December 1st, 2017
Roman Catholics as individuals and groups may have different opinions about the Pope. After all, the Church of Rome is not a monolith, and even Popes polarize the assessments of the Catholic people. But what happens when negative voices become more frequent, more outspoken, more radical in their criticism, as seems to be the case in recent months? While public opinion is still heavily influenced by the overall positive image that Francis has, and continues to consider him as a kind of “hero”, within Catholic circles the “wait-and-see” approach toward some awkward aspects of his teaching is coming to an end. Groups of intellectuals, priests, and even cardinals are voicing their growing embarrassment and are doing it publicly and with a severe tone. In raising their concerns, what they point to are not some peripheral elements but important matters of doctrine. The irony is that the one who is supposed to guard the Roman Catholic deposit of faith is charged with allegations of introducing confusion, if not heresy.
Coming to Terms with Recent Criticism
There are at least three criticisms against Pope Francis that are worth considering. Let’s briefly look at them chronologically.
In September 2016, four cardinals (two of whom have recently died) sent to the Pope five questions (in Latin “dubia”, doubts) concerning the interpretation of key parts of his summary document on the synod on the family, Amoris Laetitia. In the explanatory note, they give voice to the “grave disorientation and great confusion” that exist in the Catholic community. According to the cardinals, the contrasting interpretations of the papal text arise from its ambiguity and the apparent contradictions with previous official teaching on the re-admission of divorced people to the Eucharist. Although they asked the Pope to clear any ambiguity, Francis never responded and perhaps will never do so. Their doubts will remain unanswered.
In July 2017, more than 200 Catholic priests and intellectuals from around the world wrote “a filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies” to the Pope , thus elevating the tone of the criticism to the denouncing of doctrinal deviations. Their observations were no longer questions, but real corrections made to the teaching of the Pope. The word “heresy” was evoked in looking at the demise of the traditional teaching on marriage and the sacraments, as they see happening, and severely threatening the future credibility of their Church.
At the end of July then, Father Thomas Weinandy, a capuchin priest and former chief of staff for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a current member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, made public a letter sent to the Pope. In it, he argued that “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease. It compromises their capacity for love, joy and peace”. Moreover, Weinandy charges Francis with “demeaning” the importance of doctrine, appointing bishops who “scandalize” believers with dubious “teaching and pastoral practice”, giving prelates who object the impression they will be “marginalized or worse” if they speak out, and causing faithful Catholics to “lose confidence in their supreme shepherd.”This is hard language coming from a mainstream Roman Catholic theologian who has spent the whole of his life in the service of his Church and the Vatican. What is happening in the Roman Catholic Church? Is Rome on the eve of an internal breaking point with disastrous consequences?
The Tensions between the Roman and Catholic components
These three criticisms are extremely serious and perhaps a tipping point in Catholic circles as far as the growing uneasiness towards Pope Francis is concerned. Various interpretations have been suggested in trying to understand what is happening. What might be useful, in coming to terms with it, is to relate both Francis’s apparent openness to change and ambiguity in teaching on the one hand, and the angrier reactions of the traditionalists on the other, to the inner and constitutive dynamics of Roman Catholicism.
Roman Catholicism is what it is because it inherently combines the “Roman” element with the “Catholic” one. Both are essential components of the synthesis offered by the Roman Catholic system. The genius of Roman Catholicism is its being at the same time Roman and Catholic, one and the other, one never at the expense of the other.
It is “Roman” in the sense that it is organically attached to the city and the Church of Rome, and by extension to the institutions, canon laws, dogmas, hierarchy, and the political outlook associated with it. Much of this derives from a complex history marked by an imperial ideology.
It is “Catholic” in the sense of its being inclusive, global, embracing, and open to different movements, trends, and trajectories. The Roman elements provide stability and continuity; the Catholic element fosters development and renewal. Roman Catholicism is able to hold the tension deriving from its dual identity and to maintain it at a manageable balance.
What is happening with Pope Francis is to be understood against the background of the tensions between the Roman and Catholic poles within Roman Catholicism. Francis is strongly pushing the “catholic” agenda of Rome, embracing all, affirming all, expanding the traditional boundaries of the Church.
Some traditionalist circles are reacting strongly because they see the danger of losing the Roman elements represented by the well-established teachings and practices of the Church. They see the Catholic swallowing the Roman. They see the risk of the Catholic taking precedence over the Roman and therefore severing the dynamic link that has characterized Roman Catholicism for centuries.
Whereas with the previous Pope (Benedict XVI), the overall balance was more in favor of the Roman than the Catholic, with Francis the Roman Catholic pendulum is swinging towards the catholicity of Rome. Francis’s critics believe that he has gone too far and want the pendulum to reverse towards more reassuring Roman elements.
Can There Be a Biblical Reformation in Roman Catholicism?
As we are celebrating 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, with its call to the Church to submit to the authority of Scripture and its recovery of the good news that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, it is appropriate to ask whether Rome is still grappling with the same issues that gave rise to it.
Luther took issue with the Pope and his theology and practice of dispensing God’s pardon through indulgences. Luther’s standard was the biblical gospel, and he challenged the Church to embrace afresh the gospel. Rome responded by absorbing some of Luther’s concerns about grace and faith within the sacramental system largely shaped around Roman elements and within its synergistic theology significantly marked by Catholic components, thus reinforcing the overall Roman Catholic synthesis rather than reforming it according to the Word of God.
Ever since, the Roman Catholic system has been swinging and bending one way or another to accomodate either progressive or traditional trends, either reiterating Roman emphases or introducing Catholic ones, and then rebalancing the whole. But the Church was not reformed because it did not recognize the external and supreme authority of Scripture and the gospel of salvation by faith alone. As it stands, it will never be renewed according to the Word of God. It will certainly accomodate “Catholic” movements like the Charismatic renewal and “Roman” movements like the Marian groups, and then re-fix the overall synthesis. It will even accomodate an emphasis on biblical literacy, as well as commend unbiblical devotions and beliefs: both-and, Roman and Catholic!
What is happening now with the criticism of Pope Francis is business as usual in the Roman Catholic Church: at times the pendulum swings one way before readdressing the overall balance. It could be argued that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was a great push towards the Catholic element and the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were subsequent attempts to moderate it in terms of reinforcing the Roman elements. With Francis the Catholic is again winning the day. These tensions will go on as long as Roman Catholicism exists. They are inner movements within the system. If one looks at Roman Catholicism as a system, then even the doubts of the cardinals, the criticism of priests and intellectuals, and even their charges of heresy against the Pope become easier to come to terms with. Roman Catholicism is both Roman and Catholic, and will always be so.
Nothing is going to break abruptly and, more importanly, no biblical reformation is possible under these conditions. Roman Catholicism will be stretched and go through a stress test, but will be able to handle both Francis’ catholicity and his critics’ insistence on the Roman component. The synthesis will be expanded, but the gospel will not be allowed to change Rome. This is the reason why the Reformation is not over.