The “Francis Effect” Five Years Out

Daily Reading & Meditation: Friday (July 13)
July 13, 2018
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July 13, 2018

By John M. Vella, Crisis Magazine, July 13, 2018

In his recent book on Pope Francis, Lost Shepherd, Philip Lawler reminds us that the papacy should be a source of Church unity. However, as Lawler points out, under the current pontiff this is not so. He lays out two reasons why: the first is Francis’s autocratic style and the second is the divisive program he is advancing.

Lawler offers overwhelming evidence to prove his indictment. An early example of this divisiveness is the papal intervention in the Order of the Knights of Malta. The action was unprecedented given the independence of the Order and that it was taken on behalf of a disgraced official who had, from all appearances, been removed for violating Church teaching in the charitable programs under his direction. Actions of this kind highlight the contradictions between the pope’s rhetoric of collegiality and decentralization of governance with his actual policy decisions that suggest different priorities.

Like many faithful Catholics, Lawler wanted to give the new pope the benefit of the doubt. This made sense in the early days when Francis’s intentions were as yet unclear. As disquieting examples of discontinuity with past practices and shifts in teachings accumulated, concerns began to grow. The moment of truth for Lawler came on February 24, 2017 in his homily that day when Francis condemned the hypocrisy and “logic of casuistry” exhibited by the Pharisees and legal scholars regarding divorce and remarriage (Mark 10). In Francis’s remarks, Lawler detected an equivalency being made between the Pharisees’ position and those Catholics today who—like Jesus—oppose divorce and remarriage, saying: “They thought about faith only in terms of ‘You can’t’ or ‘You can’t, up to what point you can’t and at what point you can’t.’” Some might find Lawler’s analysis of the sermon weak since Francis did not explicitly contradict Jesus. However, Francis has a way of taking both sides in an argument. In a Scripture passage that famously condemns divorce—a widespread contemporary problem, Francis chooses instead to condemn legalistic thinking, a trait often associated in the progressive mind with traditionalists, i.e., those who supposedly demand justice and offer no mercy.

The pope’s numerous public insults against traditional-minded Catholics accumulated over time to form the clear impression that Francis really did intend to change Church teaching and saw some Catholics—including bishops—as obstacles to his designs. Such a realization necessarily compels action, writes Lawler. In the same way, a dysfunctional family in which the father behaves in a destructive manner requires an intervention. Those who suspect a problem but are unsure of the accuracy of their judgment are relieved to learn they are not alone. This was the reaction from readers when Lawler first went public in a column with his doubts about the Francis papacy. He hopes that his book will encourage Catholics to rely more on consistent Church teaching from reliable sources like the Catechism, while also calling upon bishops to do their part by preserving and proclaiming traditional teachings to the faithful in defiance of Roman designs.

There was more cause for optimism in the beginning. Francis was in the press constantly and reports suggested that fallen-away Catholics were returning to the Church. Some observed a more frequent reception of the sacraments. Others predicted a growth in conversions. This was dubbed the “Francis effect.” However, the enthusiasm began to subside—as indicated by the thinning crowds—when Francis began to engage in partisan politics with, for example, frequent comments on environmentalism. In so doing, he began to act more like a secular public official than a religious leader, which served to dilute his teaching authority. Sometimes it was a little thing. The Vatican press corps noticed when Pope Francis decided to disregard protocol when he refused to bless them, presumably to avoid offending non-Catholics. Many more people noticed the absence of any reference to Christ in the pope’s address to Congress. Ross Douthat, Catholic columnist for the New York Times, proposed in the early days that Francis was trying to end a low-grade civil war that had afflicted the Church since the Second Vatican Council. A year later, he abandoned that thesis by suggesting that the pope can be preserved from error only if orthodox Catholics resist his papacy.

Areas of Controversy
One of the areas where faithful Catholics thought Francis was reliably orthodox was gender ideology. He had condemned it in the strongest terms on his 2016 visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, yet in an interview with journalists on the flight back to Rome, Francis raised new doubts about his faithfulness. He recounted the story of a Spanish girl who felt like a boy and who in early adulthood changed her sex, became a man, and married. She was “accompanied” by her local bishop, a “good bishop,” and wanted to visit the pope with her “wife.” Not only was the bishop praised, but Francis did not object to her sex-change operation, nor did he object to her marriage. He eventually met the couple and commented that “they were very happy.” If Francis is at all consistent, it is in his objection to teaching gender ideology in schools. On discouraging those with gender dysphoria from disfiguring their bodies with hormones and surgery, Francis is less clear, although he did ask the press not to report that “the pope sanctifies transgenders”—something that was curiously removed from the official Vatican transcript of the inflight press conference. If the pope does not want to be seen as endorsing sex-change operations, he should not send conflicting messages. Contradictory statements have become a hallmark of the Francis papacy.

One of the justifications for electing Francis was the need to reform the Vatican. Pope Benedict instituted a number of financial reforms during his papacy but much more was required. He also transferred sexual abuse cases to the CDF to adjudicate in the last years of the John Paul II papacy, which resulted in the laicization of 400 priests in 2011 and 2012 alone. Against this record, Francis has accomplished virtually nothing. In his first four years, Francis not only failed to follow through on promising initiatives started under his own leadership, he even reversed some of his predecessor’s reforms. Even when Francis articulated accurately the weaknesses of bureaucracy, writes Lawler, his own administrative style was ill-suited to reform the Curia—though he has shown no inability to remove officials who impede his theological agenda. Beyond serious financial improprieties, cardinals, during the conclave, who demanded reform were concerned with problems that persist to this day: “secrecy, careerism, intramural rivalries, and office politicking.”

A notable failure was the papal commission headed by Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, established to deal with sexual abuses perpetrated by bishops. The commission’s work was not supported by the Curia and Francis failed to remove the impediments to its success. It was scandalous enough to learn that Francis had intervened in 2014 on behalf of Mauro Inzoli, an Italian priest who was stripped of his clerical status by the CDF for sexual misconduct. Close advisors asked the pope to reverse the CDF’s decisions, which he did, only to reverse himself after an Italian court convicted Inzoli of multiple counts of sexual abuse. We should not then be surprised that Francis would defend Bishop Barros of Chile who was credibly accused of ignoring sexual abuse of minors by a priest who was also a friend. In repenting of his criticism of Barros’s opponents in recent months, Francis conceded that he had been ill-informed of the matter by advisors—even after Cardinal O’Malley hand-delivered documents incriminating Barros. Early in his papacy, Francis may have denied the existence of a gay lobby at the Vatican, but his assurances are not convincing given that his close advisors seem determined to protect homosexual clergy guilty of participating in, or covering up, sexual abuse.

Causing Fundamental Harm to the Faith
The greatest controversy of the Francis pontificate to date involves the “Kasper Proposal.” In an address to the February 2014 consistory called by Pope Francis, German cardinal Walter Kasper proposed an idea that he had championed for decades despite its being rejected by two previous popes. Kasper called upon the Church to make the Eucharist available to some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who had not obtained an annulment. This question would dominate press reports about the Synod of Bishops and would resurface in subtle ways in Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation issued by Pope Francis in 2016. The Synod fathers successfully resisted Kasper’s proposal despite the heavy-handed tactics of its organizers. Lawler writes: “The only institution that can lead the recovery of a proper understanding of marriage and the family is the Church.” He laments how much time was wasted on an unpopular proposal that distracted attention from a host of serious problems: same-sex “marriage,” no-fault divorce, co-habitation, and illegitimacy to name a few, but the Francis-appointed organizers had different priorities. Like other Synod fathers, Cardinal Pell suspected they would not stop with communion for divorced and remarried couples. He said, “They want wider changes, recognition of civil unions, recognition of homosexual unions.”

To this point, Amoris Laetitia asserts that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral, or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” Furthermore, Francis argues that, “what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.” By thus establishing the principle of pastoral flexibility, he more explicitly lays the ground for the Kasper proposal in paragraph 305: “A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.” Here and elsewhere, Francis suggests that some who live objectively in sin may not be culpable for that sin and, as such, may still “be living in God’s grace.” They should therefore receive support from the Church, including “the help of the sacraments.”

In opening the door to pastoral flexibility, Francis is departing from the teaching of his predecessors. The diverse pastoral responses of various bishops’ conferences are a predictable result of an intentional refusal to enforce pastoral directives laid down in Familiaris Consortio and other magisterial documents. Just as to answer the dubia questions asked by four cardinals seeking clarity on the teaching of Amoris Laetitia would undermine the pastoral flexibility Francis seeks. Confusion leading to pastoral change is the goal and more likely to bring about long-term success than an explicit reversal of established teaching through the issuing of a formal magisterial document (which could be dismissed as unauthoritative). Lawler makes an important additional point: If Francis explicitly rejects the teaching of a previous pope, a future pope could do the same to Francis, ensuring that “no papal statement on this question could be regarded as conclusive.”

Francis may not want to admit his intention to change Church teaching, but his allies are less reluctant. There can no longer be doubt about papal intentions when even Archbishop Bruno Forte, an organizer of the first Synod, and Cardinal Schönborn, introducer of Amoris Laetitia to the Vatican press corps, admit that change is the goal. Lawler’s book not only reveals the intentions of Pope Francis but also shows why these changes in moral teaching and pastoral practice are fundamentally harmful to the Faith and a betrayal of the gospel. Pope Francis’s failure to reform the Curia, his demoralizing rhetoric, and draconian administrative style should cause legitimate concern among faithful Catholics. Papal scolding coupled with the removal of perceived critics from their offices has created a climate of fear in the Vatican. At the same time, friends and loyalists are promoted to positions they are not qualified to fill. Beyond these administrative weaknesses, the secular priorities of the Vatican threaten to turn the Church into a worldwide NGO, against the stated wishes of even Francis himself.

Lawler raises questions that need to be asked. His answers to those questions are convincing and should offer some relief to concerned readers who are baffled by the news from Rome. By knowing what to expect, we can better prepare for what might come next. In the meantime, we should pray for Pope Francis and for the Church in this uncertain time knowing that the Faith has overcome similar challenges in the past, that Pope Francis does not have the authority to permanently alter magisterial teaching, and that harmful changes in pastoral practice can be reversed.

(Photo credit: CNA)