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The Mexican response to perceived papal criticism: A shot in the foot?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 09, 2016

An editorial on the website of the Archdiocese of Mexico City blames bad advisors for the Pope’s insistence that the Mexican bishops should not be like “princes”. I suspect this reaction was prompted by skewed interpretations in the media of the Pope’s remarks, because I don’t see how the Pope’s actual address to the bishops can have been found offensive. See for yourself: Bring God’s Fruitfulness to the Mexican Nation.

The editorial does mention that the Pope’s comments have been misinterpreted by “reporters more focused on histrionics than the deep meaning of the words”, and I think this is exactly right. Another example can be found in the Associated Press story on this discussion, which ends by asserting that the Pope demonstrated his “concern that the Mexican church needs to get its priorities straight” even in his prayers to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The evidence? Here is the last paragraph of the AP story:

During his half-hour of silent prayer, Francis later told reporters, “I prayed for the Mexican people, and one thing I prayed for a lot was that priests be true priests, and sisters be true sisters and bishops be true bishops as the Lord wants.”

Well, sure. Of course the Pope prayed for these intentions, which are dear to his heart at all times and are applicable to the whole Church. There is nothing here that is particularly critical of Mexican priests and religious. Nor is there anything of that type in the address to which the Archdiocesan editorial itself alluded. That being the case, it is rather astonishing that the editorial—after explaining that this whole thing has been exaggerated by the press—goes on to speculate that the Pope would not have said what he said unless he were being badly advised about the Mexican bishops: “Who gave the pope bad advice?”

But the remarks that Pope Francis made to the bishops simply express the ideal of priestly and episcopal ministry that he preaches always and everywhere. It is a hallmark of his pontificate that Pope Francis wants Church leaders to eschew every form of clericalism and to stand in solidarity with the ordinary Catholics who most need their ministry. It is hard to read his address, even though given to the bishops in Mexico, as a specific indictment of the Mexican hierarchy.

In fact, when Pope Francis did summarize the condition of the Mexican hierarchy, he said this:

The Mexican episcopate has made significant strides in these years since the Council; it has increased its members; it has promoted permanent formation which is consistent and professional; there has been a fraternal atmosphere; the spirit of collegiality has matured; the pastoral efforts have had an influence on your local churches and on the conscience of the nation; the shared pastoral initiatives have been fruitful in vital areas of the Church’s mission, such as the family, vocations, and the Church’s presence in society.

And when it came to applying his vision of effective ministry to the bishops, he said:

[I]t is necessary for us Pastors to overcome the temptation of aloofness—and I leave it up to each of you to list the kinds of aloofness that can exist in this Episcopal Conference; I do not know them, but it is important to overcome this temptation—and clericalism, of coldness and indifference, of triumphalism and self-centeredness. [emphasis added]

A Catholic axiom holds that Catholic truth consists not in the peculiar beliefs characteristic of a small group, a particular place, or a certain time in history. Against these peculiarities, we are to hold what has been believed everywhere, always and by all. Obviously this axiom applies not in a literal but in a moral sense. But in a similar way, Pope Francis’ address to the Mexican bishops is not particularly valuable because he said it to one group of bishops in Mexico in the year 2016, but because he has said it everywhere, always and to all.

So this tea tempest leaves me both bemused and confused. The discontented editorial writer very nearly protests too much—always a very bad sign! Pope Francis’ address was both encouraging and inspiring, of value to bishops and priests everywhere—indeed, of value to every Christian. But something got under the writer’s skin, and the irritation produced an editorial shot in the foot. In such cases another old saying very definitely applies: “It is far better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”

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 See full bio.

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