My position has not changed in the last nine months. On 1 December 2016 I wrote a post entitled, “Pope Francis: Please Answer Cardinal Burke Et Al.” My reasoning was fairly simple and straightforward. Summarized, it was as follows:
1. “This is a big reason why we have the pope in the Church: to give the ‘final say’ at times, when it is sorely needed.
2. It’s always better to clarify than not to, in instances of confusion (a well-known phenomenon from my own long experience as an author and apologist). Probably good would come from answering, and probably only bad from not answering.
3. Failure to do so will foster mischief and exploitation from dissidents: “those who have nefarious heterodox intent . . . will exploit any confusion or (rightly or wrongly) perceived ‘loopholes’ as a license to depart from true Catholic practice, just as they did with Vatican II and the reform of the Mass.”
Twelve days later came my post, “Is Pope Francis a Heretic?” I was not asserting that he was (if anything, the opposite). It was simply a provocative (and rhetorical) title. In this piece, my argument was much more subtle and far too specific to be given to quick summary. But my conclusion provides the general thrust of the paper:
[T]he pope (or at least a high-ranking Cardinal in effect speaking “for” him) needs to clarify, and the sooner the better. The longer the current confusion continues on, the worse it gets. It’s now scandalous. Soon it will be outright disastrous, leading to defections into quasi-schismatic radical reactionary Catholicism or out of Catholicism altogether (similar to an early 70s scenario of mass defection).
I’m quite willing to give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt, and wait and see until more “certain” statements are made. Many others, I think unfortunately, are not so unassuming, and therein lies the widening troublesome situation that we now face, until this is definitively resolved. The more uncertainty we have, the more we will have undue and unedifying speculation, detraction, gossip, calumny, and slander taking place in our beloved social media.
And that is not good . . .
Vigorous Facebook discussion ensued. Some comments that stood out, and with which I fully agreed, were these:
He’s not a heretic. He’s bafflingly recalcitrant about clarifying the nature of his orthodoxy. (Scott Eric Alt)
One of the problems, I think, is that Francis has made it quite clear that he’s not a theologian or “into” theology, doctrine, etc. I don’t think he’s a heretic at all, but I do think he’s hazy, fuzzy, or otherwise obtuse about many important things. (Carl E. Olson)
The problem is that there are bishops who choose to read into more than what it is there to justify their position: either to ignore prior Catholic teaching most recently authoritatively taught in the Encyclicals of Pope St. John Paul II which can and do define and clarify Catholic teaching or to uncharitably give Amoris Laetitia more weight than it has to undermine Pope Francis’ authority. . . . I do believe the dubia should be answered by Pope Francis, not because he is wrong, but because others are using his teaching to reach a plethora of conclusions on Catholic moral teaching which conflict with each other. (Paul Hoffer)
I added a few semi-new thoughts (breaks below signify a separate utterance):
[Pope Francis] is the servant of the servants of God, and so he is our servant, too. This includes being a shepherd and answering sincere, well-meaning questions: just as Jesus did when He explained the parables (difficult to understand) to His disciples, but not to the more skeptical masses. If he answered to no one but God, that would render silly and irrelevant the famous rebukes of the pope by St. Dominic, St. Francis, St. Catherine, and indeed, the Church as a whole, in the case of Pope John XXII and the Beatific Vision.
I don’t claim to know all the fine details. That’s why we have popes, theologians, and canon lawyers. But I know enough to know that clarification is desperately needed.
One wonders why he doesn’t [clarify]. I wonder, but at the same time, I think public speculation about that is unseemly and unedifying, so I don’t get into it.
There is nothing wrong with seeking clarification from the pope. It is the judgments that folks make while doing that, that are sometimes excessive and wrong. I have not judged him. I’m simply calling for clarification from the supreme teacher of the Church.
There are lots of sites where it is assumed that Pope Francis is a terrible heretic and he is bashed day in and day out. Mine is not one of them.
My job is to defend Church teachings. Following all of these internal issues of the Church is the job of the Catholic journalist. I’ve had this dispute with [Catholic journalist] Jay McNally for years. He wants me to be a journalist. I’m not. I’m an apologist. There are lots of journalists out there (and even more who mostly write about politics). Being an apologist is a far more specialized field.
The last thing on this topic that I wrote was “Pope Francis and the Present Controversy: My Position” (1-22-17 on Facebook). Here I stressed that I am my own man, and can always be counted on for a frank, open statement of my opinion on any given issue (“I’ve never been muzzled before and have never been scared to say anything I want to say. It’s not like anyone controls me. I’m self-employed . . . “). I reiterated my general opinion:
I don’t believe he is a heretic (a charge being freely slung around in many circles now). I’m watching very closely what is happening, and hoping and praying for a decisive resolution by the pope before it really gets out of hand.
Then I got into matters of propriety and prudence; when and how to criticize a pope, if it is absolutely necessary:
It’s also true at the same time, that in such serious matters regarding popes, one must exercise great prudence and propriety. I wrote on 1-29-15 on Facebook:
My position is that they should be accorded the proper respect of their office and criticized rarely, by the right people, in the right spirit, preferably in private Catholic venues, and for the right (and super-important) reasons. Virtually none of those characteristics hold for most of the people moaning about the pope day and night these days.
On 11-16-16, in the lengthy thread here concerning Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia, and confusions in its interpretation, I wrote, echoing the constant and consistent theme of my 26 years as a Catholic:
Even if one were to grant that there may be serious errors in Amoris Laetitia and/or in its pastoral application, it is far better (prudentially) to deal with it privately, rather than in melodramatic public fashion.
See also my Facebook post of 11-17-16: “My position has never been that popes cannot be criticized, or even in extreme cases, rebuked (or that they could never be heretics).”
Nothing has fundamentally changed in my opinion since that time. I have basically taken a “wait and see” approach. I am, however, definitely increasingly alarmed at the ever-growing number of people asking the pope to clarify, and at his total refusal to do so, and at some of his actions (especially dismissals of people) that appear to be imperious and expressive of a dislike even of respectful honest disagreements.
National Catholic Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin, in his article about the Filial Correction, noted how many times numbers of Catholics have called for clarification of the application of Amoris Laetitia:
This is the sixth major initiative in which both clergy and laity have expressed concerns about the Pope’s teaching, particularly emanating from Amoris Laetitia. Despite the repeated pleas and warnings of chaos and confusion, Francis has refused to respond or acknowledge the initiatives which are as follows, in chronological order:
- In September 2015, just ahead of the second Synod on the Family, a petition of nearly 800,000 signatures from individuals and associations around the world including 202 prelates was presented to Pope Francis, calling on him to issue words of clarity on the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. The signatories, from 178 countries, expressed concern about “widespread confusion” arising from the possibility that “a breach” had been opened within the Church at the previous synod.
- In July 2016, a group of 45 Catholic scholars, prelates and clergy sent an appeal to the College of Cardinals asking that they petition Pope Francis to “repudiate” what they saw as “erroneous propositions” contained in Amoris Laetitia. They said the apostolic exhortation contains “a number of statements that can be understood in a sense that is contrary to Catholic faith and morals.”
- On Sept. 19, 2016, four cardinals — Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, and Joachim Meisner — presented the Pope with dubia, five questions on disputed passages of Amoris Laetitia with the aim of obtaining clarification and resolving confusion over diverse interpretations of the controversial passages among various bishops and episcopal conferences. The Pope did not acknowledge the dubia, nor did he respond to the cardinals’ request for an audience in May.
- In February this year, confraternities representing thousands of priests worldwide issued a statement saying a clarification of Amoris Laetitia was “clearly needed” in the wake of “widespread” differing interpretations of the apostolic exhortation. They also thanked the four cardinals for submitting the dubia.
- In April this year, six lay scholars from different parts of the world held a conference in Rome in which they drew attention to the same controversial passages of Amoris Laetitia, showing the extent of concern and unease among the laity over the papal document and its interpretation.
I think all that is significant and alarming, and that the pope’s utter refusal to answer is troublesome. Many Catholics (including many bishops and priests) are clearly confused and virtually begging for guidance. Why would the shepherd of the sheep resolutely refuse to try to help them: even on a private basis, if he prefers that? It’s baffling to me.
Nevertheless, I won’t sit here and bash the pope and speculate about all kinds of possible nefarious motives, like virtually all the reactionary sites do, many traditionalist sites, and now, increasingly, (non-traditionalist) Catholic venues and individual writers. I will wait for bishops and orthodox theologians and canon lawyers (like Dr. Edward Peters), and (hopefully) Pope Francis himself to clear up this mess and growing scandal. Confusion within the Church doesn’t help our witness to the world one bit.
I figured people would be asking me about this and wondering about my own position: especially since I have been a staunch defender of Pope Francis in a book and also a compilation of 274 “positive” articles. What I have to say is essentially what I have already said: hence, my quotations of my past statements.
In any event, I’m in no way any sort of “answer man” on this issue, or even remotely qualified to offer opinions regarding such fine details of canon law, pastoral application, and authoritative magisterial teaching. I repeat that such clarification will have to come from bishops, canon lawyers, and expert orthodox Catholic academics, and ultimately (I hope and pray, please Lord!) from the Holy Father himself.
I will not countenance for a second any “bashfest” against the pope on my blog or Facebook page. But I will keep my readers posted on what I consider any important developments in this crisis. I’ll be watching it very closely.
For related reading, see also: “Papal Answers Would Only Help Resolve the Growing Crisis.”
Photo credit: Image depicting confusion or chaos [Max Pixel / Creative Commons Zero – CC0 license]