One of the things that the anti-Francis Catholics use as a defense is that the Pope is “unclear” or “confusing.” Therefore, they say, it’s not their fault if they think he’s in error and accuse him of heresy. He should just speak clearly and there wouldn’t be this sort of problem. They claim that his predecessors never had this problem with being misunderstood, therefore it must be his fault.
I find that claim bizarre. Catholic apologetics frequently deal with anti-Catholics who misinterpret or take Papal statements out of context to justify their attacks against the Church. However, whether it’s because these anti-Catholics sincerely repeat the false accusations made in the 16th century, or because they are willing to lie themselves, these people could search out what the Popes really did say, but did not [§].
Every group that has broken from the Catholic Church has begun with misrepresenting what the Church has taught and portraying what individual sinning churchmen have done as the sanctioned teaching of the Church. Even before they broke away, these groups used this misrepresentation to justify their own disobedience by way of claiming that the Church herself has gone wrong while insisting that they hold to the real truth.
If one searches, they can find sins and lamentable judgment in the behavior of any saint, let alone everyone else. They can find people deliberately twisting the words of a Pope to justify sins instead of focusing on the good. But one should consider the words of St. Francis de Sales in this case:
But if, instead of making your profit of these examples [#] and refreshing your minds with the sweetness of so holy a perfume, you turn your eyes toward certain places where monastic discipline is altogether ruined, and where there remains nothing sound but the habit, you will force me to say that you are looking for the sewers and dung heaps, not the gardens and orchards. All good Catholics regret the ill behavior of these people and blame the negligence of the pastors and the uncontrollable ambition of certain persons who, being determined to have power and authority, hinder legitimate elections, and the order of discipline, in order to make the temporal goods of the Church their own. What can we do? The master has sown good seed, but the enemy has oversown cockle.
(The Catholic Controversy, Part II, Article III, Chapter X)
If you deliberately look for failure, you’ll find it. But that doesn’t mean that the Church caused that failure by the teaching of Popes. This is where the anti-Francis Catholics need to ask whether they’re going in the same direction as those who previously broke with the Church. There are Catholics out there who confused discipline and doctrine and hate the Church because they think she “changed” teachings. They are taking soundbites—without reading the full transcript or document—and using their out of context interpretation of these soundbites to “prove” their suspicions are true.
Their behavior dangerously parallels that of the past cases of leaving the Church. If they’re not willing to remember that God protects His Church from error, they may find that they make themselves enemies of the Church under the claim of defending her.
[§] Reading Calvin and Luther, I’ve seen them make vague undocumented assertions about what “popes” say, making it impossible to identify if it was really said, who said it, and in what context. Anti-Catholics seem to repeat their vague assertions as if they were proven facts. Anti-Francis Catholics tend to do the same.
[#] St. Francis is contrasting actual religious life with the occasional corruption used to attack the Church.
David Wanat holds a Masters Degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has been blogging in defense of the Catholic Church since 2007. His personal blog is at http://www.ifimightinterject.com/.