Ironically, for a Jesuit, he chose a name best associated with the beloved Francis of Assisi, famed for his “commitment to simplicity, humility, and wholehearted love for all of God’s creation.  At the same time, it called to mind the message that the great saint had received from God in the church of San Damiano:  ‘Francis, go, rebuild my house, which as you see is in ruins.’”  For more than 1000 years popes selected a name used by a prior popes.  “So when he chose an entirely new name, Pope Francis indicated that he was prepared to strike out in a new direction” (#262).  Determined to discard some of the regalia associated with the papacy, when an “an aide tried to place the traditional mozzetta across his shoulders before his first appearance on the loggia of St. Peter’s, Francis brushed him away testily, declaring that ‘the carnival is over’” (#301).  As such “brash,” ad lib comments proliferated it was initially difficult to discern precisely who he was or what he stood for.  

He publicly presents himself as “kind, soft-spoken, avuncular, uniting rather than dividing. Yet even a cursory reading of the pope’s daily homilies reveals harsh rhetoric, stinging rebukes, and angry denunciations such as we have not heard from a Roman pontiff for generations” (#2578).  He routinely assails  “the ‘Pharisees,’ the ‘doctors of the law,’ and all who were ‘rigid’ in their interpretation of Church teaching. In language that no one expected from a Roman pontiff, he denounced the ‘careerist bishop,’ the ‘sourpuss,’ the ‘smarmy, idolater priest,’ the ‘moralistic quibbler,’ and the ‘people without light: real downers.’  Some members of the flock, it became clear, particularly get under the papal skin—the ‘starched Christian,’ the ‘bubble Christian,’ the ‘long-faced, mournful funeral Christian,’ and the ‘parrot Christian.’  In a particularly vivid rebuke, he accused journalists who report on conflicts and scandals of ‘coprophilia (an ‘abnormal interest in fecal matter’).  Rarely did the pope identify the objects of his ire by name, but from the frequency of his attacks on ‘rigid’ Christians, it seemed clear that he was talking about those who did not accept his calls for change in the Church” (#2547).  Though many of the cardinals who elected him thought he would initiate needed administrative reforms—e.g. ending the “Vatileaks,” cleaning up the Vatican’s financial problems, confronting the sexual-abuse scandals—Francis did little meow than denounce evil-doers.  His words are often impassioned, garnering favorable media coverage, but little action follows.   Indeed he seems to promote and maintain in office some of the very clerics (so long as they are his allies) associated with financial corruption and sexual abuse!  

And as he settled into his office “a pattern emerged of support for causes usually associated with the political Left—environmentalism, disarmament, unrestricted immigration, income redistribution” (#359).  “The Vatican began to organize conferences on immigration reform and climate change.  Twice Francis hosted meetings of ‘popular movements,’ with invitations going out to environmental activists, ethnic separatists, militant feminists, and community organizers—but not to pro-life leaders or defenders of traditional marriage” (#2764).  Throughout the synods on the family, Francis seemed (by virtue of the speakers he chose and the critics he dismissed) to support allowing allowing divorced Catholics to receive communion—though as ever it was hard to know precisely where he stands.  Nevertheless, when bishops in Buenos Aires embraced the liberal position, the pope sent them a private letter, congratulating “his countrymen on their interpretation of his apostolic exhortation, writing that it ‘fully captures the meaning’ of his work. ‘There are no other interpretations,’ he added” (#2071).

Just as there are “no other interpretations” allowed, so too Francis clearly seeks to permanently change the Church.  He has surrounded himself with liberal Jesuits such as Antonio Spader and often meets with Adolfo Nicolas, who was for many years the superior general of the Society of Jesus.  Much of his agenda seems designed to placate “the solidly left-leaning majority” in his order.  “For a pope bent on change, the Jesuits would be a bulwark. And Francis was bent on change” (#2535).

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A far more critical treatise is George Neumayr’s The Political Pope: How Pope Francis Is Delighting the Liberal Left and Abandoning Conservatives (New York:  Center  Street, c. 2017).  “The election of Jorge Bergoglio,” he says, “marked the culmination of the left’s long march through the Church.”  Determined to liberalize the Church, Catholic Leftists are generally labeled Modernists.  A century ago Pope Pius X (in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis) branded their position heretical, warning that they wished retool the faith, making it suitable “to the times in which we live” rather than historical orthodoxy.  “He foresaw a Church that would chase after elite fads, defer to the spurious claims of modern science, bow down to the secularism of the state, treat all religions as equal, cast Jesus Christ as a mere human political activist, reduce priests to social workers, and Protestantize its worship and doctrine” (p. 41).  His fears seem to have come to pass, for they are now manifest in Pope Francis.  

Neumayr begins by reminding readers that both popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI strongly opposed “‘liberation theology,’ a Marxist-inspired ideology disguised as concern for the poor that the Soviet Union’s KGB spies had helped smuggle into Latin America’s Catholic Church in the 1950s.  The movement was born in the KGB, and it had a KGB-invented name:  ‘liberation theology,’ according to Ion Mihai Pacepa, who served as a spymaster for Romania’s secret police in the 1950s and 1960s” (p. 1).  Having suffered Communist oppression in Poland, John Paul II had no illusions regarding its toxicity.  Thus one of his first significant gestures took place when he met Latin American clerics, many of them favoring liberation theology, in Nicaragua in1983.  Seeing Ernesto Cardenal, “a Catholic priest turned Marxist activist” who had violated his vows by joining the “Sandinista government in Nicaragua,” the pope rebuked him, saying:  “‘You must straighten out your position with the Church’”(p. 1).  

Thirty years later, shortly before leaving office in 2013, Pope Benedict XVI warned against “the destructive liberalism that spread within the Church after the council of Vatican II.”  He lamented liberalism’s impact, producing “‘so many problems, so much misery, in reality:  seminaries closed, convents closed, the liturgy was trivialized’” (p. 14)  He could hardly have anticipated that his successor would, in fact, would champion “the very liberal Church he feared” and embody “the very ‘hermeneutic of politics’ he decried” (p. 14).  Thus the current pope—an Argentinian favoring socialism who has declared that “inequality is the root of all evil”— Bergoglio “has generated headlines not for scolding Marxists but for supporting them, not for rebuking liberation theologians but for honoring them.”  He has named “an open socialist,” a Honduran, chairman of the Council of Cardinals.  Francis has said “that liberation theologians have a ‘high concept of humanity’” and publicly praised radicals such as Brazil’s Leonardo Boff and “the founding father of liberation theology, the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez” (p. 3).  When, in 2016, the Jesuits selected, as their general superior they chose (garnering Pope Francis’s blessing) “a Venezuelan, Fr. Arturo Sosa, whose communist sympathies have long been known” and who endorses a “Marxist mediation of the Christian Faith” focused on transforming “the capitalist society into a socialist society” (p. 62).  

In short:  Pope Francis “has emerged as one of the most political popes in the history of the Church.  His left-wing activism is relentless, ranging across causes from the promotion of global warming theory to support for amnesty and open borders to the abolition of lifetime imprisonment.”  And “he is not only championing the radical political agenda of the global left but also subverting centuries-old Catholic teaching on faith and morals” (p. 6).