Sad Case Study in Taking the Holy Father’s Words Out of Context and Indefensibly Misrepresenting Them
Few things make me sadder than observing respected fellow apologists and other Catholic figures (in this case, even a personal mentor) descending onto the fashionable bandwagon of pope-bashing, and doing so in a way that is embarrassingly fact-free and equally lacking in both charity and reasonableness.
I shall be eternally grateful to Fr. Peter Stravinskas for giving me my first big break in Catholic apologetics. He was gracious and kind enough to receive (from someone he didn’t know from Adam) and look at some of my early clumsily typewritten articles of apologetics, in the first two years after my conversion, in 1992 at a Defending the Faith Conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. This culminated in my first published article in a paper magazine: “The Real Martin Luther” in The Catholic Answer (then edited by Fr. Peter): Jan / Feb. 1993 issue.
Five more of my articles were published in the same magazine up through 1998, and Fr. Peter has graciously provided favorable reviews of several of my books since then. So I have a soft spot for him (especially as a fellow St. Cardinal Newman devotee), but beyond that, I really like his own apologetics materials as well, which have been of great benefit to orthodox Catholics. None of that changes with this critique.
That said (and sincerely meant), I have to respectfully disagree with his ultra-negative views of Pope Francis. Once again, I think it is a distressingly common case of an otherwise brilliant man and great apologist falling into this trap of a sort of semi-bigotry against a sitting pope. The ordinary Christian extension of charity and benefit of the doubt seem to fall by the wayside. It’s an unfortunate phenomenon, but one often observed in many otherwise pious and talented Catholic individuals.
Too often (all of us have done this at one time or another), someone gets on our “bad side” for some reason and then everything that person says or does is henceforth viewed through a jaded lens or “pre-filter”: giving it the worst possible “slant.” He or she is put into a “box.” Heaven forbid that any of us fall into this serious shortcoming without repenting of it. We need to always think the best of other people, not the worst (according to 1 Corinthians 13 and many other passages): all the more when a pope is involved.
I should like to examine a few examples of this ill treatment of Pope Francis at the hands of Fr. Peter Stravinskas. He wrote an article, “Papal pokes in priestly eyes” published by The Catholic World Report on 11 April 2021. It’s a relentlessly critical virtual tirade against Pope Francis. He laments what he describes as “the constant negativity directed to us priests by the present Pope.” I don’t intend to deal with every jot and tittle of it, but rather, just a few outlandish examples (which more than suffice to establish the critique I am making).
Fr. Peter made a reference to seminarians and observed: “why would a young man find inspiration in a man who had even called seminarians ‘little monsters’?” This immediately raised a red flag in my mind. Surely it was humorous or semi-humorous remark or had some acceptable (qualified) meaning in context, no? So I thought. And sure enough, it was an instance of the latter. It was not a blanket statement, to the effect that all seminarians are “little monsters” (which is the impression Fr. Peter leaves with the reader: most of whom won’t go “check it out” as I did). The Holy Father was referring specifically to potential dangers in bad formation; to poorly trained priests who then might become “little monsters.” Here are the remarks in context:
Francis also warned against accepting men for the priesthood who may have been implicated in sexual abuse or other problems, saying the protection of the Catholic faithful is most important.
The pontiff made the comments Nov. 29  during a closed-door meeting of 120 superiors of religious orders who gathered at the Vatican for their regular assembly. On Friday, the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica provided a report of the three-hour, informal question and answer session. . . .
Francis, who headed the Jesuits’ novice training program in his native Argentina in the 1970s, also warned the superiors of some of the failings of seminary training, or “formation,” such as when would-be priests merely “grit their teeth, try not to make mistakes, follow the rules smiling a lot, just waiting for the day when they are told ‘Good, you have finished formation.”
“This is hypocrisy that is the result of clericalism, which is one of the worst evils,” Francis was quoted as saying, returning to the issue of clericalism — or a certain cronyism and careerism among the men of the cloth — that he has frequently criticized.
The training of priests, he said, must be a “work of art, not a police action.”
“We must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps,” he was quoted as saying. (“Pope Francis Warns Poorly Trained Priests Can Become ‘Little Monsters’”, CathNews USA, 1-4-14)
There is nothing wrong with that at all. It was a critique of overly clerical seminary training: lacking an emphasis on the heart and soul. It was a piece of “if [bad thing] x, then [resulting bad thing] y . . .”: with x being poor seminary training and y being the flawed “product” of a poor priest or (graphically expressed) a “little monster.” This sort of reasoning is rather common in Holy Scripture:
Genesis 20:7 (RSV) . . . But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you, and all that are yours.
Exodus 8:2 But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will plague all your country with frogs;
Numbers 32:23 But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD; and be sure your sin will find you out.
Deuteronomy 8:19 And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish.
Matthew 6:23 (. . . if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. . . .
Luke 16:12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?
Fr. Peter then goes on to make a false equation that the pope did not make, then follows up with an analogy which is yet another false equation and distortion of what Pope Francis actually teaches.:
This Pope has a “hang-up” on a strong priestly identity, which he equates with “clericalism” (which is indeed a flaw as it seeks privilege rather than offering service).
[footnote: This is similar to his constant condemnation of “proselytism” (which he fails to distinguish from “evangelization”).]
The pope made no such one-on-one equivalence of “strong priestly identity” and “clericalism.” Rather, he specifically warned about and condemned “the failings of seminary training” which is “hypocrisy that is the result of clericalism.” Fr. Peter agrees that clericalism is a serious error, so we need not belabor that point. He errs in connecting two things that have no such relationship in the pope’s mind, because the Holy Father was critiquing poor seminary training (and God knows he is right that much reform of the seminaries is desperately needed): not priestly identity itself. All Fr. Peter had to do was read the context. But predisposition against someone leads to such grievous errors of judgment.
The analogy of alleged equation of “proselytism” and “evangelization” is even worse. This is a falsehood often annoyingly repeated about Pope Francis in many quarters, that has no basis whatsoever. It’s pure misrepresentation of what he has taught; a caricature and straw man; a twisting of his words and thoughts. I hate to use such strong language, but it’s abundantly justified. I’ve dealt with it no less than eight times [one / two / three / four / five / six / seven / eight]: this nonsense that Pope Francis supposedly opposes evangelism and/or apologetics, convert-making and proclaiming the gospel, and collapses all such efforts into an unsavory “proselytism.”
He does not! He is strongly criticizing only a proselytism which is a distortion of true evangelism: a smarter-than-thou, condescending, overbearing and obnoxious approach that does more harm than good. As an apologist, lo these past forty years (both as a Protestant and Catholic), I am very grateful to see such observations, having seen times without number in my own experience, Christians doing evangelism the wrong way, to the quite possible detriment of souls, and blown opportunities.
I move onto the next distortion of the pope’s words from Fr. Peter:
The third “poke in the eye” came when Francis gave an audience to the student-priests from the Filipino College, in celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the institution and the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of the Philippines. In the course of the address,3 the Pope cautioned them not “to take flight in an ‘ideal’ past” (in other words, don’t be “conservative”).
[Footnote 3: Oddly the talk is available only in Italian and Spanish – no English, even though that is surely the lingua franca of the Philippines.]
Fr. Peter’s article was published four days ago, as I write. Now maybe it was just put up, but I quickly found an English copy of the talk (from 3-22-21) on The Holy See website. This allows us to actually consult the all-important context and to see, once again, that it is nothing like Fr. Peter’s jaded attempted equivalence between harmless, winsome remarks on pondering the past and being a “conservative”. In context, it is no such thing. Here is that context:
As we reflect on these anniversaries, I would like to share with you some thoughts about time. Our life takes shape in time and time is itself a God-given gift, to be used responsibly to express our gratitude to him, to do good works and to look to the future with hope. . . .
First, let us reflect on the past, the history that is part of every individual and every life. Going back in time, even centuries, as we are doing for the birth of the Church in the Philippines, is like returning in memory, retracing the footsteps of those who came before us, to the very origins of your faith, with a sense of gratitude and wonder for all that you have received. Every anniversary is an opportunity to flick through our “family album”, to remember where we come from and the experiences of faith and the testimonies to the Gospel that have made us who we are today. Memory. A “Deuteronomic” memory; a memory that is always at the basis of daily life. The memory of the journey made so far … “Remember, be mindful”, said Moses in Deuteronomy. “Remember past times, the graces of God, do not forget”. Remember your roots. Paul said to Timothy: “Remember your mother, your grandmother”. The roots, the memory. So too, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tell us: “Remember pristinos dies, those early days, and remember those who proclaimed the Gospel to you”. A Christianity without memory is an encyclopedia, not a way of life.
Memory is important for an entire people, but also for every single person. Each of us should think back on the many beautiful and not so beautiful, the good and not so good memories we have, but always seeing in them God’s providence. Reflecting on the past reminds us of those who first helped us fall in love with Jesus – a parish priest, a nun, our grandparents, or parents – to whom we are indebted for this greatest of gifts. For priests, we think especially of the time we discovered our vocation, the moment when we said our first convinced “yes” to God’s call, and the day of our ordination.
Whenever you feel weary and disheartened, downcast as the result of some setback or failure – and this is the case with everyone – look back on your history, not to find refuge in an idealized past, but to regain the momentum and passion of your “first love”, the one spoken of by Jeremiah (cf. Jer 2:2). Go back to your first love. It is good to retrace the steps God has taken in our life, the times when his path crossed ours to correct, encourage, renew, redirect and pardon us. In that way, we come to see clearly that the Lord has never abandoned us, that he has always been at our side, sometimes quietly, sometimes clearly, even at times that seemed to us darkest and most arid.
If the past can help us be more aware of the firmness of our faith and vocation, the future broadens our horizons and teaches us hope. The Christian life is by its nature projected towards the future, both the immediate future and that more distant future, at the end of time, when we will encounter the Risen Lord who has gone to prepare a place for us in the Father’s House (cf. Jn 14:2).
If remembering the past should not turn into self-absorbed introspection, we should also avoid the temptation to take refuge in the future and not serenely confront the present. If we are in the seminary, everything is dreary, because all we can think about is what life will be like after ordination. If we have been given a pastoral responsibility, as soon as the first difficulties arise, we already start thinking about other, supposedly better assignments. The result is like a sinful and immature flight to the future in order to escape from the present. The real future is anchored in the present and in the past. Many people go on like this for years, or for a lifetime, without ever being converted. It is like having a constant spirit of complaint about everything. Instead, we need to look both forward and backward. You have God’s promises and his election. Make that a covenant that you constant bear with you. Do not wander around in the labyrinth of your complaints and dissatisfactions. That is the start of a very nasty disease, a bitterness of soul.
Dear priests – but this also applies to you who are consecrated, to the lay faithful, and to all of you – do not be eternal procrastinators, always putting off to hopefully better times and places – a utopia in the bad sense – that postpones the chance to do some good in the here and now. Do not live in constant “apnea”, simply tolerating the present and waiting for it to pass. “Yes, Lord, maybe tomorrow…”. The tomorrow that never comes.
Looking to the future in a positive sense means having a prophetic gaze, the gaze of a disciple who, in fidelity to the Master and the task set before him, can look ahead, seeing possibilities and working in accordance with his own vocation to make them happen, acting as a docile instrument in God’s hands.
Now that we have “traveled” to the past and to the future, let us return to the present, the only time we now possess and are called to use for a journey of conversion and growth in holiness. God is calling us in the present, not yesterday, not tomorrow, but this very day, with its difficulties, sufferings and disappointments – and also our sins. These are not to be refused or avoided, but embraced and loved as opportunities that the Lord is offering us to be ever more closely united to him, even on the cross.
The pope is clearly not against “conservatism”: either in a generic sense or theological sense (of orthodoxy: which seems to me to be what Fr. Peter is referring to). This is a beautiful and edifying reflection: more than worthy of a pope or other thoughtful Catholic (or any kind of Christian). He is wisely critiquing a view that would idealize either the past or the future, to the extent of neglecting opportunities and responsibilities in the present. I see nothing whatever wrong with what Pope Francis said here.
Why it would even be brought up, by making a false conclusion about (literally) one word, is astonishing to me: far beneath the reasoning capacity of a great scholar like Fr. Peter Stravinskas. But this is what resentment and bitterness — repeatedly thinking ill thoughts about a person — bring about: distortions of the words and motives of the recipient, that inevitably flow from a strong animus. It’s nothing less than a disgrace to treat a pope like this.
Not content with just these potshots, Fr. Peter sadly engages in another one that also turns out to be groundless, upon consulting context:
The final “poke in the eye” came during a papal audience given to the priestly community of the Pontifical Mexican College on March 29. Francis warned them not to “lock [themselves] up in their home or office or hobbies.” He went on: “Clericalism is a perversion.” He then went on to belittle getting a doctorate. Again, why always the negative presumptions?
This is the talk that is not yet available in English. I shall consult the Spanish version, since this was likely the language he used with Mexicans. Today we are blessed to have very helpful resources like Google Translate, which does a very good job of instant translation. Readers may consult the original at the link (or the Italian version, etc.) if they wish to translate in another fashion. Let’s look at each of the three supposedly objectionable comments in context. Here are the first two (found in the second through fourth paragraphs):
Today’s problems demand from us priests that we conform to the Lord and the gaze of love with which He contemplates us. By conforming our gaze with his, our gaze is transformed into a gaze of tenderness, reconciliation and brotherhood. Only by contemplating the Lord can we have this.
And I would like to highlight these three features. Above all, we need to have the look of tenderness with which our Father God sees the problems that afflict society: violence, social and economic inequalities, polarization, corruption and lack of hope, especially among the youngest. The Virgin Mary serves as an example for us, who with the tenderness of a mother reflects the endearing love of God who welcomes everyone, without distinction. The ever-deepening configuration with the Good Shepherd arouses in each priest a true compassion, both for the sheep that are entrusted to him and for those who are lost. Compassion. Tenderness, compassion, a word is missing, which with tenderness and compassion form the style of God: closeness, compassion and tenderness. That is God’s style. And that is the style of a priest who strives to be faithful.
And only by allowing ourselves to be modeled by Him does our pastoral charity intensify, where no one is excluded from our solicitude and prayer. In addition, this prevents us from seclusion at home, or in the office or in hobbies, and encourages us to go out to meet people, not to stay still. Not to clericalize ourselves. Do not forget that clericalism is a perversion.
What in the world is wrong with any of that? I just don’t see it. Moreover, I don’t understand why any observant, pious Catholic would have the slightest problem with anything above. But when one already has a negative agenda against the pope, one yanks a few words out of context and somehow molds them into terrible “negative” things. As we see above, this portion was overwhelmingly positive (complete with a lovely reference to the Blessed Virgin), and simply mentioned a few things at the end that the new priest must avoid falling into.
This is not unseemly or scandalous or troublesome in the slightest. It’s no different from scores of words from, say, our Lord Jesus or St. Paul. In fact, both of them were far more scathing in their critical comments: just look at Jesus’ withering condemnations of the Pharisees: the very strongest of them occurring in Matthew 23:3-39, immediately after He had just told His disciples to “practice and observe whatever they tell you” because they “sit on Moses’ seat” (23:2-3). I could easily find many similar things in St. Paul, but this article is already long enough. Trust me (as an avid Bible student and researcher for over forty years), they are there.
Here’s the other portion, where the pope supposedly “belittle[s] getting a doctorate.” He did no such thing. Read it in context! (sixth paragraph):
And finally, our current time impels us to have a look of brotherhood. The challenges we face are of such a breadth that they encompass the social fabric and the globalized reality interconnected by social networks and the media. For this reason, together with Christ the Servant and Shepherd, we must be able to have a vision of the whole and unity, which encourages us to create fraternity, which allows us to highlight the points of connection and interaction within cultures and within the ecclesial community. A look that facilitates communion and fraternal participation; a look that encourages and guides the faithful to be respectful of our common home and builders of a new world, in collaboration with all men and women of good will. And of course, in order to look like this, we need the light of faith and the wisdom of someone who knows how to “take off their sandals” to contemplate the mystery of God and, from that perspective, read the signs of the times. For this, it is essential to harmonize the academic, spiritual, human and pastoral dimensions in ongoing formation. The harmonized fours. If you leave here with a doctorate, because [you] only studied one thing, [you] wasted time. “No, but I will do a PhD …”. You wasted your time and your heart. Well, I wonder: how are your spiritual dimension, your human dimension, community dimension and your apostolic dimension? There are four dimensions that always interact, and if they do not interact we end up laps[ed?] in the best of cases.
We (at least those of us who attempt to be charitable and fair-minded) can readily see the pope’s point in context. It’s classic Francis. Again, he is not knocking a doctorate or “belittling” it. That’s a ridiculous interpretation. Rather, he is simply saying that the intellectual / particularly academic component of life has to be combined in a harmonious fashion with the equally important spiritual, human, pastoral, community, and apostolic dimensions. It’s a beautiful and much-needed reflection, which brings to my mind Pope Benedict’s frequent exhortations to harmonize scholarship with the magisterial teachings of the Church and also G. K. Chesterton’s quip that the madman’s problem is not having no logic, but rather, exercising nothing but logic. It also recalls a command of Our Lord:
Luke 10:27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
This is a sorely needed exhortation in our time. The Catholic academic must also be orthodox and a spiritual “human” and pastoral person. He or she must be fully-rounded and formed. Believe me, as an apologist who has defended the faith constantly for now over thirty years, I see the trends that the pope is trying to prevent all the time: the academic and scholar who lack discernible traits of these aspects beyond the intellectual / rational components. It’s deadly. In fact, I would say (and again, I know, from countless debates) that this sort of hyper-rationalism or “reason only” too often leads to a loss of faith altogether: all the way to atheism in the worst cases. I literally see what it leads to because I dialogue with and try to bring back the people who have gone through the process of hyper-rationalism leading to loss of faith and apostasy.
Thus, the pope rightly observes these things, and all Fr. Peter gets out of it is a supposed hostility now of the pope against doctorates. We cannot allow these sorts of falsehoods against the pope to go uncriticized. They are poison, as all falsehoods are. Every Christian has the duty to be charitable and to tell the truth. When it is an issue involving the pope, this duty applies all the more and we should exercise the utmost caution and care in documenting anything we bring up of a critical nature. Fr. Peter has clearly failed to do this, as has The Catholic World Report in allowing such an article to be published as it is.
And of course, writing an article like this makes me very unpopular in many circles. So be it. I don’t care. I’m not in this for money or fame or to be loved by one and all. I have to speak and defend truth as I see it, for the good of Holy Mother Church. Already in the combox for this very article, we see some anonymous naysayer taking a shot at me with a bald-faced lie:
Francis is a bad Pope, maybe one of the worst, and this has been abundantly obvious for at least 5 years to anyone who isn’t a neo-modernist, Dave Armstrong or Tim Staples.
Thanks for the blessing (I get many of those in the course of my apologetics apostolate)!:
Matthew 5:11-12 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, . . .”
Photo credit: Taco Hoekwater; Wolfgang Schuster; Xan; svg from Lumu (talk) (4-22-09). Unofficial ConTeXt Logo, used in ConTeXt wiki [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]
Summary: Fr. Peter Stravinskas, a great apologist and author and fellow Newmanian, unfortunately has engaged in some very serious Pope Francis-bashing. I criticize these attempts by revealing crucial and necessary contextual information.
Tags: anti-Francis mentality, pope bashers, Pope Francis, criticism of Pope Francis, clericalism, evangelism, priestly formation, Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Pope Francis-bashing