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Mounting frustration in the twilight of the pontificate

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 03, 2024

Was it sheer frustration that prompted a group of Catholic scholars to issue their open letter charging Pope Francis with heresy?

Thus began a piece that I posted here exactly five years ago today. The same question now arises in response to a new statement, signed by many of the same people, demanding the Pope’s resignation.

As I said in 2019, so I repeat today: I share the frustration. But as I also remarked five years ago:

Who could make the authoritative judgment that the Pope had fallen into heresy and therefore lost his authority? Certainly not a handful of independent scholars.

To be fair the new statement does not focus exclusively on charges of heresy; the signatories also accuse the Pontiff of “criminal acts that have gravely harmed individual believers and the Church.” They lead with the evidence that Pope Francis has protected prelates and priests who have been guilty of sexual abuse, and continue with complaints about his secret deal with China, his suppression of the traditional liturgy, his peremptory removal of bishops without canonical due process, and more.

In that indictment, the statement echoes a devastating appraisal of this pontificate, written by Damian Thompson of The Spectator, that appeared a week earlier. Thompson’s tone is harsh, but his information is accurate, and the picture is bleak.

What Thompson also notices—and what may help to explain the frustration that so many Catholics feel—is the peculiar fact that the mainstream media have largely ignored the Pope’s manifest failures. Liberal publications are not at all anxious to criticize this Pontiff (as they were to assail his predecessors) because his public statements tend to match their political preferences. Catholic Church leaders and Catholic publications avoid touchy topics because, as Thompson demonstrates, Pope Francis has shown an ample willingness to punish his critics.

So the obvious weaknesses of this pontificate—the failure to end the sex-abuse scandal, the continuing evidence of financial corruption, the authoritarian style of governance—go largely unremarked.

Or do they? As Pope Francis grows older, his health declines, and speculation about the end of this pontificate grows more common, the people whose opinion matters—the members of the College of Cardinals—are surely thinking about the future, and pondering what will be required of the next Roman Pontiff. As they do so, naturally they will think about the last conclave, and the factors that led to the election of Pope Francis. Thompson writes:

Perhaps it was naive of the cardinals in 2013 to expect the former Cardinal Bergoglio to clean up the corruption that had driven Benedict XVI to the state of helpless despair in which he resigned his office. But that was the main reason they elected him. He promised pest control, and it was a promise he didn’t keep.

I would not agree that Pope Benedict, in his regrettable decision to resign, was motivated by “helpless despair.” But it is difficult to dispute that when the conclave of 2013 selected Cardinal Bergoglio, it gave him a mandate to eliminate corruption at the Vatican. And that mandate has not been fulfilled.

Moreover, the Pope has tried the patience of the world’s bishops with what Thompson describes as a “torrent” of unilateral papal rulings:

They have made massive changes to liturgy, finance, government and canon law. They often land without warning and can be brutal…

Most recently—and perhaps most imprudently—the Pope prompted the first widespread outbreak of open resistance among the world’s bishops with Fiducia Supplicans, an uproar that was only partially quieted when he agreed, in effect, that the African bishops could ignore the Vatican’s directive.

So as they look toward the next papal conclave, the world’s cardinals and bishops must be sharing their own frustrations with the current pontificate, and thinking once again about how to eliminate corruption and restore unity to a demoralized Church.

As I opened this piece with the same sentence that opened my post five years ago, let me close with the ending from that same 2019 piece:

But what is it that we want bishops to say? That the Pope is a heretic? I, for one, would be content if bishops made it clear that the Church’s teaching has not changed, will not change, cannot change on fundamental questions such as the inviolability of the marriage bond and sanctity of the Eucharist.

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: feedback - May. 06, 2024 8:36 AM ET USA

    During the 27 years of pontificate of St. John Paul II there was a clandestine, yet quite strong and widespread - especially among clergy in the West - opposition to the Church's teachings and morality represented then by the Pope. Perhaps God allowed Francis to demonstrate a "before-and-after" picture for all Catholics to see, compare, and decide. The growing involvement of faithful lay Catholics in the affairs of the Church, including truthful news reports, will help in cleaning up the House.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - May. 04, 2024 6:53 PM ET USA

    Fair enough, Mr Lawler. There is no group in or out of the Church having canonical authority to charge the Pope with heresy. That’s a principle of Canon law (1983 rev). Maybe that’s not the point of this document? It calls for the bishops and Cardinals to act based on the facts it presents. It does not claim authority to charge heresy. Canon 212§3 recognizes that the faithful have “the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion…” And so it does…

  • Posted by: padre3536 - May. 04, 2024 8:36 AM ET USA

    Yes, but that does not suffice to say and conclude simply this, the Beloved has a right of Justice and more, of Love, than much more, tenderly pour out such an ocean of solicitude...Easter Mercy blessings

  • Posted by: romy1277408 - May. 03, 2024 10:02 PM ET USA

    You probably should add Luke 17:2 to your commentary, Phil. I feel sorry for Francis because he is a product of his age - the ‘60s and ‘70s. His outlook is very common, spawned from that era, and now it’s back yet again. Oh, well… Just wondering who Thomas is that he can dismiss the signers of the document as writing an “exercise of self-indulgence?” That’s a bit chippy.