The problem with Pope Francis’ letter to the U.S. bishops

The framework and assumption that what’s most at stake here is institutional credibility is exactly what led to cover-ups and protection of clerical perpetrators. Exactly. 

U.S. bishops attend a prayer service in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mundelein Seminary Jan. 2 at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, near Chicago. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Pope Francis has written a letter to the American bishops, who are on retreat at Mundelein Seminary this week.

It is, honestly, the usual strange/not-strange message from Pope Francis. Strange in that he goes all over the place except to the specific place where the problem resides, and not-strange in that, well, this is what he usually does, and there’s always a reason for that.

Your experience of reading the letter might be like mine: I read it and nodded and thought, Well, not bad, that’s true, sure, it’s good for these things to be said, nice point there—and then I finished, thought about it for a minute, and realized that none of the specific problematic issues had actually been addressed.

Further, the spiritual context which Pope Francis recommends for going forward, it could be argued, actually enables the original problematic actions. Many problematic actions.

To begin with:

At times of great confusion and uncertainty, we need to be attentive and discerning, to free our hearts of compromises and false certainties, in order to hear what the Lord asks of us in the mission he has given us. Many actions can be helpful, good and necessary, and may even seem correct, but not all of them have the “flavour” of the Gospel. To put it colloquially, we have to be careful that “the cure does not become worse than the disease”. And this requires of us wisdom, prayer, much listening and fraternal communion.

Quite true, of course.

The first consequence that Pope Francis raises, the first issue that seems to require addressing, is that of credibility:

The Church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them. This has led to a growing sense of uncertainty, distrust and vulnerability among the faithful. As we know, the mentality that would cover things up, far from helping to resolve conflicts, enabled them to fester and cause even greater harm to the network of relationships that today we are called to heal and restore.

We know that the sins and crimes that were committed, and their repercussions on the ecclesial, social and cultural levels, have deeply affected the faithful. They have caused great perplexity, upset and confusion…

This is institutional thinking, isn’t it? It is, in fact, one of the core attitudes that led to the level of this scandal over the past decades (and probably always): This makes us look bad.

One could say that this is really nothing more than the traditional Catholic understanding of scandal—a true and valid way of entering into this situation and its consequences. But it’s actually a little different. Traditionally, scandal is seen as a negative because it works to obfuscate the power and truth of the Gospel—people can’t see Jesus because you, the one supposedly representing it, have gotten completely in the way. There’s a hint of this here, but the entire passage is really more about the problem of people seeing the institution in a negative light being a problem simply because it’s better that they see it in a positive light.

The loss of credibility also raises painful questions about the way we relate to one another. Clearly, a living fabric has come undone, and we, like weavers, are called to repair it. This involves our ability, or inability, as a community to forge bonds and create spaces that are healthy, mature and respectful of the integrity and privacy of each person. It involves our ability to bring people together and to get them enthused and confident about a broad, shared project that is at once unassuming, solid, sober and transparent.

And so on. The rest of the letter expresses Francis’ usual themes—listen, dialogue, make space for the new, prioritize unity, don’t impose abstractions:

This approach demands of us the decision to abandon a modus operandi of disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim or the scold in our relationships, and instead to make room for the gentle breeze that the Gospel alone can offer. Let us not forget that “the collegial lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth”. [6] Let us try to break the vicious circle of recrimination, undercutting and discrediting, by avoiding gossip and slander in the pursuit of a path of prayerful and contrite acceptance of our limitations and sins, and the promotion of dialogue, discussion and discernment.

And so I wonder: Is this situation a problem because it diminished the institution’s credibility and threatens bonds of communion, or because people committed all sorts of sins of commission and omission, used other human beings, did great harm to God’s children, and offended and disobeyed the Lord who created us for good, not evil?

The framework and assumption that what’s most at stake here is institutional credibility is exactly what led to cover-ups and protection of clerical perpetrators. Exactly. That, of course, is nothing the Holy Father would defend and is what his letter is presented in opposition to, but until you shake that framework that privileges the horizontal over the vertical, you’re stuck in the same rut. It’s subtle, but is at the core of so many problems in the contemporary Church, including this one.

Understanding human actions and choices as fundamentally, basically a response to God’s call and yes, law, keeps everything else in context, since, of course, God’s fundamental call is to love.

Understanding human actions as fundamentally, basically oriented towards keeping some sort of peace with others or creating a certain environment without our obligation to God at the center—absolute, unmoving center, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us—makes it really easy for us to create our own reality, including our own definitions for sin and forgiveness.

It’s the difference between living inside the Garden—or outside. That’s really the whole point of Genesis 1-3.

In short, it just seems to me that a week of reflection on this needs to not start with metaphors of jars and pebbles or concerns about credibility, but rather something more along the lines of Psalm 32.

Which it probably did, outside the official public communications.

Anyway, I haven’t even remarked on what struck me as the most problematic aspect of this letter: the deep, repeated call to work together, be unified, be in communion and so on.

Wait, what? Why is that a problem? I mean…isn’t dialogue and communion the point?

No. Truth is.

And the reason the harping on unity and scolding about “recrimination” is problematic in this context is that one of the crucial issues leading to this crisis was precisely that: prioritizing of the external bonds between clerics above telling the truth and the privileging of protecting image over allowing consequences to be borne.

Who’s against dialogue and a mature search for answers and new ways forward? Hey, not me! But nothing at all will change if that dialogue is conducted in a context in which we are focused on how we think we should make each other feel and how the world sees us, rather than on how all of this looks to God—or if we’re more invested in saying things that make us seem open-minded and unified rather than saying true things, no matter how harsh they may be.

Is the culture of church leadership in desperate need of encouragement to be more gently tolerant of all points of view and less critical of each other? It seems to me it is pretty much the opposite.

We don’t create the bonds of Christian unity. God does this. Jesus Christ does, through Baptism. Our call is to recognize those bonds, strengthen them and then do the harder thing:  be willing to recognize when those bonds have been broken by sin—and courageously say it out loud, no matter what the price.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on the “Charlotte Was Both” blog in a slightly different form and is posted here by kind permission of the author. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CWR staff or Ignatius Press staff.)


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About Amy Welborn 9 Articles
Amy Welborn is a writer currently living in Birmingham, Alabama. She is the author of over twenty books on spirituality, saints and history., including the recently released Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Their History and Meaning. Her website is www.amywelborn.com.

26 Comments

  1. “create spaces that are healthy, mature and respectful of the integrity and privacy of each person?”

    “bring people together and to get them enthused and confident about a broad, shared project that is at once unassuming, solid, sober and transparent?”

    What nauseating touch-feely tripe. How about something blunt and forthright like “We need to quit sinning, quit covering up for sin, and focus on God?”

  2. What are the canonical objections to the proposals under consideration by the UCCSB that Ouellet raised in his letter? Someone needs to get to the bottom of that.

  3. Whatever the topic at hand, Pope Francis’s style of writing is often so convoluted that by the end of a given paragraph I can’t remember what it was about at the beginning… It’s amazing to me that the POPE should be so incapable of clearly expressing his thoughts. Unless that’s his intention…

  4. The views expressed in this article DO reflect my own. I would add one thing to what Amy has stated: This Pope offers only shallow ideas and cheap sentimentality. We’re on to you, Francis and pray daily for your successor.

  5. Of course the Pope’s letter is disoriented – because this Pope is gravely disoriented.

    Men like Pope Francis are oriented toward the Church as an end in itsel. It is their institution, the NGO they run as career warehouse. They are not oriented to Jesus Christ the Incarnate Son of the Living God. In McCarrick Church, which is the cult that Pope Francis inhabits, Jesus has long since become merely a marketing prop.

    This Pope is the hand-picked agent of “ex-Cardinal” McCarrick and “Cardinal” Danneels: unchristian and post-Catholic sex abusers and sex abuse coverup sociopaths.

    Danneels was retired in disgrace for covering up homosexual incestual abuse by Bishop Vangelhuwe, a man who raped his own little nephew for 10 years. And Danneels stood on the balcony with Pope Francis on Day 1.

    These men are the grand masters of the world-wide St. Galen immorality cult.

    Everyone should watch Taylor Marshal’s video interview with James Grein.

    (Note – While Mr. Grein speculates about Pope JP2 and what he knew – that can be set aside as speculation – but the rest is essential.)

  6. Excellent, excellent points. Especially the one about how stating the truth should be at the heart of any attempt to reform the Church.

    Sometimes it seems like those who lead our Church don’t even know who Jesus is. They make him seem like a kind of Jewish Mr. Rogers, who is only concerned with people’s feelings.

    Jesus, while always good, was not always nice. He reserved a special vitriol for those who were not operating in good faith, and he dispensed liberally at times it in the hope of shaking up their hypocrisy and pride.

    Pope Bergoglio needs to stop worrying about how this outrage is reflecting on himself and others and focus instead on repentance and accountability.

    Bergoglio writes: “Let us try to break the vicious circle of recrimination, undercutting and discrediting…”

    Whaa? Am I hallucinating here, or did Bergoglio himself actually refer to Archbishop Viganò as “Satan”? And not all that long ago. Does he think we won’t remember?

    Finally — and, I would say, incredibly — Bergoglio worries that the cure will be “worse than the disease.” What could be worse than having people who obviously don’t believe in the teachings of the Church occupying positions of leadership and using their positions to prey upon the most vulnerable of the faithful, destroying their lives and ravaging their souls?

    Whenever Bergoglio speaks of the scandals, I — like the estimable Ms. Welborn apparently — get the impression he really has no idea of what was so wrong about what happened and why people would be so angry.

  7. “the collegial lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth”.

    “Let us try to break the vicious circle of recrimination, undercutting and discrediting, by avoiding gossip and slander in the pursuit of a path of prayerful and contrite acceptance of our limitations and sins, and the promotion of dialogue, discussion and discernment”.

    What a collection of non-sense, non-Catholic tirade.Typical of this pope, no question about it.

  8. First:

    Pope Francis calls for unity among our bishops.

    However, dozens are guilty of covering up for abusers in one way or another, and should resign.

    He doesn’t even mention that, however.

    Conclusion: a “united” conference will not demand accountability for its members, because too many guilty bishops will oppose that demand.

    Second:

    He hectors those who criticize. Shame on you!

    Again, let bygones be bygones, just be nicer next time.

    Nothing – NOTHING – has changed since 2002, when two-thirds of the bishops were guilty, all voted to exempt themselves from their own “protection” charter (ahem: protecting *whom*?), and all went back to their chanceries, circling the wagons.

    None quit. Cardinal Law and Cardinal Mahony are still cardinals.

    As Lenin asked, What is to be done?

    Warren Carroll had it right: “Truth exists. The Incarnation happened.”

    Put not your faith in princes, even Princes of the Church. Christ alone can save us. And when He comes again, everything will be revealed, and then everything will be destroyed.

      • Bergoglio and his hand-picked Bishops and Cardinals who covered up the abuse are the problem. He talks about clericalism and communicating, etc., yet hasn’t even bothered to answer 5 yes or no questions of the Dubia to clarify his Amoris Laetitia mess, after over 2 years. He refuses to even meet with the 2 Cardinals who wrote up the questions, even after the other 2 died.
        However, he has time for interviews and visits with abortionists, abortion promoters, atheists, and confused people who believe they have changed to the opposite sex. He even gave awards to some of them. Before anyone tries to defend him by saying that Jesus ate with the sinners, I’d like to note that Jesus NEVER rewarded them for their sins or condoned their evil behavior.
        Bergoglio refuses to answer Archbishop Vigano’s accusations, yet he was the one who gave the positions to McCarrick. Unfortunately, now, Bergoglio is passing the blame. The shame is on him and all those complicit in the terrible deeds and cover-ups in the Church.
        Heaven help us.

  9. Thank you, Amy. You crystallised my more vague reaction well. No mention of truth or sin, and the obtuse notion that collegiality will fix this mess. And the perpetual scold: “Stop gossiping!” With the world awash in sexual depravity, we’re constantly told to be nice [sigh].

  10. A view of the Forest highlights Amy Wellborn’s complaint The need to address the moral dilemma rather than ecclesial integrity. Although the entire Vista speaks to more than mere politicization of the searing issue of homosexual practice among Hierarchy. Drawing attention to America away from the Vatican is nothing new. Flawed saints and pontiffs share responsibility for the current impasse. Entirely different now is the Agenda. Apparent in a mindset that is effectively normalizing by power of suggestion and maneuver the very behavior underlying the crisis.

  11. When the Feds and other cops kick in the doors at your local diocese demanding records…remember this nonsense letter. Who in their right mind writes and speaks like this?
    Jesuits do. Jesuits using jesuit-speak. A coded language which is meant to mean anything to everyone. It is useless, a camouflage employed to confuse the reader or listener.
    It is used by those who wish not to be held accountable. This is such a mediocre and failed papacy.
    We are on to you, Francis. Shame on you.

    • Francis the Abstract, I call him. He routinely speaks in parables of uncertain decipherability, partly by training, but largely by raw, cynical calculation. Specifically regarding the crisis, he will resolutely continue not to go There, and put the right lackeys in place (I’m looking at you, Cdl. Cupich) to uphold that reprehensible strategy, for going There will seriously jeopardize the homosexual cabal that put Francis on the Chair of Peter.

  12. Matt. 16:23. I sure don’t see Christ in McCarrick and MBLA Ganymedean proteges. Instead I see superficially beautiful produce for consumption and a lovely grocery store…only to find out after purchasing that these items that they contain many ravenous maggots eating away at the core. Disgusting. And yet the Pope wants me to take this produce home, ignore the maggots and feed them to my family as if nothing is wrong? Why wouldn’t I want to find out from the management how they got rotten in the first place and if there are more at this store? Maybe its time to get a new sign: “Under New Management”.

  13. Could it be quite simply that Pope Francis, as well as Pope Benedict – when confronted with the enormity of the crisis – has no idea what strategies to undertake. Maybe neither of them is up to the task. Perhaps the third Pope to take a stab at it will finally break through.

    • Benedict was abandoned and betrayed by those around him who should have supported this reserved but Holy Pontiff.
      Francis, on the other hand, is the spawn of the St Gallen mob who lobbied for his election. The mob had plans, which we now see every week, it seems.
      Francis is not a defender of the Faith. He is and acts like the Capo di tutti Capi. Viganò rightly fears for his life.

  14. “…And this requires of us wisdom, prayer, much listening and fraternal communion.” —pope
    Gosh, i thought he wrote fraternal ‘correction’. My mistake. Nice pope.

  15. I congratulate the Author, Amy Wellborn, her ability to extract the truth out of a thick wool of tiresome deceitful fluff.

    I wish that all the bishops (pope included) had that gift, along with a disgust for falsehoods.

  16. Typical missive from the Pope. Many words, very little meaning and fails to even touch the true problems. He is incapable of writing a clear sentence or to even focus on anything specific. It is no wonder the Church is in crisis.

    He doesn’t get it. This is not about being nice to each other, it is about opening up and speaking the truth about each other and if that means dozens of bishops resigning, so be it. If you read his entire letter, you will wonder what the heck they are even bothering to go to Rome for. Nothing will be accomplished there in regards to the homosexual activity taking place everywhere, especially in the Vatican and that it is this inclination that has brought us so much sexual abuse.

    If Francis is not willing to approve an Apostolic Visit to get to the bottom of McCarrick, find every one who knew about him AND everyone who is leading an active sexual life as a member of the clergy, and removing them, then he should just resign because he is not someone we wish to follow.

  17. Francis is not fit to be Pope. This letter is further evidence of his refusal to courageously and honestly deal with the truth: immoral men hijacking the teachings left to us by our dear Lord. Satan’s fruits are lies, obfuscation and manipulation of the truth and promotion of evil and confusion. To call Francis your Holiness seems sacrilegious after all the evidence of his unholy actions, inactions, silence when he should speak.and heretical pronouncements.

  18. Count me a convinced Thomist.

    Bergoglio: Molinism (on grace, scientia media) taken to a new, Machiavellian extreme…where I can “get” God to grant grace though now I really don’t really believe in grace at all but the achieved “peace” of “getting my way” (always “God’s Will” on the deepest level)… in the process discarding God’s sovereignty as actually repugnant (to Cardinals Marx, Schonborn and Bergoglio himself) in favor of an appeal to a “human dignity” greater than Scripture and Tradition, a “human dignity” greater than justice that necessitates denigrating justice and demonizing those who want justice.

    At this point, wouldn’t an updated summary using photos and blurbs/brief descriptions in a flowchart tell the story of this homosexual, criminal network quite well?

  19. The Holy Father writes,

    “The Church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them. This has led to a growing sense of uncertainty, distrust and vulnerability among the faithful.”

    The buck stops with Pope Francis. Why has the McCartick incident not been thoroughly investigated and all responsible have faced canonical trial and sanctions. He has hamstrung the USCCB, and yet seems to isolate the US as the only one having the issue.

    I echo the authors concerns here. He says nothing relevant to the issue with a multitude of words.

  20. these are strong words I think francis has a a huge task in front of him but trust his humility and Love of God will help him to master this task he has been landed with. Pray for him morning and night. May the Holy Spirit guide him till the end of this problem and help him to find a working solution.Amen.

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