A Pope who doesn’t fear schism may cause one

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 11, 2019

“I am not afraid of schisms,” Pope Francis told reporters during his latest airplane press conference.

Well, I am. And I’m afraid of any Roman Pontiff who isn’t afraid of splitting the universal Church.

Which means that, yes, I’m afraid of Pope Francis.

As we head into the Amazon Synod, there are numerous indications that the Pope and his allies will use the meeting to ram through another set of dramatic changes in Church teaching and discipline. He is willing to break with our fathers in faith; he is willing to break with his brothers. I fear that the Pope is determined to have his way, regardless of the cost to Church unity.

As I remarked recently, in the past few weeks we have seen disturbing signs of a new attitude at the highest echelons of the Vatican: a willingness to suppress and dismiss critics of the Pope without even a pretense of gentility. That aggressive approach—perhaps a bid to ensure “irreversible change” in the limited time available—was on display when the Pope replied to a question from Jason Horowitz of the New York Times, about the criticism the Pope has encountered from American Catholics.

Horowitz introduced the question of schism, asking if it worried the Pontiff. But he did not suggest that it was an imminent threat. He acknowledged that some American Catholics are “very critical,” but he pointed out to the Pope that it was “some of your closest allies who have spoken of a plot against you.” Thus the Times reporter traced the current discussion of schism to its proper source. It is not the Pope’s critics who are suggesting a break; it is his allies who claim that any criticism—however mild, however respectful, however logical—is a threat to the Pope’s authority and an assault on Church unity.

In his response to Horowitz, Pope Francis made it quite clear that he accepts his allies’ analysis of the American scene. He accepts the preposterous reading of American affairs by his friend Father Antonio Spadaro, who sees American conservatism as the greatest threat to the papal agenda, and insists that “there is a campaign of disinformation against Pope Francis that links American and Russian interests.” He welcomes the work of the French author Nicolas Seneze, who sees a conservative American plot against the Pope. He believes his advisers when they explain that all criticism of his statements and policies on doctrinal issues—on the Eucharist, on the indispensable role of Jesus Christ in salvation, on the indissolubility of marriage, on the male priesthood—is really a smokescreen, a pretext, because the critics are really interested only in advancing a conservative political agenda.

In his long, rambling statement, the Pope did not answer Horowitz’s questions as to whether he had learned anything from his critics, or whether he had plans for further dialogue with them. Instead he offered a disjointed reflection on criticism, claiming that he always welcomes honest criticism and hinting that his American critics are hypocrites, advancing their own hidden agenda. The Pope’s statement was so far removed from the reality of the situation that it is difficult to say whether it was marked by dishonesty or delusion—or perhaps both.

“First of all, criticism always helps, always,” the Pope said. At the outset of his African voyage, a papal spokesman had said that Francis is “honored” by criticism. Now the Pope himself told Horowitz, “I always benefit from criticism” and “a fair criticism is always well received, at least by me.” Really? Having covered Vatican affairs throughout this pontificate, I cannot recall a single instance in which Pope Francis made a gracious public response to any critic, on any topic. But I can easily recall dozens of occasions on which he lashed out as his critics—characterizing them as Pharisees and hypocrites, “doctors of the law,” rigid and uncharitable.

“To criticize without wanting to hear a response and without getting into dialogue is not to have the good of the Church at heart,” the Pope continued. But it is he who refused to respond to his most famous critics, the four cardinals who submitted the dubia. Four princes of the Church raised probing questions on vital doctrinal issues, and he declined to answer them. When Archbishop Vigano launched his scathing denunciation of the Pontiff, Francis promised that he would offer “not one word” in reply—although he did impugn the archbishop’s character. When American bishops demanded an explanation of the Vatican’s involvement in the McCarrick scandal, the Pope promised a full accounting—but a year later, no such accounting has emerged. When Cardinal Müller expressed concerns about papal statements, the Pope abruptly dismissed him from his role as the Vatican’s top doctrinal watchdog; more recently he has dismissed the German cardinal as “like a child.”

These are not the words nor the actions of a leader who welcomes honest criticisms. They are telltale signs of a willingness to ride roughshod over critics. And since they come from a Pontiff who has simultaneously shown a willingness to believe that powerful American forces are plotting against him, we can probably expect to see further signs of papal hostility later this year, as the bishops of the United States make their ad limina visits to Rome.

As he wrapped up his astonishing statement, Pope Francis finally voiced some sympathy for his critics, because “they are going through a tough time,” and closed by saying, “we much accompany them gently.” A tough time, yes; that is an understatement. But how can we really believe that the Pope plans to accompany us gently—that he does not indeed plan to continue ignoring our concerns, questioning our motives, denouncing our beliefs?

Pope Francis is not afraid of a split in the Church. I am. That’s why I’m afraid of this Pope.

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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  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Sep. 12, 2019 6:23 PM ET USA

    Francis has made it clear that he rejects immutable truth and moral absolutes. It serves no purpose to deny the Emperor has no clothes because the consequences are life and death. His lip service against abortion has not supported the Church’s witness. It has been heavily damaged by his mixed messages condemning moral absolutes before the whole world, which says to the world, go ahead, have your abortion, only the obsolete rigid Catholics obsess about such things. The unborn deserve better.

  • Posted by: Pointmaster1386 - Sep. 12, 2019 7:56 AM ET USA

    One can not help seeing the hearing of the words of the Lord Jesus, you will see the tree by its fruit. I pray that this is a passing dream, and that the Church may recover in a sense that all Catholics may ask the Lord for wisdom and Love for his Church he Loves dearly. May we all pray that the Lord may find faith when he returns

  • Posted by: Japheth - Sep. 11, 2019 10:54 PM ET USA

    Phil, Cardinal O’Malley criticizes Francis for his denial of the scandal in Chile and Francis walked back his remarks and said the cardinal was right. That would be the only instance I can think of where he accepted a serious criticism. But I think there were indications the O’Malley was sidelined a bit in the C9 afterwards.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Sep. 11, 2019 9:29 PM ET USA

    On reading the transcript, I note that as the Pope goes on in his reply, he reverts to attack mode toward his critics. They are all rigid elitists, with no following among rank-and-file Catholics, he says. Condescendingly, he declares that such people are “going through a tough time” and need to be accompanied with kindness. Yeah, that’s really going to bring everyone together, Holiness.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Sep. 11, 2019 6:15 PM ET USA

    I have read about some of the bad popes in our past. Some have fallen short in matters of personal holiness, debasing themselves with the common worldly traps of sex, power, or wealth. But I have a serious question for anyone who can direct me toward an answer: Have any of our past "bad popes" tried to destroy what has been handed down to us by Christ, His apostles, and the long line of their successors? If none has, then what type of age have we now entered, and what are we to do about it?