Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The gap between papal rhetoric and action

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 12, 2022

Pope Francis has asked world leaders to release prisoners, as a “gesture of clemency,” as we approach the Christmas season. The Pontiff’s appeal was a general one; he did not offer specific suggestions as to the identity of the prisoners who might (in his words) “benefit from such a provision.”

May I?

In an appeal to the government of China, the Pope might ask for the release of:

  • Jimmy Lai, the ardent Catholic convert and democracy activist, who has just been sentenced to five years in prison on a transparently phony charge, and faces still stiffer punishment on pending charges that he conspired against the state. Lai—who voluntarily remained in Hong Kong, knowing that he would likely spend the rest of his life in prison—could be exiled; the Western world would welcome him as a hero.
  • Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu of Xinxiang, who was arrested in May. Or the 93-year-old Bishop Melchior Shi of Tianjin, who is living under house arrest. Or Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding, who has spent more than 40 years behind bars, and has not been seen for nearly twenty years.
  • Cardinal Joseph Zen, who is free at the moment, but likely to face serious charges early in the new year.
  • The many “underground” Catholic priests who have been taken into custody and subjected to questioning and “re-education,” aimed at ensuring their compliance with government policies.

In an appeal to the government of Nicaragua, the Pope might plead for the release of Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Matagalpa, who was arrested—along with several other priests and seminarians—in an early-morning raid on his resident in August. Bishop Alvarez is charged with “inciting violence” against the government of Daniel Ortega—whose regime routinely sends violent mobs to harass his critics in the Catholic hierarchy.

But of course Pope Francis has not made such specific pleas for the release of these prisoners. On the contrary he has carefully avoided any pointed public criticism of either the Chinese or the Nicaraguan regime.

Why would a world leader—in this case the Roman Pontiff—make a general appeal for clemency, but decline to make particular pleas in cases that involve people who count on his support? Doesn’t the universal plea ring hollow, in the absence of specific requests?

Unfortunately, this gap between the Pope’s general rhetoric and his specific actions is now a familiar characteristic of his pontificate. For another example, also taken from this week’s news, take the case of Father Ivan Rupnik, SJ, the prominent artist and theologian who has been quietly—very quietly—disciplined for abuse of women religious and of the confessional. Again and again Pope Francis has vowed that abusers will be punished, that cover-ups will not be tolerated. Yet the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has declined to give any account of his canonical trial, and the Society of Jesus responds to an inquiry with the comment: “Transparency is not an absolute value.”

So we don’t know what canonical offenses Father Rupnik committed, nor do we know what penalty he was assigned. Earlier this month, Jesuit leaders acknowledged that his ministry had been restricted, yet he continued to be prominent as a preacher, and even delivered a Lenten Sermon to the Roman Curia (presumably with the Pope’s approval).

And again, the case of Father Rupnik is not isolated. In our report on the revelation that his ministry had been restricted, we observed:

Since September, previously undisclosed Vatican sanctions against Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo (a Nobel laureate) and Bishop Michel Santier (a French bishop) for sexual abuse have also come to light—but only after media reports.

The broad papal statements of principle—for release of prisoners, for punishment of abusers, for accountability and transparency—would be more credible if they were matched by action in specific cases.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mhains8491 - Dec. 14, 2022 2:07 AM ET USA

    Thank you Phil Lawler, Pope Francis needs to be publicly called out for his inaction against persecuted Chinese Catholics and the failure to take any real action against sexual abusers in the Church (except when it embarrasses Francis). The secret deal with the CCP sold put of the faithful Catholics in China, all with the Pope's approval.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Dec. 14, 2022 12:17 AM ET USA

    Bergoglio is a master of the rhetoric of virtue signaling. True virtue has little part in his papacy. I was going to say he is all about the beau geste, but that would require some good action however small … instead all his reveal a heart full of grudges, pettiness, and senescent confusion … removing traditional bishops contrary to canon law,, cracking down on religious orders he doesn’t like, contradicting his papal predecessors in encyclicals, supporting heterodox and/or abusive clerics…

  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 14, 2022 12:08 AM ET USA

    "Why would the Roman Pontiff make a general appeal for clemency, but decline to make particular pleas in cases that involve people who count on his support?" I'm afraid there is no good explanation for that. And, what would it cost him? What would he have to lose? Absolutely nothing!

  • Posted by: kdrotar16365 - Dec. 13, 2022 7:09 AM ET USA

    "Doesn’t the universal plea ring hollow, in the absence of specific requests?" Yes, indeed, Mr. Lawler, such papal pleas ring very hollow...

  • Posted by: johnhinshaw8419405 - Dec. 12, 2022 7:32 PM ET USA

    What are you, Lawler - one of those "pelagian" Catholics, insisting that actions must accompany words? Still clinging to that "epistle of straw"? More to the point - those in governance, church and state, have become quite adept (with a complicit media)at saying one thing ,while doing exactly the opposite.