I recently had an exchange with Dr. Mark Nowakowski, a traditionalist Catholic and talented composer (he wrote the score to Mass of the Ages), on our completely opposite views of Pope Francis. He wrote an article for the traditionalist website One Peter Five in February entitled “On the Theological Impossibility of Dealing with Abusive Fatherhood.” And of course, the “father” he refers to is Pope Francis. It was a hard read, especially as someone who loves and admires the Holy Father. Sickened is the only word I can come up with to describe my experience of reading Nowakowski’s casual assertions that Francis is “a father who vacillates between abuse, tyrannical overreach, being absent, and then some moments of tenderness or apparent resolve, followed by gaslighting masquerading as mercy,” and that he is “a contradictory and tyrannical man.”

I’m not angry at Mark Nowakowski—I believe his pain is real, but I think it is founded on mistaken assumptions about the Church, the Catholic faith, and Pope Francis himself. And his impressions are so antithetical to the reality of our Church and to Pope Francis’s ministry as pope that I worry there’s no easy road back to unity.

He’s not the only critic of the pope who has tossed around the “abusive father” motif. Prominent lay traditionalists and reactionaries, including Mark Lambert, Edward Feser, Peter Kwasniewski, Eric Sammons, Steve Skojec, and Michael Matt are among those who use the term — and many of them seem to take it as a given.

Several bishops have alluded to this image to describe Pope Francis, including Kazakhstan auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who  said of the pope, “Yet one cannot disinherit the father of a family, however guilty or monstrously he behaves himself.” Additionally, in his response to Traditionis Custodes, Cardinal Robert Sarah seemed to allude to Pope Francis as an abusive father as well, writing, “A father cannot introduce mistrust and division among his faithful children. He cannot humiliate some by setting them against others. He cannot ostracize some of his priests.”

This perceived victimization voiced by Pope Francis’s critics is at times difficult to understand for a number of reasons, including the fact that Pope Francis left the celebration of the Latin Mass untouched for the first eight years of his papacy.

Yet during those first eight years they regularly showed open hostility towards the pope, and I worry that it became entrenched during that time. And it has only grown worse in the year-and-a-half since. Much of the damage is likely permanent. Once the conclusion that Pope Francis is a horrible or heretical or wicked or abusive pope has become lodged in someone’s mind, it is extremely difficult to bring them back from the “abyss.” Doing so would require not only an open mind but a total reevaluation of countless misconceptions and a willingness to see them in a different light. Certainly it has happened — and we’ve heard enough conversion stories that show it does happen from time to time — but it seems unlikely that we’ll see the entire industry dedicated to opposing the pope make a reversal.

Ask any ardent critic of Pope Francis and they will give you a litany of incidents that have led them to their conclusion of him. It is remarkable how many of his statements and actions have been taken out of context and twisted since the beginning of his papacy.

One early incident was when he said, “Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits — but no,” on the plane back from the Philippines. Speaking for myself, as a Catholic who has been married for 17 years and has four children and a miscarriage, who has never used contraception but only natural family planning, the line made total sense to me (essentially, “following the Church’s teaching on contraception doesn’t mean you have to have 14 kids” — something that every NFP instructor in the world says), and it was preceded by apologetic language (“excuse me if I use the word”), and he said it within the context of defending Humanae Vitae.

I honestly had to figure out what it was that made people so offended about it. I’m still not quite certain what he said that was so wrong. And this was in early 2015.

Many of the same people get offended when he says “don’t be rigid” or said of seminarians that we “must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters.” But isn’t that true? We shouldn’t be rigid or act like little monsters. If you are a rigid little monster, then stop it. If you aren’t, then it doesn’t apply to you — so why take offense?

There are countless examples like this, where he makes a generic criticism to a bad trait that is common among Christians, and then — for reasons that continue to mystify me — people take it personally and become offended. They say things like, “Pope Francis called faithful Catholics rigid!” or “Pope Francis thinks orthodox priests are little monsters.”

Is this self-accusation? Is it a matter of reading way too much into his words? It’s baffling. If he criticizes priests who are too caught up in shopping for fancy vestments and clerical attire, and not paying enough attention to being pastors to the faithful, isn’t he right? (I can think of four or five priests I know personally who fit that bill.) And yet every time Francis says something like that, it’s taken as “Pope Francis insults holy priests.” Speaking frankly, if you are a priest and you spend more time on picking out fancy vestments than you do visiting the sick, you need that admonition. If it doesn’t apply to you, it’s not about you.

All that Francis is trying to do is to teach people who have these tendencies to recognize them and correct them. He’s also teaching the wider Church and world about the dangers and pitfalls of these tendencies. In other words, he’s trying to teach us not to be caught up in the superficial and practice true discipleship.

When he says these types of things, they are opportunities for self-examination and reflection. He’s reminding us of vices that many of us have. Do we expect him to say we’re doing swell and to “keep on keeping on”?

Even more damaging are manufactured controversies like the Amazon Synod hysteria, which was built on a racist lie, or the charges about the Human Fraternity document. And I haven’t even mentioned the dubia, the petitions, all the open letters accusing Pope Francis of heresy — each of these things are easily dismantled with the tiniest bit of critical analysis and research. It’s all absurd or easily explained, but there’s so much of it.

Imagine the freakout if Pope Francis kissed a Quran!

But my point is that if you are committed to see Francis in a negative light, and are prepared to be insulted or perplexed by everything he says and does, that’s going to be the way you receive his message.

Nearly three years ago, Pedro Gabriel described this mentality in an article titled “The infallibly erring pope.” He wrote:

How can a Pope, who is granted divine assistance of the Holy Spirit in his Ordinary Magisterium, promulgate error in his teachings – not once, not twice, not thrice, but almost every single time?

How can a man have so much protection from the Holy Spirit, yet manage to get everything so consistently wrong all the time? This can be described as nothing short of a miracle in itself. This is something unheard of throughout the entire history of the Church.

As we’re approaching a decade of this, we’re seeing new kinds of opposition to the pope, new kinds of dissent, warped ecclesiology, bad theology, terrible apologetics, and massive amounts of fear. This is largely a US phenomenon, but the US bishops seem to be largely ambivalent or complicit, and they’ve let this thing get out of hand. It’s spread to other countries, and signs of reversal are few. This is unsustainable, and something will have to give.

I don’t know what the solution to this is. Unity is essential in the Church but there’s a contingent of Catholics who refuse to unify with the man the Church teaches us is the visible sign of unity. Barring a miracle, a schism looks increasingly inevitable. Those of us who support Church unity have a responsibility to work and pray to heal this rift. It can’t be ignored.

Image: Adobe Stock. By Elnur.

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Share via
Copy link