Catholic musician and blogger Mark Mallett–a fellow Canadian–has compiled Pope Francis’s statements concerning moral and theological controversies in our time. In each of these statements Pope Francis presents orthodox Catholic teaching clearly.
For instance, on the Rosary and devotion to the Blessed Mother, the Holy Father states:
In the Rosary we turn to the Virgin Mary so that she may guide us to an ever closer union with her Son Jesus to bring us into conformity with him, to have his sentiments and to behave like him. Indeed, in the Rosary while we repeat the Hail Mary we meditate on the Mysteries, on the events of Christ’s life, so as to know and love him ever better. The Rosary is an effective means for opening ourselves to God, for it helps us to overcome egotism and to bring peace to hearts, in the family, in society and in the world.
Likewise, on the 100th anniversary of Our Lady’s apparition at Fatima, Pope Francis reminds us that Hell is a real danger against which the Blessed Mother forewarned:
Our Lady foretold, and warned us about, a way of life that is godless and indeed profanes God in his creatures. Such a life—frequently proposed and imposed—risks leading to Hell. Mary came to remind us that God’s light dwells within us and protects us.
And on the always controversial topic of contraception, Amoris Laetitia (par 222) clearly upholds the previous teaching of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
In accord with the personal and fully human character of conjugal love, family planning fittingly takes place as the result a consensual dialogue between the spouses, respect for times and consideration of the dignity of the partner. In this sense, the teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae (cf. 1014) and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (cf. 14; 2835) ought to be taken up anew, in order to counter a mentality that is often hostile to life… Decisions involving responsible parenthood pre-supposes the formation of conscience, which is ‘the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There each one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in the depths of the heart’ (Gaudium et Spes, 16)…. Moreover, “the use of methods based on the ‘laws of nature and the incidence of fertility’ (Humanae Vitae, 11) are to be promoted, since ‘these methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them and favour the education of an authentic freedom’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370)
The above are just a handful of examples of Pope Francis reaffirming orthodox Catholic teaching on controversial issues. I would invite you to read Mallett’s entire list here. Particularly valuable is Mallett’s online sourcing of each statement.
Nevertheless, critics of Pope Francis are still unhappy. Take professional Catholic Phil Lawler, for instance. As a professional Catholic, Lawler earns money presenting himself publicly as an expert spokesman for Catholicism. Note that Lawler is neither ordained clergy nor consecrated religious. He is not required to pray the Divine Office daily as are ordained clergy and consecrated religious. Nor is he subject to lawful ecclesiastical authority to any degree greater than the average layperson. This is what distinguishes professional Catholics from those called to ordination or consecrated life.
Like many born and raised in Boston–especially among the upper social strata of the Harvard-educated–Lawler is imbued with a certain revolutionary spirit. In keeping with local history, he will not subject himself to a benevolent monarch named George. Lawler also seems a tad suspicious of Jesuit clergy. (It was the Society of Jesus, after all, that established Boston College–that is, Harvard’s local Catholic competitor.) And as a professional Catholic there is money to be made from hawking books critical of St Peter’s successor. Especially to a politically motivated audience that shares his same revolutionary spirit.
Thus I was hardly surprised when Lawler responded as follows to Mallett’s apologia for Pope Francis’s orthodoxy:
Sure enough, the Pope is a Catholic. But why is that noteworthy?
It’s difficult to imagine that anyone would have compiled a similar set of links to demonstrate that Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II held conventionally Catholic beliefs. Why is it necessary in the case of Pope Francis?
The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Pope Francis himself has raised the questions about his own orthodoxy, with a long series of provocative public statements. The world expects consistency from the successors of St. Peter; the duty of the Pontiff (and of every bishop) is to preserve intact the faith that has been handed down from the Apostles. When any Pope makes a statement that seems at odds with previous expressions of the faith, it is disquieting. When he makes such statements frequently—and, to compound the problem, declines to clarify them—the result is widespread disorientation. This is the phenomenon that I sought to explain in Lost Shepherd: not that Pope Francis is preaching heresy, but that he has spread confusion about the content of orthodox Catholic belief.
Take for instance the report circulated recently—during Holy Week, of all times—that the Holy Father had denied the existence of Hell. We still don’t know what the Pope actually said in his conversation with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari.
Let’s break down the above by paragraph. Concerning the first paragraph, Lawler states: “Sure enough, the Pope is a Catholic. But why is that noteworthy?
Certainly Lawler’s readers can be forgiven for believing Pope Francis’s orthodoxy might be noteworthy. Only last month Lawler accused Pope Francis of creating confusion over the Church’s teaching on hell. This is the same accusation Lawler repeats in his fourth paragraph quoted above.
Here are Lawler’s exact words from last month’s column: “Pope Francis realized that he cannot directly contradict the perennial teaching of the Church, put forth so clearly by St. John Paul II. But he could and did create confusion about that teaching, and thereby provided new maneuvering room for those who are unhappy with the Church’s stand.”
Of course I found Lawler’s claim of papally-inspired theological conspiracy rather odd. First in light of Pope Francis’s past warning that mafioso risk hell in the afterlife. And second because Sister Vassa, a Russian Orthodox theologian popular in social media, had clearly understood the Holy Father despite the confusion claimed by professional Catholic Phil Lawler.
What was all the more intriguing is that Sister Vassa belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). Within the Eastern Orthodox world, ROCOR is often noted for its unfriendliness to Rome and for loosely being the Orthodox Church’s nearest equivalent to the SSPX. Can you imagine a SSPX nun defending the Patriarch of Constantinople from unjust attacks by Eastern Orthodox apologists?!
This brings us to the question Lawler raises in his second paragraph quoted above: Why is it necessary in the case of Pope Francis?
The answer to this question is simple. It is necessary to compile such lists for Pope Francis, during his pontificate, for the same reason it was necessary to compile similar lists during the pontificates of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Lawler states that it is “difficult to imagine that anyone would have compiled such lists,” yet I was one of several traditional Catholic apologists who did so. Why? Because of the cottage
industry infestation of reactionary publications invading our Traditional Latin Mass chapels and disrupting the peace of our laity. (For more information on my experience as a Catholic apologist in this area, please see “My Journey out of the Lefebvre Schism” originally published with Envoy Magazine.)
Likewise today, there is an infestation of professional Catholics who, in keeping with their financial interests, promote the narrative “Francis is a bad pope”. Thus to answer Lawler’s question, it is necessary to compile such lists in defence of Pope Francis because of professional Catholics like Phil Lawler. Mark Shea notes that for certain people, “Accusation is a form of confession.” Professional Catholics critical of Pope Francis are notorious for spreading the very confusion they accuse the Holy Father of creating. Recent book releases suggest that it is in their financial interest to do so.
This brings us to the heart of the third paragraph quoted from Lawler above. “This is the phenomenon that I sought to explain in Lost Shepherd: not that Pope Francis is preaching heresy, but that he has spread confusion about the content of orthodox Catholic belief,” Lawler states. In other words, Lawler’s article being quoted is a mini-infomercial marketing his latest book. Same with his article last month.
As noted by Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong in his response to the same infomercial, “folks like Phil Lawler […] appear to want to spread far and wide the ‘fact’ that Pope Francis is to blame for all the confusion. I submit that there would be a lot less confusion if Lawler and those like him weren’t doing the destructive, gossipy, rumor mongering things they are doing now, causing all sorts of division and scandal: a shameful thing indeed.”
I invite you to read Armstrong’s entire response here.
Pete Vere is a canonist, author, and catechist. His books include Surprised by Canon Law (volumes 1 & 2), More Catholic Than The Pope, and Annulments: 100 Questions and Answers. Pete and wife Sonya are blessed with seven children. In his spare time Pete enjoys camping with his family, riding his Indian Scout motorcycle, and refereeing professional wrestling.