Ever since he burst onto the the scene in January 2017 with a 5000-word essay in La Stampa entitled “Amoris Laetitia: Where Truth and Mercy Embrace,” Catholic writer Stephen Walford has found himself at the center of the often heated debate in the Church over Pope Francis and his teachings.
Coming on the heels of the publication of five questions (or dubia) from four cardinals who have openly challenged the orthodoxy and authority of the Holy Father’s exhortation, Walford’s essay sought to frame Amoris Laetitia’s eighth chapter within the context of sound Catholic teaching and defend the doctrinal integrity of the document.
Subsequent essays in La Stampa were shared widely and met with praise from papal supporters and derision from Francis’s critics. His style is clear and direct, and does not pull any punches. For example, in perhaps his most well-known essay, his “Open Letter to the Four Dubia Cardinals,” published in June of last year, Walford pleaded with the Cardinals to withdraw their protest, telling them:
“The abuse from many, including those who run websites and Traditionalist blogs aimed at the Holy Father and those who are loyal to him, is nothing short of satanic. You are their role models and that is an intolerable situation. In reality, there is no confusion but only outright rejection and defiance towards the legitimate Pope and his magisterial teachings.”
Stephen Walford will once again engage Amoris Laetitia and the issues surrounding the document in his new book, entitled Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy, which will be released by Paulist Press on August 28.
He has graciously agreed to an interview with Where Peter Is.
Today we are pleased to publish part one of that interview.
Where Peter Is (WPI): Before we begin discussing your writing and your upcoming book, I don’t think it’s possible this week to ignore the recent revelations and headlines about the sexual abuse scandal that once again has reared its ugly head, shaking the faith of Catholics worldwide.
Stephen Walford (SW): Yes, it is pure evil; manifestly satanic. The Church must offer reparation for these crimes and much penance must be done. The damage this has done to the mission of the Church in terms of scandal is incalculable; however, we must trust God. I see this in the larger picture of a great apostasy; one which I spoke about in my first book. Satan seeks to destroy the Catholic Church, and if we remember, St John spoke of those “who did not really belong to us” in relation to the “last hour” and the many anti-Christs who have appeared (cf. 1 Jn 2:18-19). For me, this is part of that process, the novissimis which Pope Benedict XVI, first as Cardinal Ratzinger, warned us about concerning the 3rd Secret of Fatima. The greatest dangers come from within. Jesus will cleanse his Bride however in the blood of martyrdom, and Satan’s power will be extinguished forever. The Church needs to live from now on in an advent spirit of preparation, allied to a Lenten spirit of penance.
WPI: Tell us a little about your upbringing. Where are you from? What was your faith like, growing up? What was your family’s influence on your religious formation?
SW: I was born in Southampton, England in April 1974, the third of six children (five brothers and one sister). My Mother is Catholic and my Father a non-practicing Anglican. We were brought up in the Catholic faith, with what I would call a typical Irish Catholic background: daily Rosary, devotions to St Joseph and St Michael, compassion for the Holy Souls etc., weekday Mass during the holidays, and a love for the Pope. Growing up as a young boy, I loved to visit the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Hedge End—back in the days when the doors would be open throughout the day and spend quiet time with Jesus. My love of the Blessed Virgin also grew in those times; mainly from becoming aware of the message of Fatima, and the life of St. Pio of Pietrelcina. One of the most important influences I would say came not from my own family, but a parishioner who spent six years battling breast cancer until her death in 1986. I became very close to her and spent many days over a few years with her in school holidays, trying to help her around the house. Looking back, I realize how much the Lord taught me through seeing her great suffering. I didn’t appreciate it then, but I am certain that my love for the message of divine mercy and the suffering souls of this world came from those beautiful moments of grace I spent with her.
WPI: Much has been made of the fact that you are a pianist and a piano teacher, rather than an academically trained theologian. When did you begin studying the piano? What are your accomplishments, academically and professionally, as a pianist?
SW: I began learning the piano at the age of six and first performed in public at the age of twelve, while in 1995 I gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from the University of Bristol. I have performed in public on various occasions over the years, and I suppose performing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto in a live radio broadcast was a very special occasion, as was playing Brahms’s mammoth 2nd Piano Concerto. I have also written various virtuoso transcriptions from Schubert to Gershwin, while my most substantial work would be a thirty minute “Fantasy on Themes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
WPI: Do you play any other instruments?
SW: Yes I play the organ (although I would always say I am a pianist who plays the organ!). I also played the flute as a teenager, but don’t ask me to now!
WPI: Do you see any connection between your musical career and religious faith? Despite your background, your books have received accolades from some of the most serious academic and theological minds in the world. Each of your three books has a foreword written by a cardinal, for example. Each one is meticulously researched and filled with references to scriptural and magisterial references. Did you, at any point, seriously consider pursuing formal study in Religion or Theology?
SW: Music is a language that can transport the soul closer to God; it transcends cultural and religious barriers because in its innate beauty, it touches the heart. Take Liszt’s Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude; it is mystical; it speaks of divine love, of peace and of faith. Even secular pieces like Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony (3rd movement) speak of divine beauty, and remind us that the Holy Spirit inspires incredible creative art even out of a religious context. So for me, I do see a connection between my musical career and my religious faith. Every note I play –right or wrong– I offer to the glory of God because it is a way of thanking him for allowing me this gift that endlessly lifts the soul and fills one with joy. In terms of studying theology, I never contemplated it simply because as a teenager, I knew my talent lay in music, and it seemed logical to follow that path.
WPI: Your first two books, Heralds of the Second Coming and Communion of Saints, deal mainly with issues surrounding eschatology and the supernatural. Why did you feel the need to enter into the public discussion of this papacy and the controversy over Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics? Your new book, for example, deals with more immediate issues: family, divorce, and how to understand these everyday realities in light of Church teaching. What inspired you to begin writing about these topics?
SW: Well I really became involved because I had seen on social media, forums and websites, a gradual turning against Pope Francis from those I would call Conservative Catholics like myself–those who accepted Vatican II, obedience to the Pope, and with a devotion to the divine mercy of God. For me, it was no longer just traditionalists who were causing division, and that was a great concern. Finally though, it was a blog post by the canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters that led me to pen my first essay. His attempted demolition of an article by Fr. Paul Keller on the possibility of allowing a divorced and remarried lady to receive Holy Communion was the catalyst for me to enter the fray.
WPI: You reached your peak of “infamy” among papal critics when you wrote your open letter to the “dubia” Cardinals in La Stampa back in June 2017. Why did you write the letter, and why do you think it received such a backlash?
SW: I basically wrote the Open Letter, because during Mass one Friday evening, the idea just came to me like an inspiration, I suppose – not that I was thinking anything about it at all. So I felt maybe the Lord was asking me to do it. Maybe I am wrong, but in my conscience that is the feeling I had: as a way to defend the Pope and to ward off any attempt at a “formal correction.” I did notice not long after the publication of the Open Letter, that Cardinal Burke seemed to have recognized that a papal magisterial teaching has never been “corrected” in matters of faith and morals, stating that it had never been done “in a doctrinal way”. In terms of the backlash it received, well of course that was to be expected. Satan hates any public defense of the Holy Father and so he was never going to let me off the hook easily. But I find the best response it to be charitable, and sometimes use a bit of humor.
WPI: Like you, from the beginning of this papacy, I have been alarmed at the lack of respect or comprehension that many self-described orthodox Catholics have for the Holy Father, and it only seems to intensify. It seems to me that the doctrine of Petrine Primacy must have been poorly taught or understood. Rather than Catholics receiving and assenting to the teachings of the pope, they employ their own private judgment to papal teachings, and if they disagree they will then attack the pope. Is this how you see it, and if so, do you have any idea of why this is happening?
SW: I do agree with you, and it is very sad to see. I believe this is happening mainly because those critics have a faulty understanding of Tradition (as something alive and active now through the guidance of the Holy Spirit), and as a consequence of that, they do not grasp the doctrine of “doctrinal development.” The principle is that as the Church moves ever closer to the end of time, it understands its doctrines more and more –closer to how Jesus himself sees them– and it acts more and more as a mother to humanity. This explains why in the same era that the divine mercy message of Jesus has been proclaimed through the mystical revelations given to St. Faustina Kowalska, the Magisterium of successive popes has been inspired to preach the same message. Mercy is the antidote to the onslaught of evil and the maternal nature of the Church understands this far more than it did even a century ago. In terms of papal primacy, without doubt dissenters have tried to dilute the teaching authority of popes. Unfortunately for them however, the doctrine of indefectibility (which has been constantly taught by the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium) protects the Church for all time from doctrinal error and this is found solely within the Apostolic See of Rome and derives from Jesus’ prayer for Peter and his successors that their faith will not fail (cf. Lk 22:32).
WPI: There is a disagreement today among Catholics about what constitutes doctrinal orthodoxy. You consider yourself an orthodox Catholic, correct? Yet your critics on social media have accused you of heterodoxy, heresy, and worse. What have you said that leads them to believe this?
SW: Quite simply, I have defended the authentic Magisterium of Pope Francis. This has involved explaining his authority over matters of faith and morals-which of course includes his decision to alter sacramental discipline for some divorced and remarried. His recent decision to change the CCC on the death penalty is also something I defended in October 2017. Alongside the specific defense of the present Supreme Pontiff, some have struggled to accept my firm defense of papal primacy and their God given power to bind and loose. Nothing I have said contravenes Catholic teaching in the slightest.
Please click here to read the second and final part of our interview with Stephen Walford, where we discuss his upcoming book, his audience with the pope, and his thoughts on the ongoing resistance to Pope Francis from within the Church.
Walford’s new book, Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy, will be released by Paulist Press on August 28. The book is available for pre-order here.
Image provided by Stephen Walford
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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.