Pope Francis: ‘honored’ by criticism?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 05, 2019

In the latest effort to explain away an unguarded utterance by Pope Francis, Matteo Bruni, the director of the Vatican press office, told reporters how they should interpret the papal remark that “it’s an honor that Americans attack me.”

In an informal context, the Pope wanted to say that he always considers criticisms an honor, particularly when they come from authoritative thinkers and, in this case, an important nation.

OK, the context was informal. The Pope was not speaking at a press conference. He was making a personal response to an author who had presented him with a book. There just happened to be a few dozen reporters within earshot, so the Pope’s comment couldn’t be denied. (Recall that when Pope Francis reportedly denied the existence of hell, the Vatican said the quotation could not “be considered a faithful transcription” and left it at that.)

But let’s take a closer look at that “informal context.” The Pope had been presented with a copy of How American Wants to Change the Pope, in which author Nicolas Seneze argues that a powerful coalition of conservative American political interests is working against the Pontiff. The Pope expresses a keen interest in the book, and in another offhand remark as he passed the book to an aide, described it as “a bomb.”

Seneze does not merely report that the Pope has American critics; he claims, in effect, that there is an American conspiracy against the papacy. Pope Francis indicates that he is anxious to learn more about the conspiracy theory. Now in that “informal context” does it really sound as if the Pope feels honored by this criticism?

The papal spokesman goes on to say that the Pope is honored because the criticism comes from “authoritative thinkers.” Is he saying, then, that the American critics of the Pontiff are “authoritative thinkers?” Because that really isn’t the thrust of the Seneze book that the Pope was welcoming. Seneze argues that the American critics are politically motivated: a theme that the Pope’s closest associates have sounded frequently. Or is Seneze himself the authoritative thinker? Because he’s not criticizing the Pope; he’s criticizing those people who criticize the Pope.

Finally—not to belabor the point unduly—despite his claims and those of his spokesman, there’s precious little evidence that Pope Francis is “honored’ by criticism. Ask Cardinals Burke and Müller. Ask the other authors of the dubia. Ask the priests who were summarily dismissed from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for voicing concerns about the Pope’s thinking. Ask the ousted faculty members of the John Paul II Institute. One honors criticism by responding to it. The track record suggests that Pope Francis prefers to suppress it.

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: Edward I. - Sep. 06, 2019 1:38 AM ET USA

    "Interpreting" this Pope is a full-time job. The Vatican damage controllers will have to forgive me and others if we begin to regard their verbal gymnastics as improbable and take the Pope's statements in their obvious and natural senses.

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 05, 2019 5:23 PM ET USA

    US Catholics have been the most sincere and the most generous supporters of the Popes.