One of the alarming aspects about the sometimes overwhelming resistance by conservative Catholics against Pope Francis is that they are not only putting their political and religious ideologies above the Church, but they are—unwittingly or not, and apparently without awareness of any irony—rejecting the teachings of their Catholic mentors and role models.
Last year I wrote a piece demonstrating how Cardinal Burke’s recent statements on the papacy have clashed with those of Servant of God John Hardon, the late Jesuit priest whose apostolates he now leads. For Burke—who is seen as something of a spiritual successor to a man whose mission was, in large part, to insist upon obedience and fidelity to the Bishop of Rome—to use those same apostolates to encourage and promote dissent from the pope’s teaching is a grave scandal.
Another legend in the conservative Catholic world is Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who passed away in 2009 from cancer. As the founder of the journal First Things, and a convert to the Catholic faith, I wonder if he would be pleased with the direction the publication has taken, specifically in its criticism (and sometimes open opposition to Pope Francis). Neuhaus, after all, is a man who valued fidelity to the Successor of Peter. For example, In February 2003, he wrote:
I may not understand an authoritative teaching of the Magisterium, I may have difficulties with a teaching, but, as Newman understood, a thousand difficulties do not add up to a doubt, never mind a rejection. I may think a teaching is inadequately expressed, and pray and work for its more adequate expression in the future. But, given a decision between what I think the Church should teach and what the Church in fact does teach, I decide for the Church. I decide freely and rationally¯because God has promised the apostolic leadership of the Church guidance and charisms that He has not promised me; because I think the Magisterium just may understand some things that I don’t; because I know for sure that, in the larger picture of history, the witness of the Catholic Church is immeasurably more important than anything I might think or say. In short, I obey. The nuances of such obedience, of what is meant by “thinking with the Church” (sentire cum ecclesia ), are admirably spelled out in the 1990 instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.” It is an instruction that can be read with enormous benefit also by those who are not professional theologians.
Additionally, although he passed away prior to Pope Francis’s 2013 election, he had this to say about then-Cardinal Bergoglio in 2007:
“Known as an incisive thinker and intensely holy man living a devout life, it is held against him that he is a Jesuit, although he has suffered the slings and arrows of Jesuits of a more ‘progressive’ bent.”
—Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters , 2007
Memories are short, but as Catholics we are called to be consistent. We can’t simply say that we will obey this pope and not the next one. To do so would be an even more egregious violation of the continuity of Catholic teaching than the rupture of which the Holy Father is accused by his detractors.