Action Alert!

Rehabilitating Pope Francis, and saving ourselves

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 04, 2016

Over the past few weeks I’ve received a number of emails which rebuke me for a tendency to defend Pope Francis whenever I believe I can do so reasonably. As someone who has also criticized the Pope on several issues, I find the logic of this position elusive, to say the least. I would think it obvious that we ought to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and defend anyone against unjust or incorrect criticism, no matter how often we may have disagreed with the same person on other occasions. And when the person in question is the Pope….

I have already written a three-part series explaining the justification for criticizing a pope, enumerating the various forms such criticism can take, and identifying the moral principles we must keep in mind when going down that path. But one of the dangers of such criticism is that it can breed an unacceptable attitude toward the Holy Father. I see this attitude in the emails mentioned above. When we get to the point that we do not want anyone to say good things about the pope, we have crossed a very dangerous boundary.

The sins of the father

I am not reversing my contention that criticism of a pope is justifiable. My readers already know that I disagree with those who use Scripture to prove that God prohibits such criticism. The conventional argument from Scripture cites the behavior of Noah’s sons (cf. Gen 9:20-27). You will recall that Noah became drunk and lay down naked in his tent. Ham discovered him there, and hastened to tell his two brothers. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and, walking into the tent backwards so they could not see Noah, they “covered the nakedness of their father”. As a result, Noah cursed the descendants of Ham but blessed Shem and Japheth. Some argue that this Scripture passage can be understood to condemn criticism of the pope.

This would be a reasonable Scriptural argument if it were a matter of remaining silent about private behavior, of which the public would otherwise be unaware. Ham’s response to his father’s nakedness may be taken as a cautionary tale against violating the fourth commandment, and also against gossip. But Noah’s case is not applicable to the Pope’s public statements or actions, which are already widely known and discussed throughout the world. No, in such a public case, the first moral obligation is to limit the damage caused by imprudent (or even false) statements made by a pope, or by a pope’s scandalous behavior.

But justifiable criticism is one thing and character assassination is another. The paternal argument does not prohibit criticism, but that does not mean it has no value at all. As a child, I defended and praised my own father to others, no matter how many times I rebelled against his “unfortunate pastoral policies”. In just the same way, I regard it as a filial duty (if it is not already a basic requirement of charity) to write about Pope Francis—without resorting to distortion—in a manner that shows his words and actions in the best possible light.

This is even more obviously the correct approach when we consider the complexity of the issues with which the Pope must deal and the many different topics he touches on in the course of a normal week. Much of what he says and does is clearly right and good. He is often inspiring, and his questionable actions and statements are more often confusing than arguably wrong. Every Catholic should want whatever a pope says and does well to be more widely known. If Pope Francis is weak in some respects, that is no reason to ignore his strengths. I also suspect that, at times, the main problem we experience with Pope Francis is that he chooses to operate outside our comfort zone. This possibility points to a different area of concern.

The sins of the children

All of us have dominant tendencies in how we respond to difficulties, and all of us tend to prefer shortcuts. This can lead to several errors which are actually quite difficult to avoid. Feeling that we have been betrayed, we may decide (for the good of the Church, of course!) that Pope Francis is never to be portrayed positively. Or we may assume the worst whenever the Pope makes a confusing statement. Or we may be insufficiently aware of our own limitations.

This last point is highly relevant for the simple reason that it is nearly always true. It is very easy to assume that the way we have always understood some question is the only possible Catholic way. In doing so we may not realize that our own understanding is faulty or that we have not thoroughly examined all the relevant factors in the discussion. If we are habitually very definite in expressing our opinions (and here many women are already thinking of their men and rolling their eyes), we are very likely to pronounce definitively on whatever Pope Francis does without adequate study and reflection.

In addition, most of us don’t like surprises. We tend to be slow to make the kinds of distinctions that may be necessary to see how an unfamiliar viewpoint fits into the Catholic whole. Our certitude may be well-founded, of course But in matters that touch us closely, our certitude sometimes owes far too much to intellectual laziness, theological ignorance, simple misunderstanding, or even prejudice. Before we criticize a pope, who plays a paternal role for us in Christ, we need to be doubly critical of ourselves. We need to examine ourselves conscientiously to see whether we really have a sufficient grasp of the subject to be certain the Pope has behaved foolishly or made a mistake.

The good of the Church

In addition to the considerations noted above, we ought to defend the Pope, whenever possible, for the good of the Church. When we disagree with the Pope on something, it is a very human temptation—and a temptation I have experienced—to hope that the Pope is wrong and that we are right. But surely we can see that it is far better for the Church if Pope Francis is right and we are wrong. Even when we are convinced the Pope is wrong, and are willing to argue against his position, we should always hope that he is right, and that our own concerns will prove unfounded.

Let me give a famous example of what I mean. I believe we are all familiar with the ancient Catholic expression “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (“outside the Church there is no salvation”). This is an official teaching of the Church which can never change. But as time went on—certainly beginning with Pope Pius XII, and perhaps earlier—popes began to acknowledge that people can be saved even if they are unbaptized and have no visible connection with the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council developed this idea more fully, to the consternation of many Catholics.

There were indeed many who were certain that this “new” teaching was incompatible with the old, and therefore was necessarily false. They condemned the Council on this point, and suggested that Pius XII’s remarks could be construed so as to avoid this conflict. However, thanks to theological clarifications which were eventually adopted by John Paul II, it became obvious that the real problem was that a great many Catholics held “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” to mean something that it did not mean at all. They thought it meant that one must be a juridical member of the Church to be saved.

But we now know that this is false. Rather, we must be spiritually joined to the Church (Christ’s mystical body) to be saved. Going back to St. Paul, theologians realized that to be joined to Christ is the same thing as being joined to the Church, and that it is possible to be joined to Christ in the absence of formal, juridical membership in the Church. In fact, a person who responds to whatever the Holy Spirit has given him to know, by striving to discern and follow the Good to the best of his ability, is substantially joined to Christ and the Church, even in the absence of formal membership. When we go back through all previous magisterial statements on this question, we find—sometimes to our surprise—that their wording fits perfectly with this understanding of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus.”

Now, most serious Catholics today do not see how Pope Francis’ approach to Communion for those who are divorced and remarried (without benefit of annulment) can be squared with the way the Church has traditionally understood this question, as indicated in both Canon Law and papal statements, most notably by John Paul II. And although some of us (including myself) believe, all things considered, that it is unlikely that this new approach will stand, some of us (including myself) have worked hard to discern features present in at least some invalid marriages which could justify Pope Francis’ approach.

But why should anyone do this? The reason is simple. It is always preferable—far, far better for the Church—that the Pope be justified in saying and doing the things he does. Therefore, I believe we have a moral obligation to dig deeply to see what arguments, if any, can be made in favor of the position he takes.

Rules of the game

What we have in these situations is three strong reasons for portraying the Pope in the most positive light that is honestly possible: First, our filial love of and duty toward the Pope; second, our awareness of our own limitations; and third, the good of the Church. All three of these reasons should delay our response, temper our language, and even motivate us to praise whatever good the Holy Father does.

To conclude, then, here are five basic rules of engagement:

  1. We must never take anything the Holy Father has said out of context to prove a point. Context is important, and wording things with absolute precision independent of a particular context is extraordinarily difficult. Taking things out of context is a common mistake; when deliberate, it is dishonest.
  2. We should try to imagine the conditions under which something dubious that Francis has said or done or advocated would be perfectly permissible, and then consider very carefully whether or not those conditions are legitimately in play. We may find that we must step back and examine some factors more closely.
  3. It is always better to criticize gently and provisionally. Saying “the Pope lacks Faith” or “the Pope is a fool” or “the Pope is wrong” betrays a certain hastiness which is best avoided. It is far better to say, “I do not understand how the Pope’s statement or action can be appropriate or correct given Catholic considerations X, Y and Z.”
  4. It is not only charitable but wise to criticize a pope only for the minimum possible failure consistent with the case. To take an example, consider the uncertainty over whether Canons 915 and 916 (governing the reception of Communion) have such strong doctrinal roots that they cannot possibly be worded differently. In this example, it is preferable to fault the Pope for not clarifying Canon Law before proceeding with Communion for the divorced and remarried, than to accuse him of heresy.
  5. Referring back to the emails that prompted this reflection, it is difficult to conceive of a good reason for failing to acknowledge the positive things the Pope says or does. Our own purposes should never be served by preventing others from seeing him in a good light. This tactic betrays a form of special pleading which has no place in honest discourse.

Most of these rules apply to our potential disagreements with just about everybody. And if they apply to our stupid neighbor across the road or the double-crossing co-worker who has been promoted above us at the office, then how much more ought they to apply to the Vicar of Christ! Enthusiasm is appropriate in praise, but criticism lends itself to more muted and conditional tones. If you see others ignoring these rules, beware of their conclusions. If you see me ignoring these rules, fire a warning email across my bows. Truth is not undermined by charity, but enhanced.


Previous in series: Should we criticize Pope Francis, or not? If so, how? Part 3: Caveats

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Nov. 06, 2016 12:17 PM ET USA

    Dr. Jeff, Outstanding piece. Readers, please go back and reread paragraph 9 and then reread it again. We all need to stop and think about why our "reaction" is what it is & do we respond or just react. Review your own thoughts & feelings asking yourself why you "feel" the way you do. Certitude may be in your corner but is prudence? Does it really matter anyway. Ultimately, we are here to get to heaven and help others to do the same. Does your action achieve a step along that road?

  • Posted by: howland5905 - Nov. 05, 2016 9:02 AM ET USA

    Well said, Jeff! I especially liked your concluding sentence.

  • Posted by: claire5327 - Nov. 04, 2016 10:28 PM ET USA

    Our pope need to go for a long silent retreat and try to dig deeply into his soul for that needed Self Awareness, to have deep confession, to clean his soul, in order to gain the Power of Discernment that he needs to see things clearly!Never be confused again! It seems that he has a tough time separating the Temple of God and the Court of Caesar! He mixing them up, trying to make the Temple worldly and the Court of Caesar as a Temple.Each has its own function in the sight of God, no mixing!

  • Posted by: Larry K. - Nov. 04, 2016 7:49 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, this is a wonderful piece. Too much of the commentary on Pope Francis sacrifices truth for charity, or sacrifices charity for truth. And yet once one of these is sacrificed, the other is jeopardized as well. Your piece preserves both truth and charity, and demonstrates a true love for our Holy Father as well as a true love for the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: trini - Nov. 04, 2016 6:28 PM ET USA

    Jeff, your defence of the Pope fails. He 'commemorates'(?) Luther’s catastrophic break-up of Christianity. While it is God alone who judges the conscience of each INDIVIDUAL, unity between the Catholic Church and any Lutheran ORGANISATION demands that the Lutherans must reject the teachings of Luther (who attacked the Catholic Church, the Papacy, the Mass, and the Real Presence) and they must accept every doctrine defined at the Council of Trent and later. Vatican II made no new definitions.