“Be attentive to that old and always new temptation from the promoters of Gnosticism. They wanted to make a name for themselves and expand their doctrine and fame, so they always sought to say something new and distinct from what the Word of God gave them. That’s what St. John describes with the term proagon (2 Jn 9), meaning the one who goes too far ahead, who is at the forefront, who always wants to go beyond the ecclesial ‘us’ that protects the community from excesses.”
— Pope Francis
Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Germany
Last week, La Croix International published a two-part article by Massimo Faggioli entitled “The limits of a pontificate.” This essay, while acknowledging many strengths of Francis’s pontificate, is also critical of his recent decisions, and claims that the Holy Father’s papacy is, therefore, in crisis.
This is noteworthy, for two reasons. For one thing, this is the first time, to my knowledge, that Faggioli has publicly taken such a critical stance against the current pope. Additionally, Faggioli is typically associated with the opposite side of the ideological spectrum from Francis’s usual critics.
The timing of this article is also interesting. For Dr. Faggioli, the COVID-19 lockdown has intensified what he calls the pope’s “institutional isolation.” According to him, this pandemic seems to have precipitated a low point in Francis’s pontificate, namely by bringing to light a decreased impetus for reform of the Church. Faggioli strongly suggests that Francis is currently undergoing a stage of vulnerability, and that the lockdown has made it manifest.
One wonders exactly to what Faggioli is referring when he writes about Pope Francis being in “institutional isolation.” It seems bewildering to assume Faggioli is merely referring to the empty St. Peter’s Square, or the empty papal masses, since this emptiness is not a bug of the lockdown, but a desired feature.
This claim becomes even more bizarre if we read it in the context of the Pope’s extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing. This ceremony has been almost universally praised, even by some of the Pope’s usual critics. As I said in my article about the blessing, some of the detractors have, for the first time, been exposed to Francis as he really is and were pleased with what they saw. No one seemed, at that moment, to believe that Francis was now undergoing a low point in his leadership. Quite to the contrary, it seemed as if this was the pinnacle of his pontificate. Far from a sense of institutional isolation, I had never felt so much union with the Pope from all sides: right, left, inside, and outside the Church.
In fact, it seems this Urbi et Orbi blessing has opened channels and built bridges in parts of the Church where they were previously closed. Unfortunately, what has opened these new channels and bridges is precisely at the root of Faggioli’s critique.
Dr. Faggioli writes that the COVID-19 pandemic provides an “opportunity to try and take a more careful look at what has happened to Francis’ pontificate in the last few months.”
I fear that these last few months are precisely what have disappointed Faggioli, but he is not referring to these recent months that we have spent in lockdown, but those that preceded them. According to Faggioli, “something disturbing has happened over the past year. One has the impression that during the last several months the dynamism of his pontificate has begun to reach its limits.”
What “disturbing” things have happened in the last year, per Faggioli? He lists three problems:
- Francis has allowed traditionalism to flourish, namely through new decrees concerning the “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass; Prior to that, Faggioli was under the impression that the Pope was “absolutely clear that he believed liturgical traditionalism is incompatible with a Church going forth”;
- Francis has faced pressure from cardinals and bishops, namely Cardinals Müller and Sarah; The former published a “Manifesto” threatening a public correction of the pope, the latter tried to pressure Francis’s decision regarding the discipline of mandatory celibacy in the Amazon, by publishing a book enlisting the name of the Pope Emeritus;
- Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazônia failed to “make the disciplinary changes” and “allow the theological developments” on the issues of “clericalism and women.” In addition to this, he mentions the formation of a second commission to study the topic of women deacons. He gives so much emphasis to this last point, that he describes this as a “moment that could well mark a shift in his pontificate.”
Do these developments truly undermine Francis’s pontificate in any way? I’ll grant that Cardinal Robert Sarah’s behavior was unprecedented. Even if some conflicts between Sarah and Francis regarding their perception of liturgy have become public knowledge in the past, the fact of the matter is that Sarah never had made his opposition manifest before. The appalling way that Cardinal Sarah managed the publication of his book was something unparalleled and untried, even by some of the more established papal detractors in the episcopate, including Cardinal Raymond Burke and Bishop Athanasius Schneider.
Other than that example, these so-called “external pressures” are nothing new. Pope Francis has experienced this kind of resistance since at least 2016, with the promulgation of Amoris Laetitia. I remind you, there were four cardinals who signed the dubia. As for Cardinal Müller, his opposition is not a new development, even though it did not take the form of a manifesto until February 2019. For example, in 2018 he published a series of essays in First Things that were thinly-veiled rebukes of Francis’s pontificate, even suggesting that the official interpretation of the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia was not a legitimate development, but a “corruption” of doctrine. Later, in January 2019, he criticized Francis’s revision to the Catechism’s teaching on the death penalty in an interview with Edward Pentin.
Also, Müller’s text was certainly not the first “doctrinal manifesto” published in opposition to Francis. Remember, the Kazakhstan bishops published a manifesto of their own prior in 2018. It also wasn’t the last. Just a few months after Müller’s manifesto was published, Cardinal Burke and Bishop Schneider released a statement on what they described as the “truths” of the faith. Other examples are plentiful. In fact, Christopher Lamb chronicles over 100 public acts of resistance against Pope Francis from his election through September 2019 in his recent book on this papacy.
What is, then, the real meat of Faggioli’s objections? Francis’s tolerance of traditionalism and a more conservative stance on the role of women than he would prefer. These are the true concerns behind his essay, because they stem directly from recent decisions Francis has made. The idea that “extraordinary pressure” has changed Francis appears to be little more than an attempt at rationalizing why a pope like Francis made these decisions, since they are incomprehensible to Faggioli.
It seems that Faggioli is trying to find justifications for how a pontiff that he had previously assessed as liberal could have behaved in such a conservative way on these crucial issues. Faggioli tries to preemptively defend himself against accusations of liberal bias, saying:
“The issues of synodality and the ministry of women are not part of a liberal agenda that is largely passé, but part of the mission to evangelize. The fact is that the question of women in the Church is central (…) This is not just the view of secularists or part of a liberal agenda to modernize the Church. Many practicing and loyal Catholics have a sense that their Church is refusing to recognize an obvious “sign of the times” – that God is asking the Church change (…) This is not the expression of disappointment, voiced by another liberal who expected Francis to create a “brave new Church”. That tabula rasa Church does not exist. These concerns and reflections are those of a lay Catholic whose life – as a member of the Church, as a parent and as a scholar – has been transformed profoundly by Pope Francis in many ways”
But as much as I want to take people at face value, this argument simply does not hold. Throughout his article, Faggioli’s concerns show a bias towards a liberal view of Christianity. He may claim that these concerns are those of a simple lay Catholic, but can the lay Catholic truly excise himself from his ideological framework? I think the substance of his essay indicates otherwise.
For example, I would argue that the most pressing concern for lay Catholics today is the sexual abuse crisis, and our strongly-justified demands for reform of the Church in that area. Granted, Faggioli does indeed discuss an “urgent need to reform the Catholic Church in order to respond to the ongoing sexual abuse crisis.” But this topic is only mentioned in passing, and he quickly shifts to discussing the ministry of women.
It is true that Faggioli makes it clear that he is “not promoting female priesthood here.” But he also says that one of the things that “suggest to reform-minded Catholics that his pontificate is in crisis” is “the establishment of a new study commission on the female diaconate that does not appear in favor of ordaining women deacons.” Emphasis on the word, “ordaining.” This is not an ideologically neutral stance here, as Catholics involved in this debate very well know.
Faggioli is completely aware of this debate, when he argues:
“Pope Francis says it is necessary to listen to all sides before making a decision. And that is absolutely right. But unfortunately, this second commission can hardly be seen as representative of different views. (…) Appointing pontifical commissions that represent only one side of the Catholic Church’s sensus fidei, and do not have representatives of the theological conversation on a particular issue, is not really a synodal way to go about matters”
It is interesting how this objection perfectly mirrors what conservatives said before Querida Amazônia was promulgated. They complained that only “liberal” bishops had been summoned to the Vatican, and were therefore the only voices heard during the synod. A common talking point at the time was how the synod was “stacked” in favor of the liberal view. In fact, this seems to be a common grievance in conservative circles. For example, similar complaints were made during the 2018 Synod on Youth and Young People. I remember reading about how young people who preferred the Extraordinary Form were being excluded from this synod.
Considering this, as well as the makeup of the first commission on women deacons, it is very hard to argue that “only one side” has been heard on this matter. This language betrays an ideological slant in Faggioli’s analysis: he is arguing that only one side is being heard, which clearly suggests that he favors the side that he believes isn’t being given a voice.
Contrast this to Faggioli’s objections to greater integration of traditionalists in the Church, which is also a pivotal point in his critique. I cannot help but notice here that Faggioli seems to divide the Church into two opposing factions, in which the “other side” must be eliminated. Any concession to this “other side” is portrayed as an intolerable capitulation. But the Culture Wars mentality pervading Faggioli’s article simply does not jive with the tone of Francis’s papacy. In fact, Culture Wars mentalities have arguably been the greatest obstacle to the implementation of this pope’s reforms.
But whether such a mentality is well-aligned to Francis apparently doesn’t matter much to Faggioli. Quite the contrary: his main concern seems to be whether Francis is well-aligned with his own mentality, and that of likeminded Catholics.
“There is a serious risk that Pope Francis is losing the support of the people who want to see him succeed and keep the Church from falling into the hands of those who have set their face against change. (…) This is an important moment, because the 83-year-old is showing few signs that he understands that many of the strongest believers in his efforts at Church reform are becoming disillusioned.”
Apparently if Francis does not make a course correction and do what they want, his supposed allies are threatening to desert him. Is this what the authority of the Vicar of Christ has been reduced to? Not a foundation, nor a shepherd leading his flock, but simply part of a circumstantial alliance in a battle for the soul of the Church, to be discarded as soon as it ceases to be strategically useful?
A misunderstood framework
This same Culture Wars mentality permeates the article’s statements about the so-called “long game.” Faggioli is apparently willing to wait for his desired reforms to take place. “Momentous shifts like the ones [Francis] is calling us to make, obviously take time.” Citing Yves Congar, Faggioli acknowledges that one of the four attitudes necessary for undertaking reform is patience.
But don’t be “too patient” — so says Congar through Faggioli, without ever again mentioning the other three attitudes (obedience, communion, and moderation):
“There’s a question of whether there can actually be a long game for a Church that is now failing to make decisions regarding its institutional and structural problems … The problem is that without decisions on institutional and structural issues (and in particular on women and on ministry) in some churches there simply could be no long game.”
In other words, the problem seems not to be the about the existence of a “long game,” but the existence of a game at all, where the predetermined endgame is the fulfillment of Faggioli’s expectations. This seems to be the source of his impatience: he thinks that maybe his waiting may be in vain. In this sense, the article’s author pushes for institutional reforms that would set this “long game” in stone, to keep the ball rolling long after Francis is gone. This sentence in particular struck me:
“[Francis’] very important spiritual insights lack a clear systematic structure that can be placed in a theological framework and an institutional order.”
This wording is very familiar. It mirrors perfectly the conservative rhetoric about Francis’s alleged ambiguity and lack of theological expertise.
But even if this argument perfectly mirrors the same argument in conservative circles, it certainly does not validate it, quite the contrary. Papal critics like Phil Lawler claim that they cannot give any explanation for Francis’s supposed “lack of clarity” other than a shrewd attempt on his part to spread confusion and muddy the waters while maintaining the appearance of orthodoxy, as he allows “liberal” interpretations of his teachings to run rampant without being directly responsible for them.
Can this view be reconciled with Faggioli’s disheartened complaint about a “lack of clear systematic structure” preventing liberal reforms from going forward? It seems that Lawler and company have missed the mark once more. Francis’s supposed ambiguity cannot be a cover-up for liberal reforms while hindering those reforms at the same time.
This strongly suggests that it’s very likely Francis has been misunderstood by both conservative and liberal factions. And I would dare to say this misunderstanding has been caused by both factions projecting their preconceived ideas and projects onto the person of the pope. Because Francis was portrayed as a liberal, conservatives could not fathom that he could be orthodox. Therefore, they believed that he must be ambiguously trying to impose a liberal agenda under the guise of orthodoxy. The fact that Faggioli is so disappointed with Francis shows that he has fallen into the same trap.
The truth is that Francis does indeed have a “systematic structure,” a “theological framework,” and an “institutional order.” The problem is that these have been completely misunderstood during the past seven years, since they were constantly obscured by the relentless Culture War ravaging the Church.
The pope’s decisions that have so much aggrieved Massimo Faggioli do not strike me as strange at all, nor do I believe they “mark a shift in his pontificate.” Even if those with a strong understanding of Francis’s framework are not always able to predict what the pope will decide, they are never surprised by his decisions. Contrary to what Faggioli proposes, last year did not signal a change in Francis’s pontificate. The seeds of these so-called “conservative” decisions were there all along.
Francis’s openness to traditionalists did not appear out of nowhere in the last year. For example, in an interview in 2016, Francis says that even if “the Second Vatican Council and Sacrosanctum Concilium should carry on as they are,” nevertheless “we have to meet with magnanimity those who are tied to a certain way of prayer” (i.e. traditionalists).
In the same year, at the closing of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis issued his apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera, in which he extended permission for the faithful to validly and licitly receive sacramental absolution from priests affiliated with the radical traditionalist and canonically irregular Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).
It is interesting that the very same paragraph from the very same document also allows for any priest to grant absolution to a woman who confesses the sin of abortion (prior to that, only bishops and priests who were granted that privilege by their bishops could do that). In other words, Pope Francis ties together the mercy to be shown to two issues in diametrically opposed ideological poles.
Faggioli hails Pope Francis when “guidelines in Amoris Laetitia have helped open the sacraments to Catholics in difficult marital and family situations.” But he fails to understand the reason why Francis did it. He seems to think that Francis did it because he is a reformer. However, the truth is that the pope is simply applying the same Christian principles in a consistent way, across the spectrum. This should not puzzle Faggioli, if he had a full grasp of Francis’ framework, instead of viewing mercy as something to be applied exclusively to the sinners favored by his worldview.
Regarding his other point, about clericalism and women, Francis has clearly expressed his opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood multiple times, including in a 2016 in-flight press conference. He stated that he believes St. John Paul II ruled it out definitively in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in an infallible (and therefore irreversible) way.
Regarding women deacons, Pope Francis has already ruled out the possibility of instituting this office as an ordained ministry. In May 2019, during a Q&A session, the Holy Father replied to a question on the topic:
“I can’t do a decree of a sacramental nature without having the theological, historical foundation for it.
In regard to the diaconate, we must see what was there at the beginning of revelation, if there was something, let it grow and it arrives, but if there was not, if the Lord didn’t want a sacramental ministry for women, it can’t go forward. For this reason we go to history and dogma.
We are Catholic, but if anyone wants to found another church, they are free [to do so]”
Granted, this Q&A took place in 2019, Faggioli’s annus horribilis. Still, this happened prior to the establishment of the second commission on the issue, before Querida Amazônia, and even before the Amazon Synod itself. Can anyone really be surprised by Pope Francis’s decision?
In fact, this Q&A took place following the first commission on women deacons. It seems Francis had already made up his mind regarding the possibility of a sacramentally ordained ministry for women. During the Amazon Synod, however, he was urged to review that topic once more. It seems, contrary to Faggioli’s assertion, the existence of this second commission comes not from external pressure from the Church conservatives, but is a response to external pressure from those who favor a female diaconate. My interpretation is that Pope Francis instituted a second commission with mostly conservative theologians to finally settle this issue once and for all. In other words, he is saying that if the topic of women deacons is to be discussed, it should be done with the understanding that sacramental ordination has been ruled out.
There has been no sudden shift in Pope Francis’s pontificate. Faggioli seems to be unaware of the clues that Francis has left since 2016 about women deacons and acceptance of traditionalists. It seems that in his excitement for a pope who would set the reforms he envisions in motion, Faggioli severely misread the framework of this papacy. That doesn’t mean that a cohesive framework does not exist, however.
I commend Massimo Faggioli for being more respectful in his criticism than most conservative detractors of Francis. The disillusionment in Faggioli’s piece is palpable, and his reluctance in writing it is also visible. But I cannot avoid noting how this disillusionment and reluctance ultimately stem from Faggioli’s ideology. He is disillusioned because Francis has not implemented the reforms Faggioli deems necessary. He might be reluctant in writing his critique, because he fears it could undermine the pontiff that–according to him–provides the best chance of implementing those reforms. Or perhaps he is reluctant because he does not want to criticize a pope who has done so much toward fulfilling Faggioli’s view of the Church.
One thing Faggioli never considers is whether those reforms are really necessary or good. That is simply taken for granted. Nowhere is this more visible than when Faggioli quotes Francis:
“The one who makes the Church is the Holy Spirit, who is neither Gnostic, nor Pelagian. It is the Holy Spirit who institutionalizes the Church, in an alternative, complementary way.”
Faggioli goes on to say:
“One wonders if and when the Holy Spirit quit Her work of institutionalizing the Church, or if She is totally happy with the present institutional system”
He doesn’t seem to consider that the Holy Spirit has not quit the work of institutionalizing the Church, even if He has not institutionalized the Church in the way Faggioli envisions. And one wonders why the Holy Spirit would be unhappy with the present institutional system. That is never explained.
Nevertheless, no recent pope has put so much emphasis on discernment as Francis. I would wager that if any Vicar of Christ knows which way the Holy Spirit is blowing in the Church, it’s Francis. Faggioli does not seem to be able to conceive of a Holy Spirit who can propel a new opening to the sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics in 2016, while closing the door to ordained women deacons in 2019. He seems to embrace a view of the Holy Spirit that is always blowing in the same direction, always away from the ecclesiastical projects from “the other side.”
In this sense, Faggioli seems to fall into the same error as his ideological adversaries. They both hold a view wherein the Holy Spirit is not a source of internal transformation (at least where deeply entrenched ideological views are concerned), but an agent demanding the conversion of others, and always others.
The similarities between Faggioli’s mistakes and those of his ideological adversaries can also be seen here:
“In hindsight, the pope’s speech at the conclusion of the Synod gathering could be seen as the beginning of a settlement with the traditionalists. In that final address – given on October 27, 2019 inside the Synod Hall – Francis called out some ‘elite’ Catholics for focusing on small ‘disciplinary’ matters rather than concerning themselves with the ‘bigger picture’. In light of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazônia, one could easily read the pope’s dismissal of those ‘elites’ as his dismissal of the proposal to reform priestly celibacy.”
Maybe Faggioli’s reading of this dismissal of “elites” as a dismissal of the proposal to reform priestly celibacy is accurate. But what is interesting is that, prior to Querida Amazônia, these same words could be read as an indictment against the conservative elites. Pope Francis is, once again, being consistent along the spectrum. Maybe apart from their ideologies, liberals and conservatives are not as different in the way they (mistakenly) perceive the Church: something that seems to exist simply to place a divine stamp of approval on their predefined stances.
I hope Faggioli’s article can fulfill a twofold function. The first is that liberals might see how his rhetoric borrows heavily from the critics they have battled over the last seven years. This realization might give Catholics on the left the prescience to learn from the errors of their adversaries and proactively make the necessary changes before they turn into what they have been fighting against. Francis’s supporters who have become disillusioned, or who feel betrayed, and decide to withdraw their support when he does not teach or reform in a certain way are no different than those who supported John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but ultimately rejected Francis. The feeling of struggling to “continue to stand with [the Pope] without revealing too much of the state of shock and disappointment they feel” mimics the self-description of Phil Lawler’s spiritual journey, until he cracked. The results are visible for all to see today.
I also hope that Faggioli’s article will help allay the fears of conservatives regarding Francis. The “slippery slope” that conservatives fear from the Holy Father’s reforms does not exist. Faggioli’s frustration testifies to that. Maybe it is time to reconsider Pope Francis’s orthodoxy, and stop resisting his teachings based on projections that fail to materialize over and over again.
As for myself, I invite every reader, from every ideological background, to simply accept Francis’ Magisterium, regardless of whether it fits a certain worldview or not. Catholicism should not be read through a liberal or conservative lens, but the reverse. Liberalism and conservatism should be read through a Catholic lens, keeping what is compatible, but discarding that which is incompatible. The task of determining what is compatible and what isn’t falls to the Magisterium, that is the Pope and the bishops in communion with him (CCC 100). These are the limits for all reform in the Church.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.