It is not new for Catholics to grumble about a perceived lack of “backbone” from the pope. The failure of the pope to remove bishops who have gone rogue, to defrock priests deemed heretical, or to excommunicate openly schismatic leaders can be frustrating for many of us. It’s not uncommon for onlookers to say “finally!” when the pope looks like he’s going to “lay down the law” or after he publishes a clear edict or ultimatum, only to be disappointed when the promised showdown never materializes. This perception — that the pope has capitulated to enemies of the faith — is nothing new.

French monarchists were appalled when Pope Leo XIII lent his support to a policy of ralliement, encouraging French Catholics to “rally for the republic.” Many were angered by the pope’s position that they accept and work within the framework of the secular French governmental structure, rather than focusing their efforts on restoring the monarchy to power. Some Catholics are still unhappy about this today. But in a foreshadowing of Pope Francis’s philosophy that “realities are greater than ideas,” Pope Leo recognized that expending energy on the quixotic fantasy of restoring the French monarchy was imprudent, and that it would be much wiser to live out the faith within the current system.

In 1929, when Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran treaty between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See, many Catholics objected. Beginning in 1870, popes considered themselves “prisoners of the Vatican” and refused to leave the Vatican and its immediate surroundings in protest against the Italian government’s seizure of the Papal States. With the Lateran treaty, Italy recognized the full sovereignty of the Holy See in the Vatican City State, provided compensation for the loss of the Papal States, and established Catholicism as the state religion of Italy (and this designation would cease with an update to the treaty signed by Pope St. John Paul II in the 1980s). Some Catholics perceived the treaty as a compromise that undermined the Church’s spiritual authority and historical claims. It certainly fell short of Pope Pius IX’s position in the 1870s. Yet Pius XI signed the treaty in order to put an end to the decades-long “Roman Question.”

In recent centuries Church history is filled with examples of popes, when faced with situations where a high-profile public dispute — or even schism — appeared inevitable, who ultimately backed down from a confrontation. Perhaps this is a lesson learned from history. Certainly the outcome of Pope St. Pius V’s 1570 excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I — and his command that her subjects “do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws,” lest they incur excommunication themselves as well — was far from the ideal. The decree was followed by an increase in persecution against Catholics and a series of anti-Catholic policies were implemented by the Parliament.

We may recall another example of a direct papal confrontation with negative consequences was Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge. The encyclical, which leveled strong condemnations of the Nazi government and ideology, was smuggled into Germany and read from pulpits across the country on Palm Sunday. It reportedly infuriated Hitler and led to strong reprisals against Catholics. Might the Vatican’s relative public silence today on places where populations are persecuted — including China and Nicaragua — reflect lessons learned from the past?

Humanae Vitae

Not all instances of Vatican non-confrontation are issues of diplomacy, however. Sometimes the Vatican will back down when faced with an irreconcilable doctrinal disagreement. Among the most dramatic of these was a showdown in Washington over the Church’s teaching on contraception.

In 1968, shortly after the release of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, many Catholics, including priests, expressed their objections to the papal document, which upheld the Church’s longstanding rejection of contraception. In some dioceses, public disagreements and protests broke out, perhaps most visibly in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. There, dozens of dissenting local clergy engaged in a public conflict with Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle.

Upon the release of Humanae Vitae, the 72-year-old O’Boyle issued a letter to his priests reminding them of their obligation to uphold the Church’s teaching. Many refused to back down. An August 1968 front-page headline in the Washington Post read, “Pope’s Ban Binding, Cardinal Declares; 52 Priests Disagree.” My mother, who was a teenager at the time, remembered a large contingent of parishioners walking out during Mass one Sunday when a letter from the cardinal was read at her Silver Spring, Maryland parish. Many of the priests who openly opposed the encyclical had sanctions placed on them by the cardinal-archbishop. These ranged from taking away faculties to preach and hear confessions to suspending them from public ministry altogether.

According to O’Boyle biographer Morris J. MacGregor, in order to put an end to the standoff, Pope Paul VI dispatched Cardinal John Wright, the newly-appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy to Washington in 1971. His task was to inform O’Boyle of a compromise measure that would facilitate the reinstatement of the priests without requiring them to publicly retract their positions. Boyle, an ever-obedient churchman, accepted the pope’s decision quietly. I have heard that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who accompanied Wright as his young priest-secretary, has told people that this assignment — in which Cardinal O’Boyle was asked to stand down even though his motive was simply to uphold Catholic teaching — was the most difficult in his life as a priest. Wuerl has stated publicly that this is where he learned an important lesson about the authority of the pope. But he also added, “we take confidence in the reminder that a lack of reception of the teaching does not negate its truth.”

As for the priests — dubbed the “Washington 50” by the press — the situation, including years spent in canonical limbo, led most to walk away from priestly ministry and never return. A 1978 Washington Post article on a 10-year reunion of the group said, “Eventually they dispersed, to find new lives and identities, to find accommodation with past and future.”

Pope Francis

Perhaps Pope Francis has learned from the Church’s responses to these issues when dealing with potential conflicts during his papacy. The Vatican’s relationship with the Chinese Church comes to mind.

In April of last year, Vatican officials learned from news reports that Chinese authorities unilaterally named Bishop Shen Bin as the new bishop of Shanghai, a clear violation of a bilateral 2018 agreement between Beijing and Rome on the appointment of bishops. The Chinese Church making this appointment without even giving advance notice to the Holy See was the latest threat to Sino-Vatican relations, which hinge on a delicate secret Agreement that reportedly gives the Vatican the ability to approve or reject appointments to the episcopate in China. Then, on July 15, the Vatican’s press bulletin announced that Pope Francis had appointed Shen as bishop of Shanghai. In a very carefully-worded interview, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State said that despite the violation of the agreement, Pope Francis “decided nevertheless to rectify the canonical irregularity” to serve the “greater good of the diocese.” Parolin noted, however, that China’s approach “seems to disregard the spirit of dialogue and collaboration established between the Vatican and the Chinese side over the years and to which is referred in the Agreement.”

Another example involves Pope Francis’s dealings with traditionalist groups. From the 1970s through the 2010s, Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI attempted to negotiate, flatter, accommodate, and compel Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his wayward Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) to return to full communion with the Catholic Church. After nearly 50 years of proposals, doctrinal preambles, indults, excommunications, and failed negotiations, the SSPX is still in schism, with no end in sight.

This may explain why Pope Francis granted a generous accommodation to a traditionalist society — one that is that is not in schism. Back in February 2022, less than a year after the promulgation of his letter Traditionis Custodes, which restricted the use of the Tridentine Mass, Pope Francis met privately with two leaders of the traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP). The two priests — Fr. Benoît Paul-Joseph, Superior of the District of France, and Fr. Vincent Ribeton, Rector of St. Peter’s Seminary in Wigratzbad — emerged from the meeting saying that the pope had decided that the norms of Traditionis did not apply to their fraternity, and a week later the FSSP posted a papal decree to their website in which the pope granted “to each and every member of the Society” the faculties to celebrate the liturgy according to the 1962 form of the Roman Rite. Effectively, Traditionis Custodes, became a dead letter for the FSSP, although the decree does say, “Without prejudice to what has been said above, the Holy Father suggests that, as far as possible, the provisions of the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes be taken into account as well.”

A final example of Francis’s tendency to accommodate, rather than confront, can be found in his apparent acceptance of Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo’s statement on behalf of the African bishops that concludes, “the Episcopal Conferences across Africa, which have strongly reaffirmed their communion with Pope Francis, believe that the extra-liturgical blessings proposed in the Declaration Fiducia supplicans cannot be carried out in Africa.” Ambongo’s statement says it “received the agreement of His Holiness Pope Francis and of His Eminence Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández,” and it reaffirms the African bishops’ “unwavering communion with Pope Francis.” But for all practical purposes, the document is a clear refusal by the bishops of Africa to submit to the papal Magisterium. In fact, it expresses horror at Fiducia Supplicans, with statements such as, “this Declaration has caused a shockwave, it has sown misconceptions and unrest in the minds of many lay faithful, consecrated persons and even pastors and has aroused strong reactions,” and, “we, the African Bishops, do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples because, in our context, this would cause confusion and would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities.” Ambongo’s language is also, at times, paternalistic, with assertions such as, “The language of Fiducia Supplicans remains too subtle for simple people to understand.”

Ultimately, it seems that Pope Francis has conceded that a single Vatican declaration — no matter how necessary, timely, and true — is not worth breaking communion with the entire continent of Africa. In the end, truth and mercy will win out, but not today. It will take time, prayer, and dialogue. God’s time is not our time.


Sometimes it does pay off when the Vatican takes a cautious approach. For example, slowly but surely the Vatican is moving towards full diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Last month, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Marek Zalewski as the first Resident Papal Representative in the country. The Church has also made great strides in recent decades in its relationships with Islam, Judaism, and Orthodox Christianity. On Humanae Vitae, looking at the issue as someone who has spent most of my life in the Archdiocese of Washington, I would say it’s almost unimaginable that any of its priests (let alone dozens) today would openly challenge the Church’s teaching on contraception.

Looking at more potentially irreconcilable Church conflicts elsewhere, such as the Syro-Malabar liturgical controversy in Southern India, one imagines that Church leadership may eventually back down in order to avoid a schism there as well.

Yes, this approach is frustrating — especially when we believe the pope should take a strong, definitive stand. The human impulse is to boldly fight for the truth, whatever the consequence. But remember the Church is Mother. And a good mother’s desire is to keep her family together.

Image: Vatican News

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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.

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