Pope Francis is a popular and powerfully charismatic leader. He has received his share of criticism in the five years he has been in office, but then, popular and powerfully charismatic leaders are lightning rods for criticism. Frankly, much of it is underserved. Even more of it is either misplaced or poorly articulated, even when it is reasonably well founded. Often, criticism of the Pope is expressed in unreasonable terms, even when the complaint itself is legitimate. This is generally true of criticism leveled at leaders at every level, and especially true of that leveled against people in positions of high leadership. Sitting in the big chair means courting controversy.
“Heretic!” is a favorite aspersion of the Pope’s detractors. “Modernist!” is a common permutation of the charge.
To see that Pope Francis is not a Modernist, one need look no further than his warnings against the dangers of hell, which are certainly more frequent than those of his two predecessors in the office, and could already be more numerous than all of his two most recent predecessors’ similar admonitions, combined. His certainty with regard to the inevitable Divine judgment is pronounced, his constant exhortations to frequent the Sacrament of Penance are passionate to the point of enthusiasm, and his desire for reform in continuity with tradition — epitomized in his praise for the enduring importance of the Council of Trent in the life of the Church — as eloquent as it is overlooked.
In more general terms, Pope Francis seems neither to know nor to care enough about doctrine to be a real heretic. In this, he is like most Bishops of Rome since St. Peter. Like them, he has people for that sort of thing. One might wish to see Pope Francis make more, or better use of the people he does have for that sort of thing, but that is another matter — and one on which there have been some encouraging signs of late.
Even when the charges leveled against him have been badly placed, ill-suited, or poorly couched, they often have been a genuine expression of the sense that something is wrong. What, though? There is a rather pedestrian answer: Pope Francis suffers from a sort of constantly creeping tendency toward clericalism, which colors more of his thought and behavior than anyone — especially Francis himself, who rightly sees clericalism as a disease in the body of the Church — would care to admit.
Some of this tendency is discernible in remarks regarding specific kinds or categories of lay people, e.g. women, or the elderly.
From his unfortunate descriptions of women as “strawberries on the cake” of the Church’s theological effort — in fairness, he did say we need more strawberries — to his employment of frankly ageist and sexist language to describe the ills of the Church and of society, viz., “a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother’, no longer fertile and vibrant,” to his slights at religious women who are more like “spinsters” or “old maids” than the “mothers” they are supposed to be, to his tactless wisecracks about pastors of parishes being under the thumb of their housekeepers (who are obviously women), the Pope has cut a poor figure.
Sure, he has spoken in defense of the elderly: of the store of civilizational wisdom and memory of which they are the keepers — though that talk is often frankly reductive and patronizing; and he has spoken of the need for increased involvement of women in Church leadership and decision-making. In the main, however, he has not put his money where his mouth is. He appointed two women to positions touted as “key” roles in the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Bioethicist Prof. Gabriella Gambino and canon lawyer Dr. Linda Ghisoni became Undersecretaries to the Dicastery in 2017. For all the ballyhoo, they are essentially glorified desk jockeys in a department without a well-defined mission.
Despite his repeated and vehement denunciations of clericalism, Francis’ more general remarks about the laity sometimes nevertheless exhibit a sort of clerical chauvinism. If this is surprising, perhaps it ought not be. Francis often gives the impression he is preaching to himself when he dips into his bag of signature aspersions and condemnations.
His talk of an “ideal” of Christian marriage, for example, which it is impossible to uphold in practice, bespeaks an attitude of clerical sufficiency, if not superiority.
“A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church,” Pope Francis writes in paragraph 307 of his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia. “To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations,” he continues there, “never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being.”
The problem here is not that what the Pope says is not true as far as it goes. The problem is that the promises that are constitutive of marriage as such are not the ideal or even a dim picture of it: they are the baseline and bare minimum to which one publicly commits oneself in contracting marriage. In fact, Pope Francis often seems to think lay persons incapable of even the most basic acts of faith — the public faith on which the giving and taking of vows is entirely based, not the supernatural faith that gives Christians to glimpse the inner life of the Trinity and work under the impetus of charity to emulate it in their lives.
“[T]he culture of the provisional,” Pope Francis told the participants in the ecclesial convention of the Rome diocese, in one of his unguarded moments, on June 16, 2016, “is why a large majority of our sacramental marriages are null: because they say, ‘Yes, all my life,’ but they do not know what it is they are saying, because they have another culture.”
In order that the specific kind of misunderstanding Pope Francis adduced should vitiate marital consent, one of the contracting parties would either have to be completely ignorant of the very notion of permanence, or exclude permanence by a positive act of the will: either not only not understand what “permanent” means existentially, but have no idea what the word “permanent” even means; or really and positively mean not to contract a permanent obligation, even though one mouthed the words by which one contracts one.
Said bluntly, if Pope Francis does understand the mechanics of consent, then he believes the majority of Christians in putatively valid marriages are either idiots, or liars. One would rather believe he misspoke even more gravely than the Orwelled official transcript of the event would have it, which replaces “majority” with “a part,” or that he simply misunderstands the mechanics.
He went on in those same off-the-cuff remarks to say, in regard to people he has met, who are cohabiting or at least living in canonically irregular situations, “[R]eally, I say that I have seen a great deal of fidelity in these cohabiting couples, a great deal of fidelity; and I am certain that this is a true marriage, they have the grace of matrimony, precisely because of the fidelity that they have.”
The part about the vast majority of putatively “sacramental” unions being null was worth a double-take, but it ought not have been deeply shocking to learn that a grunt cleric in the pastoral trenches was fuzzy on the point, even if the grunt cleric in question was the Bishop of Rome. One might even say, “Especially if the cleric in question was the Bishop of Rome.” Marriage, however, is not so much a matter of doctrine, as it is a practical matter — a matter of law — created by public promises, the effective enactment of which requires no special knowledge or training, but only the ability to give one’s word.
Pope Francis seems to think most lay folk are mostly incapable of this. That is, again, disappointing. It is not surprising. It was galling, however, to hear Pope Francis say that cohabiting couples have the grace of matrimony. People living in concubinage are neither better nor worse than other people, and the Lord no doubt pours out abundant graces on them, though they are not the graces of matrimony. According to Pope Francis, however, my wife is probably not my wife, but my concubine; while another man’s concubine is really his wife.
Then there is Pope Francis’ willingness to believe bishops over laity in matters regarding child safety and justice: a willingness epitomized in his own words to pilgrims on the sidelines of the weekly General Audience in May 2015. “[The Church in Osorno] has lost her freedom,” said Pope Francis, “by letting her head be filled with [words of] politicians, blaming a bishop without any proof, after 20 years of being a bishop.” Francis specified, saying, “[The Church in] Osorno suffers, because she is stupid, because she does not open her heart to what God says and she lets herself be carried away by the idiocies that all those people say.”
He also said, “The only accusation there was against that bishop was [tossed] by the judicial court.” That is not exactly right. In any case, his advice to the faithful was, “Think with your head and do not be led by the nose by all the leftists, who are the ones who put the [scandal] together,” i.e. orchestrated the whole business. However much the leftists were using the press to gin things up, it turns out they weren’t conjuring from thin air. Also, the way the Holy Father’s beats track with those of Santiago’s Cardinals Francisco Errázuriz and Ricardo Ezzati suggests that, if some of the faithful of Osorno were being led by the nose, they weren’t the only ones.
That the Pope has, after intense and sustained public pressure, finally seen fit to send his point man to look into the matter, changes nothing about his default position, which is one in which the word of high clerics with skin in the game is worth more than that of the laymen his own court believed when it convicted the priest who abused them.
Pope Francis may talk a good game sometimes, but when push comes to shove, the very best one can say for him is that he is about the same as all the others, certainly no better, and maybe even worse.