When the former chief-of-staff of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine (and now former consultant to the same), Fr. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap., sent a private missive to Pope Francis on July 31st, he was taking a bold step: it is not a small thing to criticize the Vicar of Christ on Earth – to rebuke him, essentially, even if only in writing, and not “to his face” as St. Paul the Apostle did Peter.
Fr. Weinandy is a distinguished theologian and a member of the International Theological Commission, and as such, he certainly meets the standard set by Canon 212, which states:
According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, [the Christian faithful] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.
Even so, the exercise of a right, or the discharge of a duty upon which that right rests, is not without its perils, and Fr. Weinandy knew what he was doing when he wrote Pope Francis to tell him, among other things:
[Y]ou seem to censor and even mock those who interpret Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia in accord with Church tradition as Pharisaic stone-throwers who embody a merciless rigorism. This kind of calumny is alien to the nature of the Petrine ministry.
While Fr. Weinandy’s missive to Pope Francis on July 31st was not ostensibly conceived as a letter of resignation, its appearance before the public on November 1 meant that it might as well have been.
The Holy Father may yet prove tolerant of Fr. Weinandy’s temerity, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) swiftly moved to see that his official association with them be ended. Within hours of the letter’s appearance before the public, the Conference had required, and received, Fr. Weinandy’s resignation.
One may not fault the USCCB for requiring his resignation. For one thing, consultants have no responsibility, and serve at the pleasure. The Bishops were under no strict obligation to give a reason, nor would they have been, should they have determined to dismiss Fr. Weinandy (which, formally, they did not).
For another, the USCCB does work “in support of, and in affective collegiality with the Holy Father,” as the statement from the USCCB’s chief communications officer, James Rogers, announcing Fr. Weinandy’s resignation says. It is more than merely understandable that the Bishops should be less than perfectly confident in the counsel of a man who has so publicly declared what is certainly disappointment with the Holy Father’s record of leadership, and published what may be fairly characterized as criticism that dances on the edge of intemperance.
Had the Bishops said nothing, but only required and accepted Fr. Weinandy’s resignation, it is a fair bet the story of it would not have come to more than, “Dog bites man.”
We would have seen hotheads vent, and the lunatic fringe take up his “cause” for a day, but those heads were going to blow in any case, and the lunatic fringe these days will work itself into a frenzy over just about anything.
Fr. Weinandy, however, is neither a hothead, nor a member of the lunatic fringe. For a man of his character, accomplishment, and reputation to entertain such truculent language is, if nothing else, an indication of the depth and breadth of frustration within the Church.
Also, the Bishops were not silent.
The Bishops’ communications chief issued the aforementioned statement regarding Fr. Weinandy’s decision to step down – one that offered no detailed information about the conversation that preceded his tendering of his resignation, nor any direct explanation of the reason it was required. Within minutes (they were tweeted 14 minutes apart) of that statement’s release, the Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and President of the USCCB, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, issued his own “reflection on dialogue within the Church” – one that began by noting Fr. Weinandy’s departure:
The departure today of Fr. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap., as a consultant to the Committee on Doctrine and the publication of his letter to Pope Francis gives [sic] us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of dialogue within the Church.
Cardinal DiNardo goes on to decry the tribalism and spirit of faction that have infected the public counsels in the Church and in society more broadly – and he is quite right to do so. Neat reductions, such as those one will find of this specific contretemps, e.g., “How dare you say the Pope doesn’t tolerate criticism? – You’re fired!” are just that: neat reductions, which do no party true justice, and tend to diminish our capacity for empathy – however genuine and even justified the sentiment that gives rise to the temptation to such reductions is.
Then, he lists a series of requisites for the proper conduct of public controversy within the Church, including – in primis – charity: then honesty and humility; presumption of good faith; finally, a spirit of collegiality, which it must be the particular care of the bishops and their organs to foster and in which the bishops and those who serve them must abide.
While wholly unexceptionable and even entirely praiseworthy in its substance, the context in which Cardinal DiNardo places the meat of his reflection makes the whole thing read rather as a list of standards against which Fr. Weinandy may or may not have been measured, and found wanting.
Since Cardinal DiNardo quoted in his rehearsal from St. Ignatius Loyola’s famous presupposition to the Spiritual Exercises, it is worthwhile to visit the ample quote, of which Cardinal DiNardo gave only a part:
In order that both he who is giving the Spiritual Exercises, and he who is receiving them, may more help and benefit themselves, let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.
If some of Fr. Weinandy’s remarks were strident, they were also candid, offered with the free spirit of parrhesia (for which Pope Francis has repeatedly called), and frankly, trenchant. It is difficult, therefore, to see how the manner in which the Bishops went about their business meets the exacting standards of charity and candidacy in dialogue, which the President of the USCCB so admirably rehearsed in his reflection, especially if we consider the portion of St. Ignatius’ presupposition, which Cardinal DiNardo omitted.
Invocation of the omitted portion, however, cuts both ways: we owe the Bishops the fairest possible construction of their actions and their statements regarding them, as well as the presumption of good faith and sound motives in the absence of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. We owe each other the same, and the Pope as well, above and before all.
The Bishops had the right – perhaps the duty – to require Fr. Weinandy’s resignation.
Nevertheless, the Catholic faithful in every state of life in the Church have a right to know the Bishops’ mind in this regard, and Fr. Weinandy deserves at least a straightforward reproach.
In short: If the USCCB believes that Fr. Weinandy failed to act according to their standards of propriety and civility, they ought to say so plainly, in words. Then, we would know – and be in a position to judge on the merits – what the mind of the Bishops is with regard to Fr. Weinandy’s foray into public criticism of the Holy Father. More important for the broader and urgently pressing issue of recovering and repairing ecclesial discourse, Cardinal DiNardo’s reflection could have served the purpose for which charitable reading and candid reception would have disposed a reader to receive it. Was such a declaration impossible? If so, why?