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Pope Francis simply doesn’t take sides.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 05, 2015

It’s been an odd last few days. On Wednesday we learned from Cardinal Robert Sarah that Pope Francis charged him, in his leadership of the Congregation for Divine Worship, to continue the goals for the liturgy as envisioned by Pope Benedict. The next day, the news broke that Cardinal Walter Kasper finally admitted that Pope Francis had never approved his “proposal” for communion for the divorced and remarried. Also on Thursday, we heard that Bishop Bernard Fellay of the Society of St. Pius X had been appointed as judge in a canonical trial of an SSPX priest.

Why do these three stories strike us as odd, and what do they mean?

The observations of Cardinal Sarah are modestly surprising because Pope Francis sometimes seemed critical of attachment to traditional liturgy in the early months of his pontificate, whereas Pope Benedict obviously favored more traditional signs of reverence and made the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite more widely available. On this point, reading Francis carefully from the first revealed that what he really dislikes is a certain liturgical officiousness which can afflict any liturgical form. Traditionalists tended to walk into their own trap by assuming the Pope was talking about them.

For a clearer account of Pope Francis’ liturgical priorities, reread my early 2014 essay: Pope Francis insists on renewed attention to the Constitution on the Liturgy. There is really nothing new here.

Cardinal Kasper’s backpedaling may be more significant, but not by much. It follows an extended period in which he did just about everything he could to give the impression that the Pope wanted the sacramental solution to marriage problems that he was proposing. But the reality was always clear enough to careful observers. We said from the first exactly what Cardinal Kasper has, at long last, clearly admitted: Pope Francis wanted a serious discussion of how best to include divorced and remarried Catholics in the Church’s pastoral ministry; he used Cardinal Kasper to stimulate that discussion; he did not endorse Cardinal Kasper’s own solution.

But there may be something new here. It seems quite likely that Cardinal Kasper was given a hint that he ought to be more forthright about the status of “the Kasper proposal”.

A Little More Difficult

Now, the official use of Bishop Fellay in a canonical role is more difficult to fathom, as the last three popes have emphasized that the bishops and priests of the Society of St. Pius X are illicitly ordained and have no canonical status in the Church. In a recent speech, Bishop Fellay claimed Pope Francis has overruled prelates like Cardinal Müller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who believe SSPX bishops should be excommunicated, and has instead assured Fellay that he (Pope Francis) will protect them from any penalties for their actions.

It is, of course, unlikely that this is true when so baldly expressed. It is far more likely that the Pope would refuse to impose canonical penalties if the breach can be resolved. But using Fellay in a canonical role (if judging an “uncanonical” SSPX priest can be said to be a truly canonical role!) creates fresh confusion. All it does is provide legitimate jurisdiction in this case, but It too easily gives the impression that the Pope recognizes the canonical legitimacy of the SSPX itself. But that cannot be the case, for it would effectively put an alternative line of episcopal authority in any diocese in which the SSPX chooses to operate!

There is no point in jumping to conclusions here. I have my own very strong opinions, and I have not been reluctant to express them, but the quarrel has been going on for a long time with no final, clear and manifest solution.

So what do we learn from all this? Simple: Once again we find that Pope Francis is not so easy to categorize as those who yell loudest and longest always seem to think. To take another small example, he is perfectly comfortable with the Secretariat for the Economy, managed by the “arch-conservative” Cardinal George Pell, reporting to the Council for the Economy, coordinated by the “arch-liberal” Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

The labels, of course, are inadequate, but the point is clear. With this pope, it is unusually dangerous for anyone on any preconceived or semi-ideological “side” to assume that “Pope Francis thinks like I do and will do what I want.” You can go out on that limb if you wish, whether you are liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, formal or informal, doctrinally engaged or socially active. You can go out on that limb, but it is going to be cut off.

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: stephen-o-rino - Jun. 07, 2015 2:53 AM ET USA

    I agree Jeff. He is a very complex man and it is not wise to judge him with typical discernment. He can seem to be going in certain directions, then our perceptions are surprised with his words or deeds shortly thereafter. Some may say he is "dumb like a fox" while others may disagree and take him at "face value". I have been making myself pause and reflect (as well as let some time pass) with his actions before committing to a position. I have grown to really like and respect him.