Fr. Thomas M. Rosica, Vatican press assistant for the anglophone sector, wrote recently these astonishingly frank words:
Pope Francis breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is ‘free from disordered attachments.’ Our Church has indeed entered a new phase: with the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.
These words were intended to be both laudatory and prophetic. Francis is the pope who trims the Church’s sails to the winds of the Spirit rather than letting old charts and logs dictate the course. He is the man appointed by God to lead the Church out of its hide-bound clericalism into a new freedom to relate to the modern world, to generate in her a new “openness to what lies ahead,” to issue “a call to go further.” If, as some say, his methods and manner smack of Peronism, what of it? According to Fr. Rosica, those who dare criticize this divinely appointed ruler should go to confession and henceforth hold their tongues.
Well, since we are being frank, let me say that a finer example of a disordered attachment could scarcely be found. Francis does not appear here as the successor of that Peter whose only mandate is to confess Christ and to safeguard the sacraments of the gospel, thus feeding the flock and strengthening his brethren. He appears rather as Jesus himself appeared – as one so vested with the Spirit as to take authority over scripture and tradition. And this, if taken seriously, is heresy of the rankest kind.
Fr. Rosica’s fawning “clericalism of one,” if I may put it that way, confuses Peter with Christ. Moreover, it reflects a confusion evident in Francis himself, who on hearing this ought to have torn his cassock and ripped up Rosica’s letter of appointment. Perhaps, however, he was too preoccupied with his own effort to persuade us to go further, “to open ourselves up without fear, without rigidity, to be flexible in the Spirit and not mummified in our structures that close us up.”
Now dare I say that, in the context of the present ephebophilia crisis, the words of Francis just quoted, which were used in expression of gratitude to José Tolentino Mendonça, a priest (now bishop) who has not shied from promoting LGBTQ causes, take on a rather sinister sense? One can well imagine such words being used in the grooming or cajoling of young seminarians by the likes of “Uncle Ted.” No doubt that was far from Francis’s mind! But recall that this is the pontiff who has not merely erred, as his predecessors did, in appointing men of dubious character to high office at the urging of other such men in the bureaucracy. This is the pontiff who has deliberately surrounded himself with such men (whose names, eschewed here, have now been named by one in a position to name them). It is the pontiff who allegedly lifted what limited sanctions Benedict imposed on McCarrick and apparently took the latter’s advice in making major episcopal appointments. It is the pontiff who, confronted with all that, said that he would speak not one word in reply, yet clearly indicated that critics, however grave their charges, are but sowers of division, a howling “pack of wild dogs” who seek to destroy the peace of a prayerful man.
The McCarrick scandal, let us all admit, is just one powerful gust in the swirling tempest that now surrounds Francis and threatens to capsize both his pontificate and the barque of Peter itself. If the bridge is unresponsive it is not because it is deep in prayer, as the pope pretends. It is because the bridge itself is now riddled with the worms of sexual and financial corruption. Greed and lust, particularly homosexual lust, is doing to the Church what it is doing elsewhere in human society – destroying its very sense of direction and its capacity to distinguish truth from error, good from evil, the innocent from the guilty, sound judgment from folly. In such a situation keeping our heads down and bailing, bailing, bailing, as Rosica advises, is no solution at all.
What, then, is the solution? To resist clericalism? Yes, and especially this “clericalism of one” that places the pope beyond all criticism and beyond all accountability. That will not be enough, but it will be a start. For the pope may be subject to no earthly authority the equal of his own, but he remains subject to the authority of Christ, of which he is by no means the only repository, nor in most matters the sole interpreter.
Some think that Francis displays signs of a disordered personality, as David doubtless thought of King Saul; but subjective judgments of that sort, though they become more germane in any scheme that makes authority reside in the person rather than in the office, are not the issue here. The point is rather that it is wrong to treat Francis – or any pope – as if, like Saul, he were indeed a sovereign, an absolute sovereign against whom no hand must ever be lifted save, at most, to trim some small piece from the hem of his garment, lest one be found guilty of sinning against the Lord’s anointed.
The first Jesuit pope will likely be the last. At all events, Ignatius’ military model of obedience ought not to be transferred to the papal and institutional structures of the Church. Nor ought anyone to be taken in by the kind of modesty of which Francis has made a show, as if that military model were the very thing he wished to break down by something more spontaneous, more charismatic, more Franciscan (that is, more lay-like). That is just what leads round to the error of papal personalism. From his bow on the balcony to his “Who am I to judge?” to his recent “You be the judge,” Francis has deflected attention from proper papal authority in order to enhance or protect his personal authority – the very authority so aptly described by Fr. Rosica.
At this point, let us consult the charts. Canon 331 states:
The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.
That certainly sounds like sovereignty, but what kind of sovereignty? Not the personalistic kind that Rosica favors, nor even the political kind that the people of Israel favored when they demanded that a king be appointed over them, nor yet the military kind favored by Ignatius.
Note well here that the bishop of Rome is the vicar of Christ, not the vicar of God. God has now but one vicar, the God-man himself, who is the Church’s true head and its only proper sovereign and high priest. Peter exercises something of the sovereignty vested by God in Christ, for Christ has in turn vested that something in him and his successors, together with the apostolic college, in the form of magisterial judgment and binding juridical authority in the daily life of the Church. But Peter is not himself a sovereign, properly speaking; he is merely a steward, with very specific responsibilities. It was and is a mistake, whether by titles or by customs or by laws or by scruples – here we may indeed challenge some of the old charts, which were rightly corrected at the Second Vatican Council – to regard him as if he were something other or more than that.
Yet did we not call the Church the barque of Peter? Yes, but the genitive is not possessive. If we wish to make it possessive, or even appositive, we must refer to the barque of Christ. Recall the occasion when the Twelve were out in a boat with the wind against them, while Jesus also was out – walking on the sea in the tempest. When he joined them and climbed into the boat, both the wind and the sea and the boat itself obeyed him, though they would not obey Peter or the Twelve. There is a lesson there. The Church is the barque of Peter only in the sense that Peter is asked to remain watchful on the bridge. He is certainly not invited to seize the helm and steer the ship on some course of his own, fancying that his sails are trimmed to the Spirit.
So let us, by all means, be frank. But let us have none of Fr. Rosica’s nonsense. If Francis is doing what Rosica says he is doing – and that, I fear, is difficult to deny – then Francis is not performing the duties of his Petrine office at all. Rather he is driving the ship onto the shoals, and it is high time the rest of the Twelve (I mean, of course, the apostolic college) pointed that out, as indeed the more alert members are beginning to do. This storm will pass, and the air in the Church be fresher for it. The ship will sail on and reach suddenly its destination. But its broken masts and rotten planks must first be replaced or repaired. For that, not only the charts, but also the ship’s plans, must be consulted again.