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The Pope is not the problem

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 23, 2014

Thoroughly rattled by the stories that emerged from the October meeting of the Synod of Bishops, many faithful Catholics are now worried that Pope Francis is leading the Church in a dangerous direction—and perhaps even doing so intentionally. Their fears are understandable, in light of some confusing messages from Rome. But like my colleague Jeff Mirus, I am confident that those fears are misplaced.

Believe me: I understand the concerns. Regular readers will recall that while the Synod meetings were taking place, I produced a four-part series on “What’s Wrong with this Synod.” I voiced my own concerns about the bishops’ apparent unwillingness to address fundamental questions about the meaning of marriage; the censorship that produced a badly skewed public understanding of the Synod’s work; the fixation on issues of interest to the affluent secularized nations, where faith is on the wane; and the massive failure of marriage-preparation programs. Some commentators have sought to reassure worried Catholics that nothing untoward happened at the Synod—that the Barque of Peter is sailing on smooth seas, under favorable winds. I disagree. With this Synod the Church ran into a serious squall.

The efforts to manipulate the October sessions were blatant and unrelenting. Under new rules, adopted for this meeting (and cynically justified by the claim that they would encourage open debate), the speeches of the Synod fathers were not made public. The world heard only driblets of the bishops’ conversations, filtered through the Vatican press office. A preliminary report on the discussions—which, in the opinion of many prelates, was not an accurate summary—was released to the public without formal approval. When the Synod fathers voted not to approve several paragraphs in a final report, those controversial paragraphs were included anyway, with the negative vote noted, so that they could remain under discussion.

Predictably that preliminary report, with its controversial language, has received far more public attention than the final Synod document. It is virtually impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Synod’s main organizers wanted this result. Consider this: the preliminary report, the relatio post disceptationem, was released immediately in several languages; the Synod’s final report is still not available in an official English translation.

So naturally the secular media fastened on the relatio as the main story of the Synod, to the exclusion of what the Synod fathers actually said. “No Consensus at Vatican as Synod Ends,” read the New York Times headline. Of course there was plenty of consensus: on an entire document, with most of its passages approved by lopsided majorities. But that message—the message of the full Synod assembly, rather than a handful of organizers—has not reached the general public.

Russell Shaw, an acute analyst of Catholic affairs, observed that the tumultuous proceedings of the Synod could be attributed to one of two possibilities. Either the organizers did not realize the strength of the forces they were unleashing, or they were attempting to present the full assembly with a fait accompli. Shaw concluded: “In charity, I favor the first explanation—culpable naïveté—but others will see it differently.”

In a strained effort to make the argument that the Synod was not manipulated, the Jesuit columnist Father James Martin, writing in the Jesuit magazine America, said that the assembly benefited from “a rather ‘Jesuit’ model of decision-making.” There is considerable irony in that claim, since the most controversial passage of the relatio, on the acceptance of homosexuals, was evidently written by Archbishop Bruno Forte with a substantial assist from another Jesuit journalist, Father Antonio Spadaro. My friend Robert Royal reported from the scene that Archbishop Forte and Father Spadaro exchanged a very visible thumbs-up sign when that passage was read aloud.

Yes, there were unquestionably some serious machinations at the Synod. But then, as Jeff Mirus has also observed, there are always machinations at any assembly in which strong-minded people try to advance their own ideas. Far more troubling, to faithful Catholics, is the abundant evidence that Pope Francis was a party to the manipulation.

It was the Holy Father, after all, who gave Cardinal Walter Kasper an opportunity to present his own favorite proposal to a consistory of cardinals in February. The Pope praised the German cardinal’s presentation, and then remained silent as Cardinal Kasper repeatedly hinted that he was speaking for the Pontiff. The Pope appointed the committee of prelates who drafted the relatio, and anyone familiar with the Catholic hierarchy, looking down the list of names, could have guessed what was in store. Pope Francis reportedly saw that final report before it was made public, and made no move—then or later—to block its release or distance himself from it.

Any one of those papal moves—all of them, really—could be explained. But Catholics of a conservative or traditionalist bent were not inclined to listen to explanations. They had already seen what they interpreted as clear indications of the Pope’s own views, ranging from his damaging “who am I to judge” comment to his shocking demotion of Cardinal Raymond Burke. When Pope Francis told an Argentine reporter that he enjoyed debating conservative bishops, that seemed to clinch the point. Insofar as such labels are useful in Catholic affairs, the Pope thinks of himself as a liberal.

Fair enough. Pope Francis will often make statements—has often made statements—that unsettle those of us who are ordinarily classified as “conservative” Catholics. He will urge us to take a different perspective. He will criticize us for refusing to accept new ideas. Criticism is often difficult to accept, especially for those who have been fighting intellectual battles for decades. But if we cannot accept correction from a pastor, we are treading down a very dangerous spiritual path.

In the past week I have been dismayed to see some “conservative” commentators write about Pope Francis with the same sort of vitriolic disdain that Father Richard McBrien showed for St. John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s. If that contempt for the Vicar of Christ was wrong then—and it was—it is wrong now.

Outside the tight circle of opinionated Catholics, and in spite of the confusion caused by the Synod, Pope Francis retains his phenomenal popularity with the general public. It is significant, I think, that his fiercest critics use this popularity as part of their indictment against him. Yes, I realize that our society has trouble distinguishing good from evil. Yes, I agree that playing to the crowd—demagoguery—is dishonorable. But popularity in itself is not a bad thing! If he is encouraging the world to look upon the Catholic Church with fresh and even sympathetic eyes, Pope Francis is doing an immeasurable service.

The Synod fathers—including, I assume, those who were angry about the attempted manipulation of the meeting—reportedly gave Pope Francis a long and loud ovation after the address with which he closed the session. I strongly recommend a careful and dispassionate reading of that remarkable speech. In it, the Holy Father helps us all to understand why this Synod meeting was so contentious, and why we should not be overly troubled by the turmoil.

In that speech Pope Francis warns against some of the temptations that afflict Catholic prelates—and, I would add, by extension, Catholic commentators. He warns that some Catholics concentrate on the letter of the law, to the exclusion of the spirit, while others extol a “a deceptive mercy that binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them;” some want to turn stones into bread, and others want to come down off the Cross. All of these warnings echo the words of Jesus.

If there is one clear theme in the teaching of Pope Francis, it is the demand for Catholics to go out to the “peripheries,” to draw people closer to Christ. Unfortunately we are lazy creatures, and we give ourselves excuses for avoiding this evangelical duty. As I read the Pope’s closing address, and especially that section on the particular temptation that different sorts of Catholics face, I saw him attacking those excuses, prodding us to recognize how we are failing, even sometimes when we think we are doing our best.

Some Catholics—call them conservatives if you like—have a healthy desire to fight against the destructive ideas that are steadily gaining ground in our society. But we (and I put myself squarely in this group) may not take into account that when we attack the ideas, those who hold them recoil, take a defensive posture, and draw further away from the truth. Other Catholics-- call them liberals—profess more sympathy toward the people who follow destructive ideas. But by failing to correct them, they allow those poor people to continue injuring themselves.

To put it a bit differently, conservative Catholics tend to slip into the belief that we can convert people by arguing with them, while liberals believe they can convert people by agreeing with them. Both are wrong. To bring people into the Church we need to meet them, befriend them, listen to them, accompany them, evangelize them. That is the fundamental message of Pope Francis, and to drive home that message he is willing to tolerate—perhaps even to encourage—a raucous Synod meeting.

Yes, the October session of the Synod was messy, confusing, and contentious. But lively debates can be healthy, especially when there are real disagreements to be aired and resolved. The history of the Church is dotted with heated disputes. Often—as with the Council of Jerusalem, the earliest such episode—they are preludes to new bursts of evangelical activity.

To be sure, the October session of the Synod left important arguments unresolved. During the coming year those arguments will be hashed out, thoroughly but not always decorously. Inevitably there will be more attempts to manipulate the media, more inaccurate reports, more charges and countercharges. The process will be frustrating for those who believe that the life of the Church should always be placid and quiet. But the Church is more interested in seeking the truth and presenting it in new ways to a new generation than in maintaining a smooth public façade.

The coming months and the continuing debate will also be frustrating for those who, like myself, want to see every argument resolved, every intellectual enemy defeated. We may need to remind ourselves frequently that the work of the Church is not to win arguments, but to win souls.

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: Cloister of the Heart - Nov. 07, 2014 10:38 AM ET USA

    Thank you for the thoughtful analysis and insight. We rarely make a donation to any organization other than through our parish or to those charities directly providing food, water, or clothing to the poor. After reading this article, we decided to send a donation to Catholic Culture. You are providing the kind of insight to your readers that feeds the mind and refreshes the soul- helping us to accept and begin to understand what might otherwise be confusing. May God bless you and your work.

  • Posted by: stpetric - Oct. 26, 2014 9:16 PM ET USA

    "Any one of those papal moves—all of them, really—could be explained. But Catholics of a conservative or traditionalist bent were not inclined to listen to explanations." I grow weary of constantly having to explain (to myself and others) what Pope Francis says and does. And candidly, the explanations are beginning to seem a little strained. I find myself thinking that he could be more helpful to the faithful and their pastors than he is actually being.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 26, 2014 2:00 PM ET USA

    St. JPII was criticized for defending the faith. Francis is being criticized for undermining it. Quite a difference, no?

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Oct. 26, 2014 10:09 AM ET USA

    Luv u Phil, but you're over backwards on this one.

  • Posted by: Jerz - Oct. 25, 2014 5:55 PM ET USA

    I know this was probably slightly difficult for you to write. Very well said, Mr. Lawler!

  • Posted by: John3822 - Oct. 25, 2014 1:10 PM ET USA

    I was very pleased to read this, thanks so much Phil for your refreshing piece! It is not often that commentators look at the big picture - many times they are only interested in promoting concepts that they agree with ideologically. Thanks!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 25, 2014 8:35 AM ET USA

    I re-read that "remarkable speech," but more closely this time. It is good to see Francis' heavy reliance on the wisdom of Benedict XVI and on his clarity of thought. Although Francis' strength may not be in extemporaneous speaking, he comes across well in more formal means of communication. On the other hand, if it is the prickly style seen in his offhand remarks that feeds his "phenomenal popularity" with the masses, then who are we to judge? His official statements are doctrinally sound.

  • Posted by: Comares - Oct. 25, 2014 5:41 AM ET USA

    I am one of those faithful Catholics that still go to Mass, try to go to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as often as possible (living in Spain and my Spanish not being good enough, I have to wait until I go to an English speaking priest), I have studied Theology in various colleges and universities. I listen to the Pope and his "shenanigans" I am more than happy with. What he says frequently challenges me which is good for me.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Oct. 25, 2014 2:14 AM ET USA

    "Catholics of a conservative or traditionalist bent were not inclined to listen to explanations...Insofar as such labels are useful in Catholic affairs, the Pope thinks of himself as a liberal". I and my orthodox/conservative/traditionalist ilk were more than inclined to listen to explanations; we were praying for them. And Francis doesn't think of himself as a liberal regarding Church teaching. It's just his pot stirring style, which only the Kasper/Mahony/Bernardin liberals enjoy.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 24, 2014 7:53 PM ET USA

    I've talked recently with many faithful Catholics (i.e. the kind who still go to Mass, Confession regularly, have their kids baptized, and try to live by the Church's teachings passed on to them by their parents, etc.). They are not happy with the shenanigans of this pope, his many outrageous and careless comments to secular papers, and the constant belittling they perceive from him and those he associates with. Catholics have to love him because he is the pope, but we don't have to like him.

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Oct. 24, 2014 7:47 PM ET USA

    I'm sorry, but I can't agree with this. Kasper and company want an accommodation with 21st century secularism. His sub-zero Christology (reminds me of Haight and Schillebeeckx) allows for a very lose reading of the Gospels needed to shift Church teaching on divorce and homosexuality. It's a serious mistake to think the Kasper wing wants to convert secular society, they want the Church to move into sync with it. Francis had to know this. Might help temporarily in Europe, but poison elsewhere.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Oct. 24, 2014 7:07 PM ET USA

    If the synod was manipulated, then, it was manipulated with the pope's approval. There is no getting around that fact. This is no way for a pope to behave.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Oct. 24, 2014 6:38 PM ET USA

    I disagree. To quote Cardinal Burke the Pope had done harm siding with those whose agenda would weaken the Church's teaching and marriage/homosexuality. Sure we must befriend, listen, accompany them to a point. But the Gospel demands a willingness to change and conform one's life to the truth. Metanoia. Popes can be wrong eg.John XXII re Beatific Vision after death. The Church's Gospel can't be the world's gospel and the world is always on message. Are we?

  • Posted by: jackist7902 - Oct. 24, 2014 5:42 PM ET USA

    I think a lot of orthodox Catholics consider themselves "conservative" because they grew up in a Christian culture and view that world as the baseline to be "conserved". However, the world of today is not Christian, and to move the culture in a Christian direction is a radical, not a conservative act. Radicals speak and think differently than conservatives, and it is possible to be orthodox and be a radical. Indeed, that's what the early Christians were.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 24, 2014 9:36 AM ET USA

    Agreed Phil. Now, will u be doing a rewrite after the Pope's recent remarks re capital punishment? Is he doing good work or not when he contradicts the catechism without using the force of his office to change it?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 24, 2014 8:21 AM ET USA

    It is important to understand that high-ranking, highly reputable and placid cardinals have expressed concerns about what has been happening. Burke and Muller in particular have, or had, positions that charged them with doctrinal and disciplinary vigilance. The Holy Father continues to invoke a God of "surprises". His interventions at the Synod were not helpful to Burke or Muller. In these times of confusion ("of the devil") it is difficult to "win" souls if there is no longer any way to lose.

  • Posted by: shrink - Oct. 24, 2014 7:53 AM ET USA

    Francis may not be the problem. Francis may not be the solution. I see in him the conflicts of Paul VI, who had great difficulty governing the Church at the critical point in its history. I think to understand the intentions of Francis, we should look to his actions as bishop in Argentina on the question of Holy Communion, cohabitation, divorce, etc. There is very little written in English about his pastoring. His actions there will be the key to discernment what he means here today.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 23, 2014 10:34 PM ET USA

    I consider myself a progressive liberal - because I wish to progress in personal holiness while appreciating liberation from sin offered to all in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Oct. 23, 2014 9:49 PM ET USA

    In the past week I have been dismayed to see some “conservative” commentators write about Pope Francis with the same sort of vitriolic disdain that Father Richard McBrien showed for St. John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s. If that contempt for the Vicar of Christ was wrong then—and it was—it is wrong now. Amen and thank you.

  • Posted by: Edward I. - Oct. 23, 2014 6:59 PM ET USA

    A too exclusive focus on any one good which is not God Himself must end by turning us into devils, as C.S. Lewis reminds us. I'm often astounded at the various kinds of monomania I observe both in others and in myself. It is a sad but I think observable truth that many Catholics often do not appreciate the spiritual value of the Pope's words or appropriate it for themselves because they're too busy trying to "interpret" it, or worrying about the world's opinion of it. God bless you, Mr. Lawler.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Oct. 23, 2014 5:47 PM ET USA

    Arguing or agreeing are part of evangelization but first comes truth. Truth of what the Church teaches after all this will set the stage for that on which we will argue or agree. To not lead with the truth is to deceive and that is not Christlike.