Folks Willing to Understand Pope Francis, Can; Unwilling Won’t

Folks Willing to Understand Pope Francis, Can; Unwilling Won’t June 27, 2019

This is from  Facebook post of mine, dated 1-18-14. The original proverb I defended was: “Those who are willing to understand Pope Francis, can and will do so. Those who aren’t willing, won’t, and possibly can’t as well.” I stand by this, now over five years later, and after now having defended Pope Francis literally 133 times. The original contained much back-and-forth, but for brevity’s sake, I have included only my own comments. The entire exchange can be read on Facebook. It included Todd Aglialoro: editor of four of my books (including three of my four bestsellers in the field), and currently editor for Catholic Answers.


With the media (in America, anyway) we can be assured that by and large they are ignorant of the Catholic faith and/or have an active agenda against it, including a huge wish for a heterodox pope that they can exalt to the skies.


This was directed mostly [but not solely] towards theological liberals / modernists / dissidents, who don’t want to hear Catholic truths that they don’t like, not to folks who are genuinely confused. I was excoriating willful rebellion: the will. Someone who wills to understand and follow, but is confused, is another matter. It’s also a variation on “seek and ye shall find.” And as with all proverbial statements, by nature they admit of genuine exceptions to the rule.


There’s only one papal statement that I’m aware of, that puzzled me, that I found difficult, but I sought to understand it by further inquiry. Why should we expect that we would instantly understand everything a pope says, anyway? He’s supposed to stretch us and make us squirm a bit.

The one that confused me was Pope Francis’ remarks about Mary at the foot of the Cross,  but I believe I have a fair understanding of it and can defend it (so it’s no longer a problem for me, though, of course, I won’t persuade everyone). Here is my blog paper on that. It took me 2-3 hours to figure it out to my own satisfaction, and I say that many others could have done so, too, with minimal searching skills and a decent familiarity with Catholic theology and the Bible.

But it’s the underlying attitude of faith which is key: do we trust that God knows what He is doing through His vicar or not? Or will we question and doubt and criticize at every turn, which is the hallmark of the radical Catholic reactionary that I’ve been critiquing for 17 years online?


My “proverb” was directed towards the will, not the mind. So I was saying that if folks don’t “want” to understand, they won’t. But that’s not an exclusive or all-inclusive category. I also said that I had mainly in mind the dissenters, who are willfully (which could even be subconsciously or unconsciously) not trying to understand the pope in light of precedent and tradition.

Every “proverb” or saying will be interpreted differently, because they are short, yet contain a lot of meaning. All one can do is clarify, and I have done so here.


The dissidents / modernists / theological liberals / heterodox like him, but they don’t properly understand, and make him into their own image. The fundamental issue with the dissident lies in the will: rebellion, lack of the supernatural grace of faith. So they “won’t” mostly because they choose not to, and “possibly can’t” because they shut off the avenues of grace needed to understand Christian truths by the same rebellion of the will.


I don’t claim that in every instance someone doesn’t understand, it is a problem of will. As explained several times now, I think that applies (very often) to dissidents, but not to those trying to understand. To note that the will is a problem in some folks is not the same as saying it is the universal explanation. Every apologist knows as well as the sun coming up tomorrow, that the will is often a problem in unbelief or not understanding (see, e.g., Romans 1). That’s not arguable. So all that can be said is that it isn’t universal, which I readily agree with, so there is really no disagreement here, once I explained what I meant.

I also noted that I was trying to figure out one thing the pope said, too. Thus, if my intent were to universalize a “willful dissent” I’d be condemning myself. No! There are genuine questions within an overall attitude of faith and obedience, and there is willful dissent. I think those who exercise faith and diligence will come to understand most things if they seek and study and learn. So there is a time element, too. “Seek and ye shall find.” That takes time: sometimes a lot of time. We converts are very familiar with that process.


My proverb would be directed to both liberals and radical Catholic reactionaries: the types who trash the pope regularly. Names of those folks (the latter group) would be, e.g., The Remnant, Catholic Family News, Rorate Caeli, One Peter Five, aka Catholic, Lifesite News: all radical Catholic reactionary groups or sites. I don’t follow theological liberals by name much at all, but it would be the ones who have “co-opted” and distorted his teachings on homosexuality or contraception or abortion. We know there are millions of Catholics or “Catholics” like that.

Rorate Caeli bashed and trashed the pope literally within hours of his taking office. And it turns out that their main source in Argentina is a Holocaust denier.

The liberals like him because they make him into their own image. Even Hans Kung, for heaven’s sake, likes Pope Francis, and compares him to Pope St. John XXIII. Both things were entirely predictable, for those of us who have observed their antics through the years.

Reactionaries don’t like him because they falsely think he is a liberal, too, so both sides make the same error, but one likes the myth that he is supposedly modernist, and the other decries it. We observe  wishful thinking, rationalizations, co-opting for nefarious causes, special pleading, being oblivious to background and current contexts . . .

The truth is that he is perfectly orthodox, but merely striking in style and presentation, which is a lot like Jesus and Paul. And that’s why I love this pope, as I have the previous two. I rejoice that people are different and that we’re not all clones of each other.


I didn’t say he was perfect. I assume he is holy, being pope, but it’s not necessarily the case (lots of “bad popes”). We have happened to have extraordinary popes for some 200 years now.

What is “clearly in error”? “Confusing” could be such for a variety of reasons . . . People are highly confused by many things in the Bible. Believe me, I know, as an apologist who deals with such questions all the time. It is unfounded to say he’s a liberal. I’ve seen no compelling, irrefutable evidence that he is. [and it remains my opinion, now over five years later] If I thought the pope couldn’t be defended I would say so and wouldn’t try to do it, but I think he can be.

You sit there and judge the pope as a modernist who doesn’t know tradition from a hole in the ground? . . . who makes “at least one screwball comment that can’t be reconciled with the tradition of the Church” in virtually every public utterance? That’s ridiculous.

I went through this with Pope St. John Paul II. Then we got a reprieve with Pope Benedict XVI because even the radical Catholic reactionaries loved him [but alas, now they don’t because he resigned, and hasn’t condemned Pope Francis]. Now we’re back to it again. History is cyclical . . .


The leading theologians of Jesus’ and Paul’s time were almost “universally concerned” about Jesus, too, and concluded that He was a compulsive liar, deceiver, and demon-possessed. Almost all of Pope St. Paul VI’s theological advisors told him not to write Humanae Vitae. He did, anyway. The bishops and theologians massively dissented from it after he wrote it. Sometimes popes can feel very much alone.


This is what apologists do. If I can defend the pope, I do. I’ve never had any internal conflicts doing so, thus far (23 years as a Catholic, and 20 as an apologist). I’m honored and privileged to be able to do it. I didn’t even bash popes when I was a Protestant. I had far more respect for them, then, than many Catholics do today.


By “pope-bashing” I don’t mean any criticism whatever of the pope (which is fine), but constant, obsessive, arrogant, idiotic bashing day in and day out, over virtually anything the pope says or does.


Critics of Pope Francis love to caricature what I’m saying as “Papolatry”: as if I am saying no one can ever criticize a pope (wrong) or ever disagree with him (wrong). I’ve had articles about possible dissent against or rebukes of popes for 17 years on my site (yet I have to explain this elementary thing over and over because reactionaries falsely accuse me). But such rebukes should be relatively rare, ultra-respectful, and preferably from saints and Doctors like St. Francis, St. Catherine, and St. Dominic. St. Thomas Aquinas taught exactly that, as was noted on this page a few days back.


It’s one thing to say, “I don’t understand x that the pope said . . .” (I’m like that myself with regard to one statement that I’ve seen); quite another to issue highly judgmental, condemnatory blanket statements.

No one has been more misunderstood than Jesus and Paul, yet that was God’s will that their words are in the Bible as is. I say, let him talk as he will, but I agree that if something is misunderstood, it would be a net gain and helpful for him to say, “I didn’t mean that; I meant this” [hence, I argued on National Catholic Register that it would be good for him to answer the Dubia]– and put it to bed . . .


If I don’t understand something in theology (speaking generally), that’s not a crisis for me. I see that as the normal human condition (not everyone knows everything, nor should they expect to).

Why anyone would think they have to understand every jot and tittle of what the pope says is beyond me. Major issues: yeah, that is normal to want to understand, but everything? And if we don’t it’s a personal and possibly an ecclesiological / spiritual crisis? Nuh-uh. That ultimately gets to issues of whether we have a simple faith and trust in God, Who guides His Church, or not.

Blessedly, I haven’t run across any major “conflict” or unresolvable “problem” yet in 23 years of Catholic apologetics. That’s what makes me all the more confident in the Church and Christianity itself. The last time I couldn’t solve “big” problems, I was an evangelical Protestant, and the result of that was to move to a Christian communion where those unsolvable problems weren’t present anymore (Catholicism). That’s how I reacted when I could no longer harmonize Church history (development) or moral theology (especially contraception) with Protestantism, or, for that matter, with the anti-Catholic brand of Orthodoxy, either.


Photo credit: Denise Krebs (4-3-15) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment