One hears this theme again and again from critics of Pope Francis. For example, my friend Fr. Peter Stravinskas stated about the pope’s Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, that “he can’t resist broadsides on his real/perceived enemies and goes on the attack”, and he decries “his dismissive attitude toward” the Catholic “Right.” I replied to him as follows:
I don’t see that he is attacking people; rather, false ideas and tendencies. He’d have a long, long way to go to equal the vehemence in which St. Paul criticized the Galatians and Corinthians, or the fiery sarcastic rebukes of our Lord towards the scribes and Pharisees. So I see it as simply following the biblical model.
Such rebukes were controversial then and remain so today because no one likes to be criticized or told they are wrong. It’s almost the cardinal sin in our current postmodern secular society.
I don’t view the Holy Father as “against” myself or anyone else as people. I see him as on my side: telling me hard truths and timeless truths in a fresh way.
Carl Olsen, in his critique of the same document (that I critiqued in turn) criticized Pope Francis for taking “pleasure in ‘taking aim’ at Catholics” whom he thinks are “too dogmatic, rigid, and focused on liturgy.” Olson thinks this is “a shame.”
Reactionary Steve Skojec over at One Vader Five (utterly unaware of the comedic irony) bashes the pope mercilessly with regard to Gaudete et Exsultate and chides him like a bratty child because he (so he cynically spins it) “mocks faithful priests, scorns the faithful who are concerned with following Church teaching as ‘rigid’ or ‘Pharisees’ or ‘Neo-Pelagians’ or ‘doctors of the law'” and he detests “the latest papal outrage of the day” and “needless degradations we’ve come to expect from our papal chastisement.”
Examples could be multiplied indefinitely. This is a major and ongoing complaint / theme of both the papal bashers like Skojec, Lawler, Douthat, and Sire, and the “papal nitpickers” like Olsen and many others. So I got to thinking “analogically” (as is my wont). I did so above, in my reference to St. Paul and Jesus. It is beyond question that Paul habitually used far more — exponentially more — “harsh” or supposedly “condemning” language than Pope Francis ever has used, or likely ever will.
Why is this such an issue, then? After all, the pope is the head of the One True Church and successor to St. Peter. St. Paul was an apostle and premier evangelist in the apostolic Church, and everything I will cite from him is enshrined in the inspired revelation of God: the New Testament.
Moreover, Paul — like Pope Francis — was almost always communicating to Christians in his epistles. He was usually writing to churches, after all, or to individual Christians like Timothy. And he was often scathingly critical, complete with (sometimes) sarcasm and stern rebukes. One of my Facebook friends, Mateus de Castro, expressed the “papal prerogative” very well:
It’s part of the obligation of his office. People spend a lot of time demanding “condemnations”. They just hate it when the Pope is condemning something they agree with. Then they want a quiet Pope.
What is apparently lost today is to respect the Holy Father and reflect on why he has rebuked (it’s hardly a ‘condemnation’) some behavior that they agree with. Gone are the days when people would hear the Pope and judge their own behavior based on what he is teaching. Now they are all more Catholic than the Pope and want to teach him why the Holy Spirit put him there in the first place. Strange times indeed.
The quickest way to find “stern rebuking Paul” is in his treatment of the Galatian Christians (all passages RSV):
Galatians 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel
Galatians 3:1-3 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?  Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?
Galatians 4:9b . . . how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more?
Galatians 5:4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
Galatians 5:7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?
Then there is this “notorious” passage (a famous example among Bible students, of extreme sarcasm used by St. Paul):
Galatians 5:11-12 But if I, brethren, still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the stumbling block of the cross has been removed.  I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!
A reader of mine, Robert H. Woodman, commented on it:
St. Paul could be rather rough with people at times. In Galatians 5:12, he expresses the sarcastic wish that the Judaizers would not stop at cutting off the foreskin but would go all the way to complete emasculation. Can you imagine the brouhaha if Pope Francis expressed a similar thought regarding his critics? The reactionaries might die of apoplexy.
The Corinthians (highly influenced by the Greek pagan culture that surrounded them) receive arguably even harsher treatment. Paul virtually mocks them in a fabulously sarcastic tirade (but note the very gentle, fatherly ending):
1 Corinthians 4:6-16 I have applied all this to myself and Apol’los for your benefit, brethren, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.  For who sees anything different in you? What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?  Already you are filled! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!  For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men.  We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.  To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless,  and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure;  when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.  I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.  For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  I urge you, then, be imitators of me.
He repeatedly “lays into” and scolds the Corinthians; lets ’em have it (in chapter after chapter)! Does anyone think it would be “warm fuzzy” fun to hear such words as the following?:
1 Corinthians 1:10-15 I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.  For it has been reported to me by Chlo’e’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren.  What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apol’los,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?  I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Ga’ius;  lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name.1 Corinthians 3:1-4 But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready,  for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men?  For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apol’los,” are you not merely men?
1 Corinthians 5:1-2, 6 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife.  And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. . . .  Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
1 Corinthians 6:1-10, 15-20 When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?  Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life!  If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the church?  I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood,  but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?  To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?  But you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that even your own brethren.  Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts,  nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. . . .  Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!  Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.”  But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.  Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body.  Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own;  you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 28-30 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.  For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it,  for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.  When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.  For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk.  What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. . . .  Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
I trust that my point is amply made by now. And certainly I need not recount Jesus’ extremely harsh treatment of the scribes and Pharisees, who opposed Him. Moreover, our Lord Jesus calls all seven assemblies of Revelation “churches” (2:1; 2:8; 2:12; 2:18; 3:1; 3:7; 3:14; along with the repetition of “what the Spirit says to the churches” in 2:7 and similar passages), yet excoriates several of them in no uncertain terms (2:4-5; 2:14-16; 2:20-22; 3:1-3; 3:15-18). Even if we say that His harshest words were directed towards the non-Christian scribes and Pharisees, we still have the seven churches of Revelation.
Those who are grumbling and complaining today would certainly have also done so after receiving one of St. Paul’s rather harsh letters of spiritual guidance. Human nature is always the same. St. Paul warned against this tendency, too:
Philippians 2:14-15 Do all things without grumbling or questioning,  that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,
2 Timothy 2:23-25 Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing,  correcting his opponents with gentleness. . . .
It was the same in Old Testament times, too: constant grumbling and complaining: against Moses, against God, about food, etc. The common biblical (and rather delightful) description of this never-satisfied rebelliousness is “stiff-necked.”
Heaven help us from the widespread attitude we see among Catholics today, with regard to Pope Francis. I can think of nothing better to conclude this scriptural study than St. James’ words:
James 3:1-18 (whole chapter) Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.  For we all make many mistakes, and if any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also.  If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies.  Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind,  but no human being can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish?  Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.  Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.  This wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.  And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Photo credit: Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (bet. 1618-1620), attributed to Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]