Silence: The Shield Against Suspicious Man

Silence: The Shield Against Suspicious Man August 20, 2019

This is another typically fine piece from Where Peter Is: a website dedicated to the radical proposition that the Pope is neither a heretic nor a monster:

In my last article, I tried to illustrate how the nuanced concept of silence appears throughout Francis’ corpus of theological thought. One question remains yet unanswered, however: why has Francis chosen silence as the venue to address his critics, namely the dubia and Archbishop Viganò’s testimony?

With this in mind, I would like to recall some Advent reflections I made in the introduction to my last article. God’s silence can’t be disassociated from the problem of Man’s suffering. Precisely because of that, His divine silence scandalizes many of us, especially (but not necessarily) those who are disgusted with Him in the first place. Nevertheless we know that His silence is needed in order for Him to exert His project in a fallen world without being manipulated by Man. It is a dignified silence, which cannot be understood by men accustomed to contemporary society, with its characteristic noise of constant commenting, instant reporting, and materialism.

Likewise, I believe that Francis’ silence is a dignified silence too. Even if it scandalizes people, it is sadly needed in order for him not to be manipulated as well. For such is the intention of many of those who are sowing scandal by (among other things) accusing the Pope of silence in the face of great evils. They want him to break his silence in order to ensnare him and, in doing so, force him to comply with their ideas for the Church.

Take, for instance, Amoris Laetitia‘s (AL) opening of communion to divorced and remarried people who may have mitigating factors diminishing their subjective culpability, so that they are not in mortal sin. The format of the dubia, demanding yes-or-no answers, does not take into account the nuance demanded by this document, and the way the questions are framed tries to force Francis to chose between open heresy or forfeiting his manifest will. In this way, answering the dubia on their own terms would actually cause more harm than good. Whether this was something actively willed by the dubia cardinals we may never know, but it certainly does not bode well for them that they made the dubiapublic after an arbitrarily defined time they conceded the Pope to answer them (as if he should not be free to reply or not.) Nor does it speak well of them that they have yet to denounce the way the dubia have been used by many of Francis’ critics to undermine him.

As for Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, it is even more egregious. Viganò accuses the pope of mishandling a serious case of sexual abuse, and in a shameful display of inversion of the burden of proof, tries to force Francis to prove his innocence by telling him to release documents allegedly proving his point instead of substantiating his accusations himself. “Release the documents” has become an anti-Francis mantra, just like “answer the dubia.” It is meant to shut Francis up whenever he says something his critics disagree with.

But even here we see an urge to control. Interspersed with Viganò’s charges regarding the sexual abuse crisis, we also see accusations of doctrinal laxity and ambiguity. These are codewords for Pope Francis’ clear and magisterial teachings which are utterly rejected by his critics. The calls for resignation on the part of Viganò and his supporters are inseparable from their concerns that the Church might be doctrinally moving in a way they have no authority to resist. So they need to resort to these kinds of venues to remove an inconvenient pontiff.

However, just like the dubia, Francis reacted to Viganò’s accusations with silence. On a plane interview in the aftermath of the testimony’s release, the pontiff said: “I read the statement this morning, and I must tell you sincerely that, I must say this, to you and all those who are interested: Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment (…) I will not say a single word on this.

Nevertheless, how can we understand Francis’ silent reaction in the face of these crises? Is there something in his theology or history that may give us a clue? Yes, in fact, there is. Before his election to the papacy, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had already experienced the effects of being publicly calumniated. As reported by Austen Ivereigh here, back in the 1970s, Father Bergoglio was accused by left-wing Catholics of being a collaborationist with the Argentinian dictatorship. In the 1980s, such accusations resurfaced again “against the backgroundof widespread shock and indignation at revelations of bishops’ failures to protect their flocks from the army’s torture chambers.” In fact, these accusations also resurfaced fleetingly at the time of his election as Pope Francis.

At the time, as in today, Fr. Bergoglio’s answer to these baseless accusations from “a backdrop of anxiety and anger verging at times on hysteria” was… silence. Denying those charges to people who were hell-bent on their truthfulness would not convince anyone. On the contrary, it would only give credibility to those allegations and stoke the flames of gossip. But if Francis was innocent, then time would vindicate him, for truth can’t be hidden for long. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened.

This life experience surely inspired Bergoglio later when, in the 1990s (during a time period Ivereigh dubs as one of his “desert” periods) he wrote a reflection called “Silencio y Palabra” (“Silence and Word“). I have taken the opportunity to read it in full and was taken aback at the striking (prophetic?) parallels between what Fr. Bergoglio wrote then and what we are seeing today. Only by reading that essay can we truly grasp the meaning of Pope Francis’ silence today.

Do read the whole thing if you want to understand why Francis’ habit of silence in the face of the torrent of malignant hate and accusation he has gotten from the Greatest Catholics of All Time seems to be rooted in a deeply Christian spiritual tradition.  It turns out an inveterate yammerer like me may have something to learn from him.

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