March 1st, 2019
The turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church has reached a further disruption point. At the beginning of February, two independent but influential texts circulated widely that expressed strong criticism against Pope Francis. In Europe, the German Cardinal Gerhard Müller issued a Manifesto of Faith that raised serious concerns over the downplaying of Roman Catholic identity under the present-day pontificate and suggested corrections to it. In the USA, the acclaimed journal First Things posted an article by R.R. Reno whose devastating thesis is evident from its title: “A Failing Papacy”. Both attacks came from high-profile Roman Catholic sources and show that the “Annus Horribilis” (Terrible Year) of Rome is getting even worse. On both sides of the Atlantic, Pope Francis is under fire.
Away from Confusion, but Where To?
Müller is the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the highest Vatican authority in the area of doctrine after the Pope). He was named Prefect by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and has become known for his conservative views with regards to the interpretation of Catholic doctrine and morals. In doing so he collided with the open-ended and inclusive approach of Pope Francis, especially as to whether or not to re-admit people in “irregular” relationships to the Eucharist. Müller vocally opposed the relaxation of the Catholic attitude towards people living in relationships outside of marriage, as had been adopted by Amoris Laetitia, the 2015 Vatican document on the family that was strongly supported by the Pope. His criticism of the Pope is the reason Francis abruptly dismissed him in 2017, breaking the usual practice that the Prefect is confirmed in his office until retirement and even beyond. The fact that he who used to be the second or third in rank after the Pope in the Vatican hierarchy is now an outspoken opponent of him is a sign of the chaos that the Vatican is going through at the moment.
Over the last few years, Müller has become a reference point for those who are concerned with the direction that the Roman Catholic Church has taken under the leadership of Pope Francis. In the Manifesto, the German Cardinal talks of a “growing confusion” about Church doctrine: “Today, many Christians are no longer even aware of the basic teachings of the Faith,” the German cardinal laments, “so there is a growing danger of missing the path to eternal life.” His concern has to do with the undermining of Roman Catholic traditional tenets happening under Pope Francis.
The Manifesto is a 4-page document posted in multiple languages that calls people from around the world to sign it as a way of affirming Catholic identity in this time of “growing confusion”. The target is clearly Pope Francis and his apparent lack of theological reliability. The pars construens is an attempt to recover Roman Catholic doctrinal stability and breadth from the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was promulgated by Pope John Paul II and drafted under the leadership of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. While Francis is seen as causing confusion through his clumsy theology, John Paul II and Benedict XVI are seen as Roman bulwarks.
The Catechism is the traditional explanation of the Roman Catholic faith, beginning with the Triune God but centered on the sacramentality of the Church, which prolongs the ministry of Christ and therefore administers God’s grace through the sacraments. Rather than the biblical gospel, it is the “sacramental life” that shapes the Christian life according to the Cardinal. Rather than obedience to the biblical Jesus Christ, it is submission to the authority of the Roman Church that marks his proposal. Müller’s antidote to Francis’ downgrading is the retrieval of traditional Catholicism: not a recovery of the gospel, but the reaffirmation of Rome as the “visible sign and instrument of salvation realized in the Catholic Church”. The solution is not qualitatively different from the problem it wants to solve.
A Failing Papacy?
On the other side of the Atlantic, the tone against Francis has reached an unexpected peak. The incipit of the aforementioned article in First Things is shocking if one considers its source:
“The current regime in Rome will damage the Catholic Church. Pope Francis combines laxity and ruthlessness. His style is casual and approachable; his church politics are cold and cunning. There are leading themes in this pontificate—mercy, accompaniment, peripheries, and so forth—but no theological framework. He is a verbal semi-automatic weapon, squeezing off rounds of barbed remarks, spiritual aperçus, and earthy asides (coprophagia!). This has created a confusing, even dysfunctional atmosphere that will become intolerable, if it hasn’t already.”
And this is only the beginning. The article goes on to describe the situation of chaos that the Pope has brought to the Roman Church.
Given the North American provenance, an appropriate gut reaction to reading it is: WOW! What is happening in conservative Catholic circles? These are not words written by an outmoded fundamentalist spitting his emotional anti-Catholicism. First Things is an authoritative voice of conservative Catholicism and a strong advocate of the Roman Catholic worldview. In reading this trenchant critique, one cannot help but think: how can a Catholic author write this and still affirm Francis as the Pope? How can a conservative Catholic who has said for decades that Roman Catholicism is unique and necessary because of the authoritative voice of the Pope now criticize what the Pope is teaching and doing? Isn’t there a contradiction? More fundamentally, are we sure that Francis is the main problem? Or is it not the monarchial, political, and self-proclaimed infallible Papacy the issue at stake, biblically speaking?
Cardinal Müller sees the problem, but his solution is not better than it. First Things sees the problem but has no way to bring about a truly biblical reformation of the papacy. Seen from the outside, the battle between supporters and opposers of Pope Francis is of little significance if it does not lead to the recovery of the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone and to a radical re-orientation of the Roman Catholic Church.