The Off-the-Cuff and Out-of-Focus Papacy

Since chastising orthodox bishops at the conclusion of the Synod, Pope Francis has often resorted to scoldings, ambiguities, and mixed messages

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at the local Knights of Columbus about the Synod of 2015. To be honest, I didn’t want to give the talk; I had been asked to do it back in September and I figured it would be easy enough to discuss for 30 or 40 minutes. Certainly there was no lack of material. In fact, a key reason for my reluctance was the overwhelming amount of information: how to present it and analyze it with any sort of coherence in such a short amount of time?

I opened the talk by admitting my concerns. I then read a quote that, for various reasons, I’ve had on my office wall for many years:

I fully realize that I have not succeeded in answering all of your questions… Indeed, I feel I have not answered any of them completely. The answers I have found only serve to raise a whole new set of questions, which only lead to more problems, some of which we weren’t even aware were problems. To sum it all up… In some ways I feel we are confused as ever, but I believe we are confused on a higher level, and about more important things.

It’s a fitting quote, not least because the story behind it is almost as confusing and convoluted as the recent Synod. That said, it’s not evident in the least that the confusion coming from the Synod, however much of it is real or perceived, is of a “higher level” and “about more important things”. On the contrary, I think much of the confusion is simply the logical outcome of a two-year-long process with ambitious but hazy (or concealed) goals, questionable methods, and equally questionable motives—at least on the part of certain bishops, most of them from Germany and other western European countries.

My goal here is not to recount what transpired at the (truly) Extraordinary Synod of 2014 and the (not very) Ordinary Synod of 2015. I simply want to made a few observations. Those looking for an overarching perspective would do well to read George Weigel’s recent First Things’ essay “What Really Happened at Synod 2015”. Here is one of the most important points he makes:

The synod demonstrated what has been known, if rarely spoken of publicly, for some years: Much of the Church in northern Europe is in a de facto state of schism, not formally detached from Rome and the rest of the world Church, but thinking and living its own ecclesial reality. Some northern European bishops manifestly do not believe and teach what the Catholic Church believes and teaches. German ecclesiology at the ground level is in such a shambles that those who decline to pay the state-collected Kirchensteuer (church tax) can be denied Holy Communion and access to the other sacraments, while those living in irregular relationships are regularly offered Holy Communion. Addressing this de facto (but not de jure) separation of northern European Catholicism from the unity of the world Church—a sad byproduct of intellectual confusions and intellectual arrogance leading to massive pastoral failure—is a serious issue for the Catholic future.

This, in fact, might well be one of the best positives (for those keeping score with plus-and-minus columns) of the Synods: the exposure, on a big stage, of the “frightening decline” of the Church in Germany. It is a sad testament to what decades of capitulation, self-absorption, and facile sophistication eventually and inevitably lead to. The capitulation is matched by raw arrogance. Witness the recent online smirking of someone writing on the German Bishops Conference website about the “Romantic, Poor Church” of Africa.

Or consider the recent surreal and snide remarks of Cardinal Godfried Danneels—who is as close to the German bishops as any—about the Church in Africa, huffing that Catholics in Africa had better stop criticizing the paganism and individualism rampant in Europe because it “is possible that the crisis we have had will spread there too, with all that this entails. Africans may also experience a situation similar to ours. Then they might call us up to see how we dealt with it. To get some useful tips.” The very liberal Danneels—who directly tried to cover up evidence of clerical sex abuse a few years ago—seems completely oblivious to how the ruin of the Church in Belgium is not simply a matter of the outside culture but the refusal of the inside culture, on the whole, to respond with a robust and unapologetic orthodoxy. Speaking of such orthodoxy, here is another essential point from Weigel:

The experience of Synod 2015 also suggests that too many of the Church’s bishops have a tenuous grasp on doctrine and a palpable disinclination to discuss grave pastoral matters in their appropriately theological context. Pastorally skillful bishops are, obviously, an imperative. But we are in a moment of cultural crisis in the West. Bad ideas underwrite ideologies that make war on human nature, especially male-female complementarity, and deconstruct the basic norms and institutions that promote human flourishing (often deploying coercive state power to accelerate the deconstruction). Surely the Church can find pastorally skilled and humanly compelling men who can meet the challenge of those desperately deficient ideas, which are magnifying the sum total of human unhappiness—intellectually sophisticated pastors who can invite the walking wounded of postmodernity to the joy of conversion.

Two other, shorter, quotes come to mind. The first, from Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World, is well known: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Again and again, there was news from Synod of chatter about a “new Church” heading in a “new direction” and operating under a “new mode”. This corresponded with a new tone and a new approach to language, one that seemed intent on stripping away anything deemed offensive or offputting, especially regarding immoral actions. Fittingly, the sophistication of the progressives’ tactics was matched by the sophistry of their rhetoric. Josef Pieper, in Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, noted that propaganda is simply “the corruption and abuse of language” for coercive and ideological ends. (Pieper, being German, knew well what he was describing and criticizing.)

The second quote, which I paraphrase from memory, was uttered by a moral theologian several months ago during a phone conversation: “We assume that the bishops are well-versed in the writings and thought of John Paul II, and thus know his teachings about marriage and family. But most are not. And many of them have very little grounding in such matters.” The comment was not critical; it was simply truthful. Yes, there are some bishops with an exceptional grasp of John Paul II’s theology of the body and many related matters. Some of them have written erudite works about the same. But more than a few are not only hazy on the details, they have a long distant relationship with the basic doctrines of the Church regarding any number of essential moral issues. 

Thus, during the 2015 Synod the Archbishop of Chicago held a press conference in which he uttered remarks about “conscience” and homosexuality that not only bordered on banal but were quite evidently in complete contradiction to the clear teachings found in Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s brilliant 1993 encyclical on moral theology. “The conscience is inviolable,” stated the American archbishop whose record as a shepherd has been mixed at best, “And we have to respect that when they make decisions and I’ve always done that.” Not so fast, responded Saint John Paul II in a twenty-two-year-old preemptive strike:

In their desire to emphasize the “creative” character of conscience, certain authors no longer call its actions “judgments” but “decisions” : only by making these decisions “autonomously” would man be able to attain moral maturity. Some even hold that this process of maturing is inhibited by the excessively categorical position adopted by the Church’s Magisterium in many moral questions; for them, the Church’s interventions are the cause of unnecessary conflicts of conscience. (VS, 55)

Many other examples could be given. But the essential point is this: the Synods of 2014 and 2015 revealed an agenda on the part of many bishops to simply do away with the pontificate of John Paul II (and of Benedict XVI, for that matter). The negative takeaway is that it took five weeks of synods and countless hours of discussion, discernment, debate, and dabbling to reiterate what the Church has always taught about marriage and family—hours that could have been spent at the feet of the sainted Pope whose pontificate offers a lifetime of material in those very areas.

There is one key moment of the 2015 synod that Weigel does not mention—the moment that was, for me, the most revealing of all: the final address by Pope Francis to the synod fathers. I’ve read and studied hundreds of papal texts, and I’ve never read anything quite like it. It was a sort of papal tantrum, quite unbecoming both the office and the man. Sure, this pope is known for his scolding. But that address was a new and disconcerting low, and anyone who has been following this pontificate and these synods knows that the Holy Father’s scathing remarks were aimed squarely at those bishops who had stood their ground on the matter of Holy Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. The Synod, stated Francis

was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family, but rather about seeing these difficulties and uncertainties in the light of the Faith, carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand. …

It was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the Church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would “indoctrinate” it in dead stones to be hurled at others.

It was also about laying closed hearts, which bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families. …

It was about trying to open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints, so as to defend and spread the freedom of the children of God, and to transmit the beauty of Christian Newness, at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible.

In the course of this Synod, the different opinions which were freely expressed – and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways – certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue; they offered a vivid image of a Church which does not simply “rubberstamp”, but draws from the sources of her faith living waters to refresh parched hearts.

In short—and I cannot come to any other reasonable conclusion—Francis was saying that those who held the line on the Church’s perennial teaching were Pharisaical, loveless, stone-throwing, backward hypocrites. “The Synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit;” he said, “not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness.” It was a rather strange comparison to make for the simple reason that the Pharisees were not rebuked by Christ because of their rigidity regarding marital laws, but because of their self-serving laxity: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8). As another moral theologian wrote to me regarding the pontiff’s remarks:

Some might even suggest that the pope has developed a bad habit of calling anyone who disagrees with him, or who insists that we apply reason and the precise words of Scripture to a contemporary problem, a Pharisee. Yet if there is anyone who is a Pharisee today, it’s those German and Belgian bishops and their fellow travelers in the academy who literally make stuff up and selectively quote Aquinas in order to try and worm their way around the words of Christ Himself and Saint Paul. They are ones who should be called out for legalism, rather than those who take Christ and Paul to mean what they say about marriage and communion.

Prior to the 2014 Synod, in an interview with an Argentinian newspaper, Francis said, “I even enjoy debating with the very conservative, but intellectually well-formed bishops. … The world has changed and the Church cannot lock itself into alleged interpretations of dogma.” In his September 23rd address to U.S. bishops, Francis warned against “preaching complicated doctrines,” a exhortation he repeated in his November 10th address to the Italian churches: “Do not be preachers of complex doctrines, but announcers of Christ, dead and risen for us.” He has made many other, similar remarks, often emphasizing that “people are more important than ideas”, itself a curious statement since, as Robert Royal has observed, “the statement itself is an idea, and rightly understood can lead to great good, or wrongly (which often seems to be the case) to great evil.”

I can only conclude that, for whatever reason, this pope has a deep aversion to theological precision (and, thus, clarity) and is quite impatient with how “doctrine” and “dogma” impede his vision of how things should be in the Church. This is troubling on several counts; I will note just three. First, following the logic of Francis’ various remarks, the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (for starters) were pharisaical and unnecessarily complex, and thus stand opposed to his vision of mercy. Whether or not Francis cares about such a logical progression and conclusion is, of course, an entirely different matter.

Secondly, it creates an “either/or” dilemma that is quite contrary to the Catholic embrace of an “both/and” approach to spirituality, theology, and devotion. St. Peter was not a rigorous theologian, nor was Saint Francis, but St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas were. Each is necessary and good; each has a proper place. Why pit the good against the good? And why the obvious rigidity in face of an alleged and unproven rigidity?

Finally, it’s confusing. Let’s face it: this pontificate is often confusing and even incoherent; Francis regularly fails to speak with clarity. Worse, he sometimes fails to speak with charity. When the two failings converge, chaos ensues. For example, in off-the-cuff remarks made yesterday during an off-the-ground interview—flying from Africa back to Rome—he said the following in response to a question about violent “fundamentalism”:

Fundamentalism is a sickness that exists in all religions. We Catholics have some, not just some, so many, who believe they have the absolute truth and they move forward with calumnies, with defamation and they hurt (people), they hurt. And, I say this because it’s my Church, also us, all of us. It must be combatted. Religious fundamentalism isn’t religious. Why? Because God is lacking.

Who, exactly, are these violent Catholic “fundamentalists”? What does Francis mean by “fundamentalism” (a much abused and misused term, it should be noted). And since when is it contrary to the Catholic faith to believe and adhere to absolute truth—specifically, to the One who said, “I am the way, the life, and the truth” (Jn 14:6)? And does adherence to the One who is Truth lead to “fundamentalism”? Of course it doesn’t—but, again, what is Francis saying?

That question is being asked far too often. What, for instance, to make the pope’s November 15th remarks (again, off-the-cuff and, apparently, off-the-mark) to a gathering of evangelical Lutherans in Rome? Andrea Gagliarducci summarized it in this way:

Pope Francis’ improvised discourse included many deprecating criticisms. Sometimes, theology was considered as (“speeches for theologians”), sometimes he even underestimated the theological issues (“life is larger than interpretations”). The Pope also seemed to under-estimate the reason why Catholics and Lutherans cannot take sacramental Communion together, and he seemed willing to leave the issue open to each person’s conscience. 

Well, in some ways I feel we are confused as ever. In other ways, we are more confused than ever before. And rather than being confused on a higher level, and about more important things, we are faced with a troubling pattern: scoldings, ambiguities, inconsistencies, mixed messages, imprecisions, thinly veiled insults, and language that is sometimes more imprudent than it is papal. These, in turn, have raised even more questions. I suspect, however, that clear answers will not be forthcoming anytime soon. 

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1197 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.