In a recent piece for National Review, Francis X. Maier (a long-time advisor to recently retired Archbishop Charles J. Chaput) presents an argument against the “derisive and condescending” dismissal by Pope Francis’s supporters of his critics. Maier even suggests that to disregard “people who voice their concerns respectfully, from conviction,” violates the pope’s own principles on dialogue and synodality, and justifies a need for yet more criticism of the pope.
The climax of Maier’s piece is a regurgitated litany of condescending and stale talking points against the Holy Father’s magisterial teachings. Maier’s assertions have been repeated (and refuted) since the beginning of this papacy, and especially since the publication of Francis’s exhortation on family life, Amoris Laetitia. His rhetoric makes me wonder if we really have arrived at the point where “enough is enough.” Is there no longer any use in acknowledging the arguments of the pope’s most stubborn critics or taking the time, yet again, to present them with the case for Francis?
I understand the reality that for many Catholics, changes between popes are difficult to navigate. Coming immediately after the measured and introverted manner of Benedict XVI, Francis’s approach–which at times can be colloquial, improvisational, and spontaneous–undeniably rubbed many people the wrong way. If Maier were simply expressing frustration with Pope Francis’s tone or the way he expresses himself, he might be raising a legitimate concern. The danger posed by Francis X. Maier and so many others who repeat similar talking points, however, is not that they are critics of the style of this pontificate, but that they object to the very substance of the pope’s official teachings.
Maier opens his article by trying to frame this papacy in the context of the city of Rome, where he visited twice in 2018 and sensed that “the spirit of the place” had changed. He asserts that Catholic Rome has undergone a shift, and not a good one. Looking fondly on the papacies of Francis’s predecessors, he writes:
“Throughout the tenures of Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, but also well before that in the Pacelli, Roncalli, and Montini pontificates, serious pastoral concerns and serious intellect coincided. They reinforced each other. Exacting Catholic thought mattered; it wasn’t sufficient for faith, but it was seen and respected as necessary.”
As for the state of the Church during the Francis papacy? He suggests that the qualities of this pontificate include (emphasis mine):
“Its anti-intellectual resentments and seeming diminishment of Catholic thought; its undermining of a healthy Christian anthropology; its unintended feeding of disunity and confusion; its ignoring legitimate expressions of concern or criticism; and its downplaying the unique and singular nature of the Christian revelation. This pontificate has also, so critics argue, played loose with the notion of truth, thereby conflating mercy with indulgence, treating mercy as a kind of new, trademarked product of this papacy, and detaching mercy from justice, a virtue tied inextricably to truth.”
If these are what Maier classifies as “respectful” criticism, I’d hate to see what he considers disrespectful. Indeed, the few positive things he can bring himself to write about the Holy Father’s teachings in this piece amount to faint praise, and additional revelations suggest there’s something much more hostile bubbling beneath the surface:
“He has many strengths. His teaching in Evangelii Gaudium and in much of Amoris Laetitia is strong and inspiring. Likewise his encyclical Laudato Si’ adds new force to previous Church teaching on stewardship of the environment.”
He can’t bring himself to say what he actually likes about the first two documents he mentions, just that their content is “strong and inspiring.” I think it’s fair to assume that his statement about “much of Amoris Laetitia” is an implicit rejection of chapter 8 of the exhortation. Why he doesn’t just say so explicitly is something I don’t understand. The pope’s “respectful” critics frequently hold back from admitting their real frustrations with Francis. They try to present themselves as loyal to the pope but justifiably concerned about the “confusion” he’s caused or the “problematic” statements he has made, yet they are elusive about what troubles them.
As for Laudato Si’, Maier’s assessment that it “adds new force to previous Church teaching” is conspicuously quantitative, not qualitative. If there were any questions why his evaluation of Francis’s encyclical on care for creation was devoid of substance, papal biographer Austen Ivereigh answered them. Responding to Maier’s article, Ivereigh tweeted,
“In person he’s even less respectful. While working as Abp Chaput’s ghostwriter & chief adviser in 2015 he told me Laudato Si’ was ‘the worst encyclical ever written.’ In this article he claims it bolsters previous papal teaching.”
It is extremely difficult to have a frank conversation about substantial issues with Francis’s critics when they refuse to express their opinions about him and his teachings in a straightforward way. Sensible observers understand that Francis’s most reactionary critics are dishonest. For example, within the last week, Taylor Marshall revealed that he lied and manipulated his audience regarding his involvement in the theft of the indigenous Catholics’ statues during October’s Amazon Synod in Rome (he coordinated and financed the entire thing, then “broke” the story). The Holy Father’s “respectful” critics claim to hold themselves to a higher standard than the fringe, however.
One of the main reasons I founded this site was to respond directly and substantially to the concerns of Francis’s critics. Perhaps I am naive, but I have always assumed good faith on the part of Francis’s more sincere critics. I have always believed that deep down many of them are open to receiving the pope’s Magisterial teachings and receptive to papal authority. I chalked up many of our disagreements to mixed messages or the unwillingness of Francis’s supporters to adequately explain his message. Even before we launched this site, I wrote this on the “About” page:
Because Francis’s critics are such a small faction, many of their accusations and assertions have gone unchecked. They complain that their concerns are serious, but they are dismissed and their points are not addressed by those who support the pope.
The authors at this site have decided to take up their challenge, both by providing links to resources from other sites and by providing original essays that argue in favor of the orthodoxy and faithfulness of the Holy Father.
In the two years since we launched this site, we have risen to that challenge. I have received scores of emails and messages from grateful Catholics who credit us with helping them to understand Pope Francis and to put the accusations of his critics into context. Many others have told us they appreciate our tone and have thanked us for providing a “voice of sanity” in a climate of angry and reactionary polarization in the Church.
Unfortunately, it seems that some of the pope’s critics are looking for validation rather than explanations. When you accuse the Supreme Pontiff and those who support and promote his teachings (or his “flacks,” to use Maier’s term) of “undermining of a healthy Christian anthropology” and playing “loose with the notion of truth,” you aren’t being respectful. You are being condescending. When you publish such views in a forum as widely read as the National Review, you are being subversive. When you describe the tenor of a papacy as “anti-intellectual” or having caused the “diminishment of Catholic thought,” you give the impression that you set yourself above the Church’s magisterial authority because you believe you can out-think the Church.
Who is really being dismissive? Who is really showing scorn?
Maier isn’t alone in his contempt for Pope Francis. His essay is just the latest in seven years of repetitive and condescending “think pieces” written by self-declared orthodox Catholics who are determined–for reasons that baffle me–to outmaneuver their obligation to grant religious assent of intellect and will to the ordinary Magisterium of the pope. This attitude is found in the output of numerous blogs, periodicals, and multimedia outlets. This sentiment is expressed by theologians, priests, bishops, and cardinals. It’s influencing ordinary people in the pews and is doing great damage to the Church.
And for what? Once you’ve convinced a sufficient number of Catholics that Francis is a terrible pope who teaches errors and whose pontificate has been a disaster, what do you think will happen? Will you sell more books? Get more Twitter followers? Start your own Church? Or simply have more disgruntled friends to sit around with and complain about how terrible things are?
If you want to discuss the theological reasoning behind Pope Francis’s teaching, great. Let’s do it. If you are confused by something specific, or if something rubs you the wrong way, let’s hash it out. If you want to be open to Pope Francis and his message, but your conscience keeps telling you something doesn’t seem right, let’s go there. You aren’t the first person to struggle with Church teachings, and you won’t be the last. We’re all in this Church together, and everybody struggles with something.
Still, not everyone can be the pope. Like it or not, Pope Francis has been entrusted with authority over the entire Church. As Catholics, we need to reorient ourselves to a better trust in that authority, as well as the Holy Spirit’s protection over the Church’s fidelity to Christ. Our Church teaches, “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him” (CCC 100). We also believe that he “is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism” (The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church, 9).
This of course means accepting that many of the arguments against Francis’s teachings do not reflect the views of the Church. This means that many of the “heroes” of the opposition against Pope Francis have been wrong, all these years. This means that Amoris Laetitia and Querida Amazonia are not heretical, and that many of your long-held assumptions about the Church and certain teachings are untrue.
For some, that may be an impossible pill to swallow. But I firmly believe that many are tired of the conflict and worry and distrust, and truly desire to be in union with the Holy Father. It’s not too late to pray for the faith and hope required to take a step outside your comfort zone. Let’s walk together with Pope Francis.
Image: Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and Pope Francis, 2015. By Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen – https://www.dvidshub.net/image/2197610/philadelphia-papal-visit, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43969875
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.