Two thoughtful critiques of the Pope’s approach

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 28, 2016

“Has Pope Francis Failed?” by Matthew Schmitz is a remarkable little essay, not only because it is persuasively argued, but also because it appears today in, of all places, the New York Times! The fact that the Times would run such a piece is, in a way, evidence for the author’s thesis.

Schmitz reports that although Pope Francis undoubtedly won popular attention early in his pontificate, the “Francis effect” has not been visible in the longer term. Mass attendance continues to slide, as does participation in other sacraments. “In spite of Francis’ personal popularity,” Schmitz writes, “young people seem to be drifting away from the faith.” Nor has there been any notable increase in converts to replace the young Catholics who defect. Thus while the “approval ratings” for the Pope himself remain high, the ratings for the Catholic Church continue to slip. Is that a coincidence, or are the two facts (and they are facts) related? Would a Pontiff who was more vigorous in upholding traditional Church teachings be more successful in bringing people into the fold? Liberal Catholic commentators, responding to the Schmitz essay on Twitter, have made the argument that the shrinkage of the active Catholic population is attributable to secularization, and cannot be blamed on the current Pope. No doubt that’s true. But what we can say is that the unusual pastoral approach taken by Pope Francis has failed to change the secularizing trend. The expectation that Pope Francis might reverse that trend, by stepping aside from the “culture wars,” has been proven wrong.

For that matter—as Schmitz also demonstrates—the initial excitement that Pope Francis would bring fresh winds of reform to the Vatican has also dissipated, as the promise of sweeping change in the Roman Curia has given way to reality that a few offices will be merged, a few other new offices created, but the “old guard” and the old way of business remain intact.

For First Things, meanwhile, Villanova theologian Jessica Murdoch argues against “Creeping Infallibility,” with a critical eye on Amoris Laetitia—or, to be more precise, on those (such as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn) who have claimed that the apostolic exhortation should be regarded as an act of the magisterium, requiring the assent of the faithful. Murdoch explains, thoroughly and clearly, how different papal statements command different levels of assent.

To be authoritative, she explains, a papal document must be clear, must be read in continuity with previous magisterial statements, and above all must be demonstrably in accord with Revelation. She argues that Amoris Laetitia does not meet those tests, and along the way she details why the document does not constitute a “development of doctrine” by Cardinal Newman’s criteria. All this does not mean, of course, that Amoris Laetitia should be disregarded. Murdoch’s point is that the Pope’s document does not definitely settle the questions that are clearly still in dispute among the faithful. (One test of an authoritative doctrinal statement is that it should represent what the faithful have always and everywhere believed. No one could possible claim that the Kasper Proposal qualifies.)

“Distinctions are necessary,” Murdoch writes. “And for this reason any sort of ‘creeping infallibility’ that would attach the same level of authority to every papal utterance or document must be avoided.”

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: seewig - Oct. 12, 2016 7:17 PM ET USA

    We all can sense the problematics in the unusual approach of Pope Francis to his papacy. But let’s ask, perhaps, what God wants us to understand and do with such developments. We had a period of two popes with “orthodox” views and actions, which we thought were very encouraging and inspirational. But not all followed much of their guidance, and now we ‘received’ a Pope with a different, more secular(?) leaning. Does God thus give us this choice to prove a point for us? Wish for more space.

  • Posted by: dmva9806 - Oct. 01, 2016 11:48 AM ET USA

    And with that (from loumiamo) we see the problem - even the better informed cannot distinguish between different levels of magisterial of teaching. The tendency to receive every document issued in the name of the pope as inspired and infallible is ubiquitous. Better catechesis is desperately needed.

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Sep. 29, 2016 8:56 PM ET USA

    actually Amoris laetitia is not an encyc,ical but am apostolic exhortation.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Sep. 29, 2016 10:39 AM ET USA

    I'm just a layman, and with my layman's understanding, I cannot understand why a supreme pontiff would bother writing a document that does not meet the 3 requirements needed to have that document accepted as authoritative Catholic teaching. A private letter, an interview, a personal conversation, I can understand, but a papal encyclical that so obviously misses the mark--what in the work is the point of such an effort?