10 things Michael Cook gets wrong in his criticism of papal critics

Yes, Francis is often misquoted. Yes, Francis sometimes trips over his own rhetorical toes. But there are deeper problems. And saying so isn’t a sin.

I’ve read Mercatornet.com for many years and read it every week to great benefit. The folks over there do wonderful work. But Michael Cook, editor of Mercatornet.com has done himself and readers no favors with his recently posted piece “7 reasons why the Pope’s gaffes are OK”. While I’m surely not going to defend all criticisms of Pope Francis—quite the contrary!—I think there are some serious problems with Cook’s approach and his 7 points.

Here are ten points in response:

1. Cook, like many of those taking umbrage with criticisms of Pope Francis, does not offer distinctions about the various forms of criticism out there. He mentions “malcontents” who are, in some cases, calling for the Holy Father’s resignation. As far as I know, critics such as myself, Edward Peters, Phil Lawler, Jeff Mirus, Monsignor Charles Pope, Amy Welborn, Janet Smith, and Rachel Lu—just to mention some American writers who have criticized certain statements or actions of Francis—have never called for his resignation. It’s easy to highlight the most extreme or even outrageous criticisms made of Francis. Unfortunately, the conversation (if it is such a thing) over Francis within Catholic circles seems to often consist of little more than a shouting match between those who think He’s the Greatest Pope Ever (and I’m not exaggerating) and those who think He’s the Antichrist and a Communist Antichrist at That (again, not exaggerating). 

But there has been a steady, if not always recognized, flow of measured, thoughtful, and insightful criticism, some of it going back to the latter part of 2013, as when one perplexed pundit wrote: “To state what should be obvious, a pope in 2013 simply needs to be as precise and clear as possible. Fuzzy language, half-formed concepts, and failure to make important distinctions will eventually result in confusion and frustration.” Yes, I am that pundit, and I do think my concerns, alas, have been borne out. The fact is, critics such as myself and those mentioned above have been focused on three main things: the scolding and abrasive tone sometimes used by Francis, oftentimes in reference to Christians; the ambiguity and imprecision which often appears in not only the now legendary off-the-cuff utterances, but also in homilies and even more formal papal documents such as Amoris Laetitia; and statements about various matters—especially relating to marriage and family life—that are either bewildering or, arguably, simply wrong. Cook never addresses or acknowledges those criticisms, which seriously undermines his arguments.

2. Cook states: “Well, I’m a fan of Pope Francis and I don’t think that there is anything to worry about. Perhaps he should get a new press secretary, but his Catholic critics shouldn’t get their knickers in a knot.” If there is nothing to worry about, why get a new press secretary? And, again, why tell Catholic critics to unknot their knickers when you won’t present some of the many (and there are many) legitimate, sober concerns raised by serious, thoughtful Catholics?

3. Cook’s first point is Francis “is often badly misreported.” That is true. Does Cook not think that, say, someone like Phil Lawler, who is a veteran Catholic journalist and editor (he edited CWR for many years) who wrote a most serious book about the sex abuse scandals in Boston, is not able to recognize misreporting? For my part, I always seek out the official translation/transcription of papal interviews, and I always give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt, as is both fair and fitting. So, for example, this past February I defended some of Francis’ remarks about conscience and “same-sex unions”, even though it would have relatively easy to spin them in a negative direction, or to let the secular media push my buttons.

4. “Cut him some slack, people!”, says Cook, “Scrutinise his written documents, not off-the-cuff comments.” To which I say, see CWR’s symposium on Amoris Laetitia, which includes some sixteen essays by theologians and scholars including Dr. Leroy Huizenga, Dr.  Stephan Kampowski, Fr. James Schall, SJ, Dr. Adam G. Cooper, Dr. David Deavel, and Edward Peters, among others. I praised the document’s opening chapters, saying they “provide a Scriptural and theological reflection on the nature of marriage and family, is often powerful and poetic in equal measure”, but then note serious problems in the now rather famous chapter 8, stating:

For whatever reason, Francis seems to think that the past few decades have been marked by a dogmatic rigidity that is as merciless as it is obsessed with the fine details of law, causing countless innocent or near innocent Catholics to flee a Church that they perceive to be cold and heartless. That perspective is, to put it nicely, dubious and problematic. The impression often given, unfortunately, is that any emphasis on objective moral standards regarding actions and relationships is bound to quickly degenerate into a harsh and uncharitable condemnation.

Homilies are also an issue. In June, I offered some thoughts on a homily that was, at best, a mess; just a few days ago, Monsignor Charles Pope wrote a very measured but strong piece for National Catholic Register about Francis’ description of some priests being “animals”.

But there is also this simple fact: the Pope’s “off-the-cuff” remarks are not throwaway campaign fodder, but 1) provide insight into Francis’ thinking, 2) have influence among both media and readers (perhaps too much influence, but that’s another matter), and 3) are part of the rhetorical and intellectual framework of this pontificate. If they mean so little, why does the Holy Father bother? I say that if Francis thinks they are worth saying in public and for the record, they should be taken seriously, even though they are not magisterial in nature.

5. Cook states: “Benedict XVI was ill at ease with the media but pushed himself to engage in open forums. He made gaffes as well. The increasingly open and engaged style of the modern Papacy has evolved still further with Pope Francis. He clearly wants to be both a pastor and a theology professor. But he’s just a Pope not Superman; he can’t do both equally well.”

Whew. Where to start? First, the comment about Benedict XVI is simply incorrect. Wildly incorrect. Joseph Ratzinger was a professor in 1959 and was a peritus, or theological consultant, at Vatican II while just in his thirties. He was head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for nearly a quarter century (1981-2005), and in that capacity interacted often with the media. Cook has succumbed here to the silly “Ratzinger is shy and reticent” mythology employed by those who either know little about the man or wish to misrepresent him (I’m thinking here of Fr. Thomas Reese’s stupid comment ten years ago that Benedict lacked “street smarts”). 

Secondly, I can think of just a couple of gaffes that might be rightly applied to Benedict during his eight years as pope, such as his comments about contraceptives in Africa—and that comment was itself taken out of context by many. Quite a few folks like to point to the Regensburg Lecture as somehow a “gaffe”, but I think it is actually one of many highlights of a papacy that was willing to speak honestly and seriously about the essential role that bad ideas have in the real world (for more on that see Dr. Samuel Gregg’s recent and excellent CWR essay “Regensburg Revisited: Ten Years Later, A West Still in Denial”).

Thirdly, I would argue that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were both exceptional pastors and theologians; both roles can be done equally well by many priests. One problem, it appears, is that Francis has little patience for doctrine, which is an impediment, of course, for anyone who wishes to be a theologian. And then there is the little noticed fact that Francis apparently has no experience as a pastor at a parish level—which is not remarkable, except that he is considered to be exceedingly “pastoral”.

6. “A real father is not supposed to be a buttoned-up, dogma-spouting robot,” says Cook, “Let him speak his mind, even if he has to backtrack occasionally to clarify some of his words.” Does Cook, or any other serious Catholic, think that John Paul II or Benedict XVI were “buttoned-up, dogma-spouting robots”? I doubt it; I hope not! But here’s the rub: lack of clarity and cohesion in language indicates a lack of clarity and cohesion in thought. Lack of clarity and cohesion on a nearly weekly basis is, frankly, troublesome. Hiring a new press secretary will only go so far.

7. Cook insists: “If you want to know what Pope Francis thinks, read documents which he has signed and sealed, not CNN reports.” See #1 and #4. Then ponder this question: what reveals more clearly the mind and heart of a man: his impromptu and on-the-spot comments or his carefully scripted written statements?

8. “The Pope is not the only public figure to make gaffes.” But that’s really not the problem, is it? Sure, gaffes are highlighted and emphasized to a ridiculous degree in this day and age, what with the internet and social media and such, but most sane folks can understand and handle an occasion “gaffe”. Yet when “gaffes” become a pattern, and the pattern becomes the norm, we are no longer talking about gaffes, are we?

9. “Catholics learn more about what the Pope says from CNN and social media,” says Cook, “than they do from Sunday homilies in their local church or even the Vatican’s website.” But we’re talking about certain critics of Francis—and the critics I have in mind do not (emphatically do not) listen to CNN and social media over what the Pope really says. The last time I actually turned to CNN on purpose and stayed there for more than 10 seconds was during the 2013 papal conclave, when I watched Anderson Cooper ask some silly questions of some silly women standing in St. Peter’s Square about women’s ordination. This point is simply a straw man.

10. Finally, Cook says:

THERE ARE PUBLIC men who have a gift for precision, for le mot juste, for pleasing with polished phrases, for sound bites which win votes without making waves, for promises so vague they need never be kept, for words so vacuous they can never be criticised. Spineless creatures like this are called politicians. Do Catholics really want a politician for a Pope?

Goodness! Is Cook suggesting that Catholics don’t want a Pope who insists that global warming is a proven fact, that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism, who further suggests that unemployment is a major cause for terrorism, who rails against shadowy global entities that control the economy, who condemns those who make ammunition and those who don’t use ammunition in certain situations, who indicates that government regulations are the answer to economic woes, who often denounces and so forth? It’s revealing, even though entirely anecdotal, that when I asked (completely out of the blue) a longtime Evangelical friend who has been a pastor of some 30 years what he thought of Francis, he simply stated, “He comes across as a politician.” More to the point, Cook’s notion that politicians are noted for their precision is specious, at best, since the real issue isn’t precision but truth. Many politicians are ambiguous and confusing, or say one thing to one group and another thing to another group. Then again, Donald Trump is very specific and blunt—does Cook think he might be a good choice for President of the United States? Pope Francis talks constantly of mercy but quite often without any call for conversion or exhortation to avoid specific sins: is that a sound bite or a polished phrase? You be the judge.

I’ll finish with some remarks that I made a few days ago in a Facebook discussion (something I generally avoid) about criticism of Francis. I stated, in explaining why I thought some criticisms were warranted, as follows:

We live in a unique time, when the words of the Holy Father are available within minutes or hours of being uttered. The amount of words being uttered is quite large; the amount of confusion within various interviews and “off-the-cuff” remarks is significant. The usual suspects use said confusion, ambiguities, and questionable statements for their own ends. In order to defend and clarify Church teaching, one sometimes has to point out that Francis is either ambiguous or unclear about this or that. And, occasionally, he appears to be completely wrong. So, what to do? 

The pope’s main work is to defend and define when necessarily, while upholding the teachings of the Church. My job, as a lay Catholic, is to be true to the teachings of Christ and of his Church, and if a pope isn’t clear about, say, the nature of marriage, or certain moral teachings, I have a right and responsibility to respectfully point it out. I refuse to be an ultramontanist. The other problem, compounding maters further, is that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were not only quite brilliant, they were remarkably clear and consistent. Francis is often neither. Fine—but we’re used to some clarity and consistently. And, at some level, we should be getting it.

About Carl E. Olson 1048 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.