Polls reveal that a large majority of Catholics have a positive view of Pope Francis. However, far fewer look to him for moral guidance. (In one study, only 11% did.) It is therefore difficult to know how many Catholics are familiar with, and judge his performance by, his published statements. Having paid close attention to his statements during his pontificate, I note three problems that, if overcome, would benefit Catholics and no doubt others as well.
Lack of Clarity
All too often, Francis’ statements tend to confuse rather than clarify important issues of faith. Philip Lawler, author of Lost Shepherd, cites as an example this statement by Francis: “Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.” The problem, Lawler noted, is that Francis offered no indication of which means of avoidance are acceptable and which are not. (Was he letting contraception in through a theological back door?) This and similar statements leads Lawler to conclude that “Pope Francis has not taught heresy, but the confusion he has stirred up has destabilized the universal Church. The faithful have been led to question themselves, their beliefs, their Faith. They look to Rome for guidance and instead find only more questions, more confusion.”
Ross Douthat, in To Change the Church, cites this confusing statement by Francis: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?” The implication was that Francis rejects the Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Douthat offers this assessment of Francis’ papacy: In the beginning it was one of “faith-filled outreach,” but is now one of “division—warring clerics, a balked and angry pope, a church divided by regions and nationalities, a Catholic Christianity that cannot preach confidently because it cannot decide what it believes.”
The statement that confuses Douthat is not the only one Francis has made about homosexuality. Here is another: “What we have to create is a civil union law . . . That way [homosexual couples] are legally covered. I [stand] up for that.” At the same time, Francis is on the record as opposing same-sex marriage.
So what was Francis “standing up for”? The secular equivalent of marriage? If so, that implies approval of a union that involves sexual expression between people of the same sex. Yet that expression is explicitly condemned by Catholic teaching as contrary to Natural Law, “intrinsically disordered,” and mortally sinful! (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2357.) Was Francis rejecting that Church teaching?
Ignoring or Misrepresenting Facts
Francis stresses the importance of truth-telling. For example, he has said, “A hypocrite is afraid of the truth. [He believes] it is better to pretend rather than be yourself. It is like putting makeup on the soul, like putting makeup on your behavior. . . [God gave us] a commandment: to always speak the truth; to be truthful: to speak the truth everywhere and in spite of anything.“
From that statement, we might expect that Francis would be scrupulous about telling the truth. Yet in a speech to the U.S. Congress Francis spoke of the border crisis in a way that was, at best, a half-truth: “On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
This statement ignored the fact that the migration he was referring to violated legitimate (and completely ethical) laws. That was as clear then as it is now, though the chaotic impact became clear only later. In any case, to equate following the law with “discarding” human beings is irresponsible.
What Francis’ wrote about property rights in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti was worse than a half-truth. It was completely false! Here is his statement: “Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” (Paragraph 120, emphasis added). In fact, Pope Leo XIII unquestionably recognized that right in his famous 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, writing, “The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property” (Paragraph 15). [Both emphases added]
The misrepresentation here is particularly egregious because Leo’s encyclical has been a part of seminary education and Catholic college education for over a hundred years. So it is inconceivable that Francis and his proofreaders were unaware of it.
Violating the Principles He Preaches to others
A common theme of Francis is the proper role of the pastor, as in this passage: “What must the pastor do? Be a pastor. Be a pastor and don’t go around condemning, not condemning…. But is he a pastor for the excommunicated too? Yes, he is a pastor and must be a pastor with him, to be a pastor with God’s style. And God’s style is closeness, compassion and tenderness. The entire Bible says so . . . Closeness, compassion. . . Tenderness was there already in the beginning. . .” (Emphasis added)
Yet despite preaching against condemning and for compassion, Francis has been quick not only to condemn, but even worse, to do so on the basis of careless and sometimes rash assumptions. While Donald Trump was running for office, Francis said, “A person who only thinks about building walls over and over again and not building bridges is not a Christian.” (Emphasis added)
Francis could not possibly have known what Trump thought “over and over,” so to question his Christian faith on that bald presumption constitutes the very “going around condemning” Francis warns others against.
As if this were not enough, during Trump’s presidency Francis’ expanded the scope of this condemnation beyond Trump to include millions of his supporters: “Today, listening to some of the populist leaders we now have, I am reminded of the 1930s, when some democracies collapsed into dictatorships seemingly overnight . . . We see it happening again now in rallies where populist leaders excite and harangue crowds, channeling their resentments and hatreds against imagined enemies to distract from the real problems.” He noted that leaders’ followers act “out of fear, not true religious conviction,” adding that “superficially religious people vote for populists to protect their religious identity, unconcerned that fear and hatred of the other cannot be reconciled with the Gospel.” [Emphasis added]
Did Francis not realize that he was slandering an enormous number of people, including tens of millions of American Catholics and perhaps as many people from other countries? After all, he was calling all of them resentful, hate-filled people who have only imaginary reasons for their views. In reality, the vast majority of people who support President Trump, including religious leaders Dr. Alveda King and Rabbi Harold Ten, do not do so because of fear or hatred but because the promises Trump both made and fulfilled are consistent with their religious faith. Shouldn’t a man who holds the office once held by St. Peter be able to muster for these millions the same “who am I to judge” he offered to gay people?
Another common theme of Francis concerns having the courage to express one’s convictions. For example, he said this to young Catholics: “Dear young people, you have it in you to shout. It is up to you not to keep quiet. Even if others keep quiet, if we older people and leaders, some corrupt, keep quiet, if the whole world keeps quiet . . . I ask you: Will you cry out?”
Francis did not say what young people should speak out against; presumably he meant injustice. Such speaking out may have beneficial results, to be sure. On the other hand it may instead sow disorder and division. Crowds of well-meaning, concerned citizens can be transformed into a mindless mob shouting for actions with consequences beyond their imagining. Surely Francis knows this, having lived in Argentina during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, the riots in 1989 that killed ten people, the two major terrorist events in the 1990s, and the 2001 mass protests that killed seven. Given that fact, he should have been much more cautious about encouraging protests.
A similar theme of Francis is the importance of working for change in the Church. He recently said (Sept. 9, 2021) “Rigidity in the church is a sin against the patience of God . . . It may be necessary for us . . . to change direction and overcome convictions that hold us back and prevent us from moving and walking together.” . . . I recommend that you leave the doors and windows open, do not limit yourselves to those who frequent [the parish] or think like you . . . Let everyone enter…. Allow yourselves to go out to meet people and to be questioned by people. Let their questions be your questions; allow yourselves to walk together. The Spirit will lead you. Do not be afraid to enter into dialogue; it is the dialogue of salvation.” (Emphasis added)
Let’s now consider the implication of three of Francis’ statements when taken together: 1) his exhortation to “speak the truth everywhere and in spite of anything”; 2) his urging to “cry out” about injustice even if the world remains silent; and 3) his claim that the Church’s rigidity should be overcome by opening our minds to ideas that differ from our own. The obvious implication is that Francis, other members of the hierarchy, and pastors are not only open to receiving ideas that differ from theirs, but are eager to receive them for the good of the Church and will therefore be pleased to receive them. (Readers who have offered even gentle criticism of some minor parish or diocesan matter will be forgiven for laughing heartily at the last sentence.)
So how well has Francis followed his own advice? He recently said this: “There is, for example, a large Catholic television channel [EWTN most likely] that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope. I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the Church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil.” (Emphasis added)
There is a distinction to be made between the Pope and the Church, of course, and precisely because of that, criticizing his words and/or actions–in a word, his leadership of the Church–is not the same as criticizing the Church. It can, in fact, be a defense of the Church. To call it a “work of the devil” is irresponsible.
The three problem areas discussed above are not just Francis’s. Most of us have them to a greater or lesser degree. The difference is that he is expected to give, and model, guidance to hundreds of millions of people, especially in difficult times like the present.
Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero