Like many others, I was pleasantly surprised by the contents of Querida Amazonia, which, if not without concerning features, is almost incomparably better than was widely expected. Greater reflection has, however, led me to think that the document—and the degree of mutual disenchantment which has developed between Pope Francis and elements of the ecclesial left in the months since the Amazon Synod—is in keeping with the history of Jorge Bergoglio rather than a departure from the established orientation of his pontificate.
By now it is well-known that then Father Bergoglio first attracted the attention of the Argentinian bishops and the Holy See as an opponent of Liberation Theology, and was advanced up through the hierarchy on the supposition that he was a more or less conservatively leaning cleric. Or at least what might (for lack of a better term) be called “centrist”—devoted to orthodoxy but somewhere between the “middle” and the “left-wing” of faithful Catholic opinion on prudential and disciplinary matters. The rapid dispelling of that image by Francis’s words and actions as pope led many Americans and Europeans to assume this agenda must more or less equate to that which is predominant within dissident “leftist Catholicism” in the Old World and the United States. In fact, however, it seems likely that Francis’s relationship to such forms of “leftist Catholicism” can be compared in ways to Benedict XVI’s relationship to traditionalists—he is largely sympathetic, sharing many instincts, interests, concerns and priorities, but is not a member of the club.
One of the more nuanced assessments of Francis’s positions on substantive theological and philosophical issues is to be found in Henry Sire’s The Dictator Pope. Whatever criticisms might be made of that book’s heavy reliance on anonymous sources and its reconstruction of “behind the scenes” events, its attempt the grapple with the existence of a variety of competing “left-wing” schools of thought is both more accurate and more helpful than the simplistic “left/right” divide found in some other works, and which implies too close of an alignment between the Holy Father and schools of thought with which he disagrees. One key to understanding the mind of Francis was succinctly summarized by Mr. Sire:
Bergoglio himself was a man of the people, and in Latin America ‘liberation theology’ was a movement of intellectuals from the higher classes, the counterpart of the radical chic that led the bourgeoisie in Europe to worship Sartre and Marcuse. With such attitudes Bergoglio had no sympathy…his instinct made him follow the populist line of Peronism, which…was more in line with the genuine working class.
It hardly need be said that American and European “leftist Catholicism” is pervaded by the radical chic tendencies long opposed by a pope who is not only indifferent to fashion but tends towards the opposite extreme of Philistinism. This can only serve to create some ambiguity in Francis’s relationship to “leftist Catholics” in our country and in Europe. To appoint Jesuit Father James Martin as a consultor to the Vatican Secretariat of Communications and to grant him an extended private audience does not equate to viewing attendance at the annual gala of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts and appearing on the television shows of late night comedians as exemplary of priestly life.
Aside from their differing views of the world of fashionable elites, there are two major differences between Francis and “radical chic Catholics.” The first concerns their priorities. “Radical chic” Catholics may trumpet socialist economics but their practical focus is largely on fashionable left-wing “causes” having nothing to do with provision for the materially destitute—feminism, de facto sexual liberation, and so on. But it is provision for the materially destitute which Francis has a strong record of prioritizing, a fact that does not depend on whether his positions on how to aid the lower classes are prudent or ill-advised, helpful or ultimately harmful, in accord with or opposed to the traditional teachings of the Church.
The second major difference concerns attitudes to such fashionable “causes” as feminism and attacks on sexual morality. “Radical chic Catholics” are bent on having the Church formally declare that it was been wrong for two thousand years—that women can be ordained, that homosexual acts are morally permissible, that heterosexuals can engage in sexual intercourse with people to whom they are not validly married, and forth. Pope Francis, however, seems inclined to often obfuscate the pertinent Church teachings at the theoretical level and to mitigate them at the practical one without directly denying established formal teachings.
Desire for direct contradiction of Catholic teaching would have induced Francis to give questionable, or even heterodox, answers to the dubia concerning Amoris Laetitiae rather than leave the waters muddy through silence. After endorsing the Abu Dhabi document’s claim that God wills a diversity of religions, the pope, when pressed, told Bishop Athanasius Schneider that the statement in question is to be interpreted as referring to God’s permissive will rather than implying that God positively wants such diversity. Even Francis’s changes to Catechism on the topic of capital punishment are just ambiguous enough to allow for equivocation.
A similar approach can be seen in Francis’s handling of the question of the role of women in the Church. Proposed changes to the curia which would have removed delegated clerical authority from certain offices would have allowed the latter to be held by laity, and so allowed women to exercise de facto power over matters reserved to the clergy. But it still would have been necessary for women in such positions to have their decisions rubber stamped either by the pope or by a clergyman with the proper delegated clerical authority—which would have preserved the clergy’s de jure authority over such matters.
It appears that the Amazon Synod and its aftermath is widening the pre-existing gap between Pope Francis and “radical chic Catholics.” The latter were unambiguously bent upon using the synod as a vehicle to advance their standard agenda. The pope, however, has given strong indications that he truly intended the synod to focus on more narrow and limited issues quite specific to the Amazon and in accord with his preferred emphases. These are issues which, at least for the most part, it would be useful for the Church in that region to address—even if, perhaps, in a different way from that desired by Francis. It is likely enough that Francis was sympathetic to the broad inclinations behind some of the proposals which were made by “radical chic Catholics” in conjunction with the synod.
He may even have been sympathetic to, or at least open to, some of the proposals themselves, as was suggested recently by Cardinal Oswald Gracias, one of the six members of the pope’s advisory Council of Cardinals. But there remains, nevertheless, good reason to believe he did not intend for the synod to address such matters and was frustrated and alienated by attempts to turn the synod to such purposes. He may even see the extreme nature of such proposals as pragmatically dangerous, as alienating more moderate Catholics who might otherwise have enthusiastically embraced his own synod goals.
One can only hope that recent events will lead the pope to work more closely with bishops and cardinals who, if not in the mold of the best appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XIV, are at least what I earlier termed “centrist,” recognizably Catholics rather than sharers in the ideology of such men as cardinals Reinhard Marx and Walter Kasper.
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