Pope Francis has become a source of division

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 27, 2017

Every day I pray for Pope Francis. And every day (I am exaggerating, but only slightly), the Pope issues another reminder that he does not approve of Catholics like me.

If the Holy Father were rebuking me for my sins, I would have no reason to complain. But day after weary day the Pope upbraids me—and countless thousands of other faithful Catholics—for clinging to, and sometimes suffering for, the truths that the Church has always taught. We are rigid, he tells us. We are the “doctors of the law,” the Pharisees, who only want to be “comfortable” with our faith.

The Roman Pontiff should be a focus of unity in the Church. Pope Francis, regrettably, has become a source of division. There are two reasons for this unhappy phenomenon: the Pope’s autocratic style of governance and the radical nature of the program that he is relentlessly advancing.

The autocratic style (which contrasts sharply with promises of collegial and synodal governance) has never been quite so evident as this week, when he has tossed aside the independent and sovereign status of the Knights of Malta. Writing of that remarkable coup in the Wall Street Journal, Sohrab Ahmari observed that it “has divided the church along familiar lines.” Ahmari (a recent convert to Catholicism) continued:

As with other recent disputes—communion for the divorced-and-remarried; the status of the Latin Mass; Vatican engagement with China’s Communist regime—conservatives are on one side and Pope Francis is on the other.

But a Pope should not be on “one side” of disagreements within the Church. Certainly the Roman Pontiff must make decisions and set policies. But unlike a political leader, he is not expected to bring his own particular agenda to his office, to promote his own allies and punish his opponents. Whereas we expect President Trump to reverse policies of President Obama—just as Obama reversed policies of President Bush—we expect a Pope to preserve the decisions of his predecessors. Because Church is not, or should not be, divided into rival parties.

Every Pope makes controversial decisions, and every controversial decision leaves some people unhappy. But a prudent Pontiff avoids even the appearance of acting arbitrarily. Mindful of the fact that he serves as head of a college of bishops—not as a lone monarch—he does his best to propose rather than impose solutions to pastoral problems.

Although he exercises enormous authority within the Church, a Pope also acts under considerable restraints. He is empowered to speak for the universal Church, but in a sense he forfeits the ability to speak for himself. The Pope cannot be partisan. He is expected to settle arguments, not to start them. At the Council of Jerusalem, St. Peter set the standard for his successors: hearing out the arguments on both sides and then rendering a judgment (in this case, ruling against the stand that he himself had previously held).

By its very nature the Pope’s role is conservative, in the best sense of that word. He is charged with preserving the purity and clarity of our faith: a faith that does not change. Since our fundamental beliefs were set forth by Jesus Christ, no prelate can question them without subverting the authority of the Church that our Lord founded—the same Church that gives him his only claim to authority. While he is the supreme teacher of the Catholic faith, the Pope can only teach what the Church has always taught: the deposit of faith that has been passed down to him from the apostles. He can speak infallibly, but only when he proclaims and defines what faithful Catholics have “always and everywhere” believed.

In short the Pope cannot teach something new. He can certainly express old truths in new ways, but if he introduces actual novelties, he is abusing his authority. And if his “new” teachings conflict with the established doctrines of the Church, he is undermining his own authority.

Many faithful Catholics believe that with Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has encouraged beliefs and practices that are incompatible with the prior teachings of the Church. If that complaint is accurate, he has violated the sacred trust that is given to Peter’s successors. If it is not accurate, at a minimum the Holy Father owes us explanations, not insults.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 16 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Feb. 10, 2017 2:17 PM ET USA

    I believe that if each of us, in our hearts, follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, we should have a clear conscience in that area of our lives.

  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Feb. 05, 2017 5:23 PM ET USA

    I appreciate commentaries like this that give me a clearer understanding of the Pope's proper role. Years ago, when my father was alive, he couldn't understand why the Pope didn't just take a broom and broom out all the liberal bishops. At the time, even though I was vaguely aware that Popes do not normally govern like that, I didn't have any clear way to respond to him. So I just listened while he sounded off.

  • Posted by: Archpriest - Feb. 03, 2017 5:47 PM ET USA

    Amen, Amen, and Amen!

  • Posted by: DCpa - Feb. 01, 2017 10:28 PM ET USA

    Here is a major problem: Francis' claimed desire to evangelize the alienated & marginalized cannot take place if we fail to transmit and infuse Christ's teaching. Instead of the classic "Turn away from sin, and sin no more," we now hear "Turn way from "judgment' and sin some more. God luvs u as u are." This is not good news and it is NOT Christ's Gospel or the apostolic kerygma. This "Nothing is a Problem" mentality does not foster, but PREVENTS transformation in Christ and evangelization.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 01, 2017 3:40 PM ET USA

    rfr46 summed up the situation brilliantly. I quote: "I look at the state of the pope and pray for the church." In as much as the pope is a part of the Church, praying for the Church is by default praying for the pope.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Feb. 01, 2017 5:46 AM ET USA

    "By its very nature the Pope’s role is conservative..." Finally! It's very gratifying to see someone with impeccable orthodox credentials have the courage to use the term "conservative" properly. Thank you, Phil.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Feb. 01, 2017 4:08 AM ET USA

    That Francis has broken with Scripture, the Magisterium of earlier popes & even Canon Law (1387) is beyond question. And, yes, we should pray for him. But we must also recognize how he fits Jesus' complaint against "an evil & adulterous generation" (Mt 12:39). No, Francis isn't asking for a sign like them, but like them he is faithless - the broader meaning of adulterous - at least when it comes to Amoris' Chp 8. Thus, ironically, the pope who is too lenient wrt adultery is himself an adulterer.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Feb. 01, 2017 3:38 AM ET USA

    To paraphrase the words of a Senate chaplain many years ago, I do not look at the state of the church and pray for the pope. I look at the state of the pope and pray for the church.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Jan. 31, 2017 7:11 PM ET USA

    Keep the faith, Brother Phil, keep the faith. The pope speaks authoritatively only in concert with the magisterium -- cardinals, archbishops and bishops. There is another "magisterium" of sorts (although a lowly one) and we are legion. We are the people who keep the faith. We obey the Holy Father when he speaks ex cathedra. Seems he's been speaking away from the Chair of Peter a lot these days. We roll our eyes, smile knowingly, and go on about our business of being good Catholics.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Jan. 30, 2017 12:17 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis does much that is good and totally in line with the traditional Church adherence to the truth, which is why it is very confusing and disconcerting to see his undeniable lapses into some of the errors decried and condemned by past pontiffs. I pray for him daily, and I ask the Lord to show me the error in my thinking if I am incorrect in this assessment, but I sincerely believe that I am not.

  • Posted by: vboast4348 - Jan. 29, 2017 2:59 AM ET USA

    You are voicing my thoughts. I also pray for the Pope daily, and all the priests who are loyally carrying out their vocations, despite their misgivings at his leadership. Division and confusion are not the hallmarks of the Magisterium. Thank God for Catholic Culture, giving us reliable news, we are getting mixed messages from the Vatican press.

  • Posted by: Erpecom - Jan. 28, 2017 6:09 PM ET USA

    I do not like it, but I agree with you completely. Deus, omnium fidelium pastor & rector, famulum tuum Franciscum propitius respice: da ei, quæsumus, verbo & exemplo, quibus præest, proficere; ut ad vitam, una cum grege sibi credito, perveniat sempiternam. Pet Christum, Dominum nostrum.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Jan. 28, 2017 4:41 PM ET USA

    Your comments reflect my anguish at a situation that we should not be facing, especially at this time, when we have to simultaneously battle the secular, anti-Christian forces attempting to have us surrender to the current zeitgeist, and, now, our own Pontiff, who is supposed to be leading the Church to resist those secular forces. Does Pope Francis, for whom I also pray daily, actually want to cause such division, or does his rigidity and contempt for tradition blind him to it?

  • Posted by: visions - Jan. 28, 2017 2:57 PM ET USA

    If we have died with him If we persevere we shall also reign with him But if we deny him He will deny us If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself

  • Posted by: hc11386742 - Jan. 28, 2017 10:58 AM ET USA

    It seems that the decisions which are coming out of the Vatican these days is being directed to THE FORGOTTEN CATHOLICS those of us who have always remained faithful to the teachings of OUR HOLY MOTHER THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.The westwardly flowing winds not only reeks of I'm Ok ,your'e OK but has begun to slowly dilute & delude our true Catholic Faith. True evidence based Catholicism is based on the Magisterium. GOD SAVE OUR TRUE CHURCH..Harry D. Carrozza,MD.Tucson Cath.Physicains Guild

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 28, 2017 1:36 AM ET USA

    Our Lord built the Church upon the rock of Peter. Keeping that in mind, I do need to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit even in the most challenging news coming from the Vatican. And sometimes those news can be challenging to the extreme, with name-calling being the least of the problems. Perhaps, it's divine invitation to all Catholics to pray more fervently and trustingly for the Vicar of Christ? Perhaps, Pope Benedict resigned because he was not receiving sufficient support of our prayers?