Five About Francis

A look at some recent stories about the Holy Father and his pontificate

The Holy Father is constantly in the news and there is never a shortage of stories about what he is saying and doing, as well as about what he might have said, should do, or won’t say or do. Here are five recent stories about Pope Francis that caught my attention for various reasons.

1. On the occasion of the two-year anniversary of Francis’ election, George Weigel spoke with Kathryn Jean Lopez of NRO about the current papacy. Here are a couple of excerpts:

KJL: You’ve written that he has “reanimated the papacy.” What does that mean for Church teaching?

GW: I hope it means that the new interest in the pope evokes a new interest in the Church’s teaching, of which the pope is the custodian. Francis ought to be taken at his word when he says, as he has often done, that he is a son of the Church who believes and teaches what the Catholic Church believes and teaches. If his media-generated popularity, fragile as that may turn out to be when the world discovers that the pope is really a Catholic, opens windows of possibility for explaining that divine mercy leads us to the truths God revealed to us (and inscribed into the world and into us), then his reanimation of the papacy will advance the “Church in permanent mission” for which he called in Evangelii Gaudium, which is the grand strategy document of his pontificate. …

KJL: In that same article for the Tablet, a British magazine, you said, “All over the world, Francis is news, and when the Pope is news, so is the Church and the Gospel.” Is that still good news when the pope seems to be interpreted in different ways by different people? When the Gospel seems to be interpreted in different ways by different people?

GW: That’s the obvious challenge, perhaps even danger, here. By its very nature as a custodial office, the papacy can’t be a Rorschach test, into which people read whatever they like – whatever they fear or hope for. So when media “narratives” about Francis get set in concrete, and act as filters bending or distorting (or ignoring) aspects of his vision and his teaching that don’t fit the established story line, the Church has a problem. There’s an obvious investment in some media circles in the “narrative” of “the pope who’s finally going to get with it.” And as a friend at a major American newspaper said to me when I complained about this tendency in his own paper, “You know how these media narratives are. They’re like bamboo.” Meaning, once they start growing, you can’t kill them.

Perhaps the dumbest of these story lines is that Francis has re-opened conversation and debate in a Church that had been closed and claustrophobic for 35 years under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I defy anyone who, over the last 35 years, has spent time on the campuses of Notre Dame or Georgetown, or who has read the National Catholic Reporter, or who has gone to a meeting of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, to make that claim without experiencing a twinge of conscience that says, “I should wash my mouth out with soap.”

The most enduring of the false narratives is that the signature phrase of the early pontificate — “Who am I to judge?” — was a matter of the pope jettisoning millennia of Catholic moral teaching. It was not. It was a specific response to the circumstances of a man who had repented and was trying to live an upright life; it was, in a word, what any sensible pastor, facing that specific set of circumstances, would say. But ripped out of context, it has become an all-purpose filter through which everything else — including the pope’s multiple reaffirmations of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical on the morally appropriate means of family planning — gets airbrushed out of the picture.

And then there’s the trope about an impending “global-warming encyclical.” The pope is preparing an encyclical on nature and the environment, including the human environment (which includes the moral imperative of a culturally affirmed and legally recognized right to life from conception until natural death). So what happens? A low-ranking Vatican official with gauchiste tendencies and a marked talent for self-promotion gives an interview to the Guardian, one of the most consistently anti-Catholic newspapers in the world, in which he claims that this is a global-warming encyclical — which he couldn’t possibly have known, as the document wasn’t drafted yet. The Guardian loves it, because it fits the story line of the long-awaited Great Catholic Cave-In. So the story wafts across the Atlantic, where it’s picked up with glee by Catholic progressives and horror by some Catholic conservatives — and the battle of the blogs is on, full blast. No one bothers to ask whether there’s any basis in fact for the assertion that this is going to be a “global-warming encyclical.” So when climate change gets some attention in a 100-page document, the most important parts of which will have to do with the theology of stewardship and the theology of “human ecology,” it’s almost certainly going to be rapturously embraced, or bitterly opposed, as a “global-warming encyclical,” despite the evidence that it’s much more broadly gauged than that.

More pro-active Vatican communications might be able to do something about all this, but when the Holy See is constantly in the mode of, “No, what the pope really meant was . . . ,” the game has already been largely forfeited.

Read the entire interview on the Ethics & Public Policy Center site.

2. Veteran Vatican reporter Sandro Magister’s most recent piece suggests that Francis is starting to shy away from his earlier support for Cardinal Kasper’s proposals about Communion for some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics:

“This does not resolve anything,” Pope Francis has said with regard to the idea of giving communion to the divorced and remarried. Much less if they “want” it, demand it. Because communion “is not a badge, a decoration. No.”

In his latest big interview Jorge Mario Bergoglio threw cold water on the expectations for substantial change in the doctrine and practice of Catholic marriage, which he himself had indirectly fostered:

“Overblown expectations,” he called them. With no more references to the innovative theses of Cardinal Walter Kasper, which he had repeatedly extolled in the past but now seems to be keeping at a distance.

On the other hand, for some time now Pope Francis has looked with growing attention and esteem at another cardinal theologian, who upholds ideas on the “Gospel of marriage” that are perfectly in line with tradition: the Italian Carlo Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna.

As a professor of moral theology, Caffarra was a specialist in marriage, family, procreation. And this is why John Paul II wanted him at the head of the pontifical institute for studies on marriage and the family that he created in 1981 at the Lateran university, following the 1980 synod dedicated precisely to these themes. …

But first it will be helpful to recall other facts that highlight the growing approach of Pope Francis toward Kasper’s critics.

For one thing, the pope is keeping on at the head of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, the most authoritative of the five cardinals of the anti-Kasper book, resolute in warning against that “subtle Christological heresy” which consists in separating doctrine from pastoral practice, in the illusion that the latter can be changed without harming the former, so that second marriages can be blessed while holding firm the indissolubility of marriage …

Which suggests to me that Francis does not have some sort of strategic master plan, as some on either end of the spectrum assume or assert, but that he is, well, sort of winging it. Of course, popes can change their views and opinions, but this sort of apparent sawing back and forth—especially on this particular issue—is not something one would have expected or experienced with John Paul II or Benedict XVI. But, then again, there is so much that it is unknown, and the coming months leading up the Synod of Bishops will see countless stories about papal shifts, moves, and so forth.

3. Then there is this story by Edward Pentin for National Catholic Register that never mentions Francis and yet seems to be very much about Francis:

The Vatican today announced that the vice president of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family will be a consulter to the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops.

Professor José Granados‘ appointment, alongside eleven other consulters, means he will be taking part in the upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family in October. This is significant because at last October’s synod no faculty member from the John Paul II Institute was represented (although some previous institute presidents did attend, including its founding president, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra).

The synod was criticized for ignoring John Paul II’s teachings on marriage and the family, particularly his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio. 

Today’s appointment will therefore be welcomed, but could it also be an effort to appease critics? It’s easy to be skeptical and perhaps see conspiracy when there is none. But given what happened last year, it’s perhaps not unwise to view these developments with some suspicion.

For instance, news of Professor Granados’ appointment was published on Saturday, with his name listed at the bottom. Was this to avoid drawing too much attention? Possibly.

But more substantially, when one examines the theological backgrounds of the 11 other appointees, a case could be made that the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops is stacking the deck in favor of certain positions.

After listing a bit about some of the other consulters—many of them holding views that are either liberal or pushing the liberal line—Pentin writes:

None of this is meant as a criticism of these professors, but rather to show that their views and leanings do seem to indicate a bias in a certain direction, and therefore one favored by the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. If so, is this not contrary to the Holy Father’s wish for a free, open – and one imagines fair – debate?

A final observation: for a synod that will largely focus on moral issues, consulters who are experts in moral theology or moral philosophy are, so far at least, strangely absent. 

Speaking of moral theology:

4. Catholic News Agency reported on the pope’s recent visit to Naples to speak to some priests and religious. In a “wide-ranging, off-the-cuff speech” Francis talked about challenges facing them to priests “emphasizing above all the importance of poverty and resisting gossip.”:

“For me there is a sign that there is no fraternity in the presbyterate or in religious communities. The sign is gossip…the terrorism of gossip,” the Pope told priests, religious and seminarians of Naples during his March 21 daytrip.

This is, by my count, the fourth time Francis has referred to the “terrorism of gossip.” It’s a striking phrase, but I wonder how it sounds to those Christians who are suffering such intense and often deadly persecution by terrorists in many parts of the world, including just across the Mediterranean Ocean. The piece also reports on a papal anecdote:

Pope Francis also spoke of the importance of consecrated persons to live the “spirit of poverty,” even for those who haven’t made a vow to do it.

When the Church isn’t living this spirit and when the desire for profit creeps into the hearts of priests and religious, “it’s ugly,” he said, and called to mind the story of another religious woman he knew who a good person and was “thrifty” in her work, but was too attached to money.

Even though this sister was unaware of this and did her work well, “her heart was so attached to money and (she selected people) based off of the money they had.”

This woman’s “final humiliation” came when she was around 70 years-old and suddenly lost consciousness and collapsed in a living room full of professors while on a coffee break between classes at her school, the Pope said.

Francis recalled that while people were slapping her face trying to revive her, one professor came and said “but put a bill for 100 pesos in front of her and let’s see if she responds then.”

“The poor thing was already dead, but this was the last word that was spoken when they still didn’t know whether she was dead or not. It’s a terrible witness,” he said.

This story left me a bit confused, because it seems that the really despicable person in all of this is the professor making a mockery of a sister as she dies! Perhaps a moral theologian out there can provide some solid exegesis.

5. Finally, Religion News Service reporter David Gibson, whose ideological biases are as obvious as his theological insights are limited, recently wrote a piece, “Pope Francis has history, but not time, on his side” (Mar 12, 2015), in which he made a fairly remarkable claim:

Can the Roman Catholic Church change? And if so, how? And what’s on the table — traditions, rites, doctrine, none of the above?

Such fundamental questions go to the heart of Catholic identity, and they’re the same questions Pope Francis has raised almost since the moment he was elected two years ago this Friday, a dark horse candidate who became the first pontiff from Latin America.

When he shunned the apostolic palace for a modest apartment, or cold-called people who wrote to him with problems, Francis’ humble approach endeared him to the masses. Yet he also surprised — maybe stunned — Catholics by encouraging open debate, especially about Church teachings and practices that had long been considered out of bounds. …

Yet what is perhaps most critical to the long-term success of Francis’ efforts is a broader acceptance of the idea that the Church — and even doctrine — can change. History has shown the Church changing on many occasions, something that popes as tradition-minded as Benedict have acknowledged.

Change how, exactly? I suspect that Gibson is not referring here to the development of doctrine, but to change that signals a break from what has been taught before. And yet that has been expressly condemned by the Catholic Church, at the First Vatican Council, which stated:

For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles. Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this see of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Saviour to the prince of his disciples: I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren

For more on the significant difference between “change” and “development,” see Dr. Eduardo Echeverria’s CWR essay, “Development of Doctrine or Change in Teaching?” (Oct 19, 2014). Gibson’s “report,” in short, is what Weigel rightly calls “false narratives”. Expect to see numerous more before all is said and done–or not done, as the case might be. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 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 Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.