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Rethinking Pope Francis even as Pope Francis rethinks?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 19, 2020

Catholics are a people of hope. One of the things we all hope for is Catholic leaders we can trust and even admire for the strength of their faith. For example, a priest who supports our work at CatholicCulture.org sent me a highly relevant email a few days ago on this very point. He wrote:

We Catholics have taken a hit. Even our own people are slow to trust us. The priest is no longer the smartest nor the most pious person in the parish but must be the holiest.

That is what St. Paul would have called wisdom.

I bring this up now because the vast majority of those who support CatholicCulture.org have at least some reservations about how much Pope Francis can be trusted. For most, this is not a matter of distrust of the Church herself, as understood in the context of Christ’s promises, but rather a distrust of either the ability or the sincerity of the man Jorge Bergoglio in the human decisions through which he charts the course of his papacy.

But now I am wondering whether things are beginning to change.

Taking stock

Pope Francis has been seriously burned over the last couple of years for decisions he has made and positions he has taken. He has supported the wrong people in cases of sexual abuse and lived to regret it deeply. He has set his hand to the plow of Curial reform, and though he has apparently looked back often enough that scandals continue to proliferate, we are now beginning to see the Vatican uncovering problems before they are widely reported elsewhere, particularly in the financial sector.

Readers may find this odd, but I am willing to consider even Pope Francis’ recent efforts to exercise greater control over Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as part of a new realism in this pontificate. The Pope Emeritus (who would rather have been called Father Benedict in his retirement) clearly planned initially to stay out of Church controversies, working primarily instead on his theological studies. Over the past year plus, however, he has engaged current issues more actively, first the problem of sexual abuse, and more recently the question of celibacy—both of which were under serious study by Pope Francis at the time.

On this I can only say that, loving and respecting Joseph Ratzinger as I do few living men, were I pope in the shadow of Benedict XVI’s resignation, I would most likely have limited or rebuffed these efforts as well. It was bad enough that the Pope Emeritus’s personal secretary, Archbishop Gänswein, should have argued several years ago that Benedict in retirement was in effect the spiritual arm of the papacy. The reigning pope must allow no confusion on this score. Perhaps we can understand at last why Pope Boniface VIII had no qualms about placing his resigned predecessor, (Saint) Celestine V, under house arrest at the end of the thirteenth century. There would be no anti-pope on Boniface’s watch.

Similarly, it is now clear that there will be none on Pope Francis’ watch either. But did Francis’ suppression of Benedict’s authorship of a book on celibacy mean the Pope was on the verge of relaxing or eliminating the discipline of celibacy as many had feared? It did not. He himself staunchly defended celibacy, and he released his Apostolic Exhortation on the Amazon without tossing even the smallest fragment of a bone to those who expected him to change the Church’s course. It is important to keep these things in mind.

Personal change?

It is clear that Pope Francis’ personal instincts are such that he reacts very negatively to those who may at times appear to put doctrinal and legal precision ahead of charity. He has condemned this “rigidity” in a wide variety of frustratingly vague forms. He is not the first Pope to have been more comfortable with the “non-judgmental” liberals or progressives within the Church, and he probably will not be the last. But what I find interesting is that, as apparently happened with Pope Blessed Pius IX and Pope Saint Paul VI, Pope Francis has been severely burned by those in whom he has instinctively placed his trust.

Does this mean that Pope Francis will suddenly become the great champion of those Catholics who, with no danger of tumbling over the other side of the boat, really do believe everything the Church teaches? Perhaps not. Such a thesis will take a lot of proving. But might we not be witnessing some change in this man who began his papacy by enjoying “a mess”? Far stranger things than this have come upon the See of Peter.

I was pleased to see, as one possible indication, the Vatican announcement that the next Synod of Bishops would be held on the usual three-year cycle, at the end of 2022. This is the normal schedule for the Ordinary Synod of Bishops, but Francis has filled the intervening years with one special synod after another. He clearly wanted to emphasize synodality—which, in its proper theory, we may describe as the Church hitting on all cylinders—and he clearly also wanted to air a variety of what we might call hot-button issues. Each of these gave those who wish to further undermine Catholic doctrine and discipline an opportunity to press for change, even in matters where the Church cannot change.

Now it looks like there will be no special synods in the immediate future. Moreover, the Church in Germany is using synodality as an excuse to abandon the Faith. Though he did not effectively reset the course of the German Church, Pope Francis at least warned against it. He permitted his characteristic freedom, yes. But he may well be burned again—seriously and soon.

Conclusion?

I am making no predictions, but it does not take a genius to recognize that popes, like the rest of us in any office, are shaped by their experiences. Is it possible that Pope Francis suffers personality disorders which make it impossible to learn in this way? I would say yes: That is possible. But I am at least beginning to wonder.

As a case in point, Francis has expressed considerable distress over the criticism which has greeted his text on the Amazon. To the best of my knowledge, most of that criticism comes from two sources: The Brazilian government which regards the Pope as meddling in its territorial affairs; and, far more importantly, the Pope’s supposed progressive allies, who blame him for a lack of the necessary courage to alter Catholic doctrine and discipline once and for all.

Again, I believe it is very important to keep an eye on these things. Partly this will require an unprejudiced assessment of trends that may challenge our own prior judgments. But mostly, for this troubled pontificate, it ought to be a fresh opportunity for prayer. Call it a golden opportunity, which we ought not to miss.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: emkay - Feb. 21, 2020 10:55 AM ET USA

    I think the Pope's unhappiness over the reaction to his exhortation was aimed at those who spent more time writing and talking about what wasn't in the document than what was

  • Posted by: ILM - Feb. 19, 2020 8:59 PM ET USA

    I would love to be hopeful, but being so quick to accept Archbishop Chaput’s resignation after he turned 75 didn’t make me feel anything has changed.