“Express how you feel, and then be quiet. Because the truth is humble. The truth is silent. The truth isn’t noisy. It’s not easy, what Jesus did. But the dignity of the Christian is anchored in the power of God. With people lacking good will, with people who only seek scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within the family: silence, prayer.”
— Pope Francis
Homily at Casa Santa Marta, Rome, Sept 3rd, 2018
On Jorge Bergoglio’s silence
In my last article, I tried to illustrate how the nuanced concept of silence appears throughout Francis’ corpus of theological thought. One question remains yet unanswered, however: why has Francis chosen silence as the venue to address his critics, namely the dubia and Archbishop Viganò’s testimony?
With this in mind, I would like to recall some Advent reflections I made in the introduction to my last article. God’s silence can’t be disassociated from the problem of Man’s suffering. Precisely because of that, His divine silence scandalizes many of us, especially (but not necessarily) those who are disgusted with Him in the first place. Nevertheless we know that His silence is needed in order for Him to exert His project in a fallen world without being manipulated by Man. It is a dignified silence, which cannot be understood by men accustomed to contemporary society, with its characteristic noise of constant commenting, instant reporting, and materialism.
Likewise, I believe that Francis’ silence is a dignified silence too. Even if it scandalizes people, it is sadly needed in order for him not to be manipulated as well. For such is the intention of many of those who are sowing scandal by (among other things) accusing the Pope of silence in the face of great evils. They want him to break his silence in order to ensnare him and, in doing so, force him to comply with their ideas for the Church.
Take, for instance, Amoris Laetitia‘s (AL) opening of communion to divorced and remarried people who may have mitigating factors diminishing their subjective culpability, so that they are not in mortal sin. The format of the dubia, demanding yes-or-no answers, does not take into account the nuance demanded by this document, and the way the questions are framed tries to force Francis to chose between open heresy or forfeiting his manifest will. In this way, answering the dubia on their own terms would actually cause more harm than good. Whether this was something actively willed by the dubia cardinals we may never know, but it certainly does not bode well for them that they made the dubia public after an arbitrarily defined time they conceded the Pope to answer them (as if he should not be free to reply or not.) Nor does it speak well of them that they have yet to denounce the way the dubia have been used by many of Francis’ critics to undermine him.
As for Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, it is even more egregious. Viganò accuses the pope of mishandling a serious case of sexual abuse, and in a shameful display of inversion of the burden of proof, tries to force Francis to prove his innocence by telling him to release documents allegedly proving his point instead of substantiating his accusations himself. “Release the documents” has become an anti-Francis mantra, just like “answer the dubia.” It is meant to shut Francis up whenever he says something his critics disagree with.
But even here we see an urge to control. Interspersed with Viganò’s charges regarding the sexual abuse crisis, we also see accusations of doctrinal laxity and ambiguity. These are codewords for Pope Francis’ clear and magisterial teachings which are utterly rejected by his critics. The calls for resignation on the part of Viganò and his supporters are inseparable from their concerns that the Church might be doctrinally moving in a way they have no authority to resist. So they need to resort to these kinds of venues to remove an inconvenient pontiff.
However, just like the dubia, Francis reacted to Viganò’s accusations with silence. On a plane interview in the aftermath of the testimony’s release, the pontiff said: “I read the statement this morning, and I must tell you sincerely that, I must say this, to you and all those who are interested: Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment (…) I will not say a single word on this.“
Nevertheless, how can we understand Francis’ silent reaction in the face of these crises? Is there something in his theology or history that may give us a clue? Yes, in fact, there is. Before his election to the papacy, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had already experienced the effects of being publicly calumniated. As reported by Austen Ivereigh here, back in the 1970s, Father Bergoglio was accused by left-wing Catholics of being a collaborationist with the Argentinian dictatorship. In the 1980s, such accusations resurfaced again “against the background of widespread shock and indignation at revelations of bishops’ failures to protect their flocks from the army’s torture chambers.” In fact, these accusations also resurfaced fleetingly at the time of his election as Pope Francis.
At the time, as in today, Fr. Bergoglio’s answer to these baseless accusations from “a backdrop of anxiety and anger verging at times on hysteria” was… silence. Denying those charges to people who were hell-bent on their truthfulness would not convince anyone. On the contrary, it would only give credibility to those allegations and stoke the flames of gossip. But if Francis was innocent, then time would vindicate him, for truth can’t be hidden for long. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened.
This life experience surely inspired Bergoglio later when, in the 1990s (during a time period Ivereigh dubs as one of his “desert” periods) he wrote a reflection called “Silencio y Palabra” (“Silence and Word“). I have taken the opportunity to read it in full and was taken aback at the striking (prophetic?) parallels between what Fr. Bergoglio wrote then and what we are seeing today. Only by reading that essay can we truly grasp the meaning of Pope Francis’ silence today.
The temptations of Self-Sufficiency and Suspicion
“Silencio y Palabra” talks mostly about internal strife within religious orders (what Bergoglio calls “internas” in Spanish.) Those internas are the result of individual sins, when the brothers of the order fall into common temptations Fr. Bergoglio expounds throughout the essay. For the purpose of this article, I will talk mostly about the temptations of Self-Sufficiency and Suspicion.
In my last article, I wrote about how silence can become rotten when it turns into an excuse for self-centeredness. But Fr. Bergoglio goes to further lengths to teach us what a self-centered religious man looks like, juxtaposing his image to the one of Our Lady, Untier of Knots (all quotes from now on are from “Silencio y Palabra” and have been translated by me from the original Spanish):
“Those who purport to untie the knots by themselves eventually fail and end up more tangled than ever. Moreover, they begin to experience confusion out of their own sufficiency: it’s a repetition of the Tower of Babel (…) And if we let this grow, the next step is the sufficiency of the Giants, who erect themselves as supermen, with their own project instead of God’s. They are the archetypes of all human pretensions (assuming the roles of dominators and sovereigns) and of all expectations of converting oneself into a super-human. Finally, the Deluge comes.”
This seems to dovetail very nicely with Pope Francis’ warnings against a certain neo-pelagian attitude in Catholic circles. But this temptation can reach even greater depths. Many of the Pope’s critics would be well advised to heed his warnings (emphases in the original):
“However, there is another way to promote oneself, a more subtle form of ambition. One seeks one’s own promotion, but in a hidden way. It’s the case of someone who presents things in a way for everyone to see, and he himself believes that he’s searching the glory of God, the promotion of the Church… but he does so with a prearranged compromise, he does so after having chosen the path beforehand: “I will serve, but only in this way”. Then, the generous self-giving which purports to be instrument, useless servant, drinking from the Lord’s cup… turns itself into a negotiation (…) There’s a desire to be a protagonist of the work of evangelization, forgetting that there is only one protagonist: Jesus Christ. [The self-sufficient man] puts his strength and his talents at the service of the Kingdom, heeds its calling, but on the condition that he will be allowed to chose the methods, the paths, the plans. A redemption according to his own measure. But there is ambition here, because one wants to impose his mark, demonstrate that God’s decision is the same as one’s own plan and power. This ambitious man does not know how to dialogue, he doesn’t ask to be chosen, rather he is the one who chooses”
How many people in open rebellion against the Pope show this attitude, that they are the ones who decide what is true doctrine or not, what is tradition or not, what the Church should teach and how, that they are owed explanations and a voice in how to conduct Church affairs!
The other temptation is also evident in today’s insurgence against St. Peter: the temptation of suspicion (emphasis from now on is always mine):
“Suspicion is an old bug. It creates in the heart a certain uneasiness toward any behavior of my brother that I do not fully understand. This uneasiness grows in intensity and ends by seeing as a menace everything that it doesn’t understand and control (…) The suspicious man sins against the light, he has enamored himself of this attitude of wanting everything clarified, because his life consists in confusing the conspiracy for reality. There is always, in the suspicious man, an area that resists God’s light. If such light would come, he could not have suspicions any longer. He manipulates half-truths, as “truthful” lies. The ambiguous is his field of action and he imposes it on others as if it was clarity. (…) Suspicion is the clinging to an area of penumbra, feeding the man who has opted for the partiality of the internas over the totality of the institution as a body.”
This is so appropriate to what we’re experiencing right now, it’s scary. We see this in the way some “Catholic” media outlets have been propagandizing sensationalistic pieces about major conspiracies in the Vatican, from the St. Galen mafia to the lavender mafia, in a way that mimics any other conspiracy theorist. No wonder so many have embarked on the Viganò bandwagon: he validates their conspiratorial suspicions. And no debunking will be sufficient: for them, the refutations are part of the conspiracy.
More striking even, is the way the above quote is worded. The way papal critics manipulate the concepts of “ambiguity,” “clarity,” and “confusion” correspond exactly with the patterns described by Fr. Bergoglio. They will claim, even to the point of irrationality, that AL (a magisterial document they disagree with) is ambiguous, even when it is not. They will then demand clarity over and over and over, while ignoring every single clarification that doesn’t appeal to them. “Confusion” is a codeword for everything they disagree with (even if it is the Pope’s manifest will) and “clarity” means the predefined answer they want (which has already been proven, it’s not the Pope’s manifest will.) When they decry “confusion” and demand “clarity,” they are actually requiring the Church to do what they want it to do. “Ambiguity” is a way for them to avoid facing the reality of their dissent, and so they will cling to it no matter what.
The fruits of these temptations are the internas, the conflicts within religious institutions. Eventually, they coalesce into different parties. This “does not mean that partisans do this with ill will. They may be convinced they are doing a good work. Nevertheless, there is always this proselytist attitude, something that one gives up, precisely because there is a component of negotiation with God that removes inner freedom.”
This idea that one is doing good is very dangerous, for it opens oneself to the possibility of being deceived by Lucifer, the Light Bearer, since Scripture tells us that Satan may disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). In this case, since the person feels he is doing a good work, it is very difficult to convince him otherwise, for he has been blinded by spiritual pride to his own condition.
“Regarding the temptation of the Angel of Light, we must never forget that someone who is under the influence of such temptation feels like he is doing good, searching for something that he actually believes is good. He has clarity over that good, but it’s a very bizarre clarity. It’s strong, it imposes itself under its own light, so he can hardly conceive of a greater clarity than that. This soul’s state forces every new light, issuing from the good spirit, to be lost in the “luminosity” of the tempted one. Consequently, only very hardly may clarifying things help. More than the light, we must judge time. Let me explain: the light of the devil is strong, but is short lived (as the flash of a camera), while God’s light is gentle, humble, it doesn’t impose itself, but gives itself up, and it lasts longer. We must learn to wait, praying and asking the Holy Spirit’s intervention, while the time of the stronger light passes.
There is, however, another aspect to this. The devil, when he tempts someone with what he thinks to be good, always seeks that his strong light be assumed by the tempted one. If he achieves this, everything becomes more difficult. By going in the direction of the temptation’s blinding light, man is “hooked” with this “truth” he “clearly saw” when he was tempted.”
Then, what to do? How can we help someone in this situation? This is when silence comes into play.
Silence: the antidote to Lucifer’s ephemeral clarity
Since, as Fr. Bergoglio says, Lucifer’s light, while bright, is ephemeral, then the only thing to do is to wait in holy silence for the truth to be revealed. Since people who are tempted have been blinded by Satan’s flash, the only possible way for them to acknowledge the deceit they’re in is for the “evil spirit to manifest itself.” How to do this?
“We must make room for Jesus so that He may exercise His judgment when the time comes. Make room for God’s light. There is only one way to make room for God, and that way He has taught us already: renunciation, kenosis. To be silent, to pray, to humiliate oneself”
How does the Satan react to someone who acts like this?
“In moments of darkness and tribulation, when the tangles and the knots cannot be untied, nor things clarified, then we must be silent. The meekness of silence will show us as even weaker, and then the devil himself, emboldened, will come forth to the light, and will show his true intentions, no longer disguised as an angel of light, but unmasked.”
Sometimes, silence is not an option, but rather something imposed on us by external circumstances. This can very well be because of the accusations of the suspicious man, which can never be answered to his satisfaction. In these instances, silence, while not a choice, is no less important:
“When we are forced to live a difficult situation, it may happen that silence is not an act of virtue. It is simply imposed by itself, we do not have a choice. In those situations, any rebellion or relief one may search for, is gagged by a visceral powerlessness, which may actually be a grace received without any merit on our part: the grace of silence (…) God wants to take His time, and our pretensions must accommodate to Him.”
In both instances, however, what we see is that it is not incumbent upon mere man to fight this battle. Rather, this battle is God’s. To assume this battle is meant to be won by our own merits and strengths is the temptation of self-sufficiency Fr. Bergoglio warned us beforehand. Rather, what’s expected of us is to “resist in silence, stand our ground, but with the same attitude as Jesus.”
“When one gets in the way of God’s war, one ends up badly hurt. In the silence of a situation of Cross, all that is asked of us is to protect the wheat, not to occupy ourselves by plucking tares (…) In moments of spiritual turbulence, when God wants to be the One Who fights, our place is under the mantle of the Holy Mother of God.”
Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin: models of holy silence
Fr. Bergoglio specifically tells us that the way to resist in silence in these situations is to imitate the attitude of Jesus. This is the attitude He assumed while being interrogated by the Sanhedrin, when the defenders of the Law were trying to find fault with His words: by refusing to play along, He was voiding them of arguments. But the greater lesson Fr. Bergoglio draws from Jesus happens in the context of His forty days in the desert. Here, Satan tempts the Christ with the temptation of self-sufficiency, the second temptation, the possibility to do “His own work, in His own way, in the manner chosen by Him, eschewing the obedience due to the Father,” presented in a very subtle way: “If you are the Son of God, show me that you can do this.”
“Jesus’ answer to this temptation illuminates us. He doesn’t enter into a theological debate with the Tempter. In the desert, He will reply with fidelity. (…) Finally, He will hold silence up to the moment of the Cross. (…) Jesus responds with faith and obedience.”
This is also the exact reason why we should imitate, not only Jesus Christ, but the Virgin St. Mary as well. The archetypes of the self-sufficiency temptation, as we have seen, are the Nephilim, the proud giants who incurred the wrath of God in the deluge. On the other hand, the archetype of the suspicious man is King Herod, who stifles all life around him (even the innocents) to appease the ghosts of suspicion in his mind. All of these are the sons of Eve… and to all of these, Bergoglio offers Mary as a counterpoint:
“All of this is the progeny of the Virgin Eve, of her disobedience and incredulity… and all of this is untied by Mary with her faith and obedience. No one is immune to this knot, for all have sinned in Adam. This happens in the moment when one wants to consolidate his own project in exchange of God’s project. It’s the insolent curiosity, the indiscreet audacity, proper of all sin.”
“The Gospels present Our Lady as keeping silence, meditating all things in her heart. Her greatest strength is her silence. (…) The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience; what the Virgin Eve tied with her incredulity, the Virgin Mary untied with her faith. It is a bind tangled with the string of people’s lives by these two things: disobedience and incredulity. That is what Mary unties… and she does it with the hands of obedience and faith“
The antidote to self-sufficiency is obedience. The antidote to suspicion is faith. And both Mary and Jesus teach us how to exert faith and obedience in order to be healed of these temptations.
Bergoglio’s words in this astonishing reflection clarify in an amazing way what Pope Francis is getting at with his silence. It is true that feeding the controversy has not helped to quell it, quite the contrary.
So, for instance, when Pope Francis clarified the meaning of his apostolic exhortation AL, by publishing the Buenos Aires guidelines as the only possible interpretation, both in the Vatican website and in the Acta Apostolicae Sedes, the dissenters just doubled down on their narrative that the Pope was ambiguous and still needed to clarify, playing games to avoid the reality staring them in the face. Only answering the dubia would do, since they were framed in their own terms, as I have explained before.
Also with Viganò’s testimony, which has been completely discredited to any objective onlooker, we see that each successive debunking is followed by another letter, uncritically cheered by papal critics. When Catholics showed that Viganò’s letters were full of inconsistencies — like showing allegedly sanctioned McCarrick in a gala being complimented by Viganò, or appearing in Rome to greet Pope Benedict — the papal critics just doubled down and, surprisingly, declared that those inconsistencies actually proved Viganò’s point. When Viganò asked Cardinal Ouellet to testify, and he issued a vocal refutation of Viganò’s charges, the papal critics just doubled down and, surprisingly, declared that Ouellet actually was proving Viganò’s point. Of course, this happened after a kneejerk reaction where Ouellet was accused of lying, since he contradicted Viganò.
In other words, Viganò’s testimony is non-falsifiable to those who support him. It has been accepted as truthful from the outset. Every fact refuting it will be spun as “actually proving him right.” It is naïve to believe that an investigation (like they demand) will meet their concerns, unless such an investigation proved Viganò right. If not, then they will just find fault with the investigation, since Viganò must be telling the truth. It’s all part of the conspiracy, after all…
This is because this is far greater than the truthfulness of Viganò’s testimony, or the use of dubia to find the truth of what the Pope’s interpretation may be. The dubia and Viganò’s letter are not meant to achieve truth, no matter how much lip-service anti-Francis critics pay to the love of truth. No. The dubia and Viganò’s testimony are not instruments of truth, they are pretexts. They are used as excuses to feed the suspicions of the suspicious men. If light was allowed to shine in their suspicions, they would have to come to terms with a painful reality: that they are dissenters, just like all those sinners they have, for years, catalogued as CINOs and Cafeteria Catholics.
In other words, clarifying won’t help. This is why Pope Francis’ strategy is different: “To the sectarian, after one or two admonitions, leave him be. Do not indulge in internas. In there, enmity flourishes. In there, it is enmity that sets the rhythm.“
Is this strategy working, though? I do believe so. In the end, the dubia did not succeed in stopping or delaying the implementation of AL all over the world. Every day, more and more bishops design guidelines faithful to the Holy Father’s wishes. As for Viganò, his accusations have been largely discredited and no one in the mainstream media pays them attention anymore. Most people outside of the Catholic media bubble have not heard of these accusations, except en passant. And Pope Francis did not resign, as they wanted. All of these strategies have gone and withered, like a fig tree bearing no fruit.
Is it not true, however, that people keep going on and on and on with the dubia and with Viganò’s testimony? Indeed, they do. However, these are the people under the temptations of self-sufficiency and suspicion. Those are the ones who were already convinced in the first place, since they disliked Francis from the beginning. And there is no evidence that anything will make them budge, either way. So, they are not going to change, except through a supernatural grace that may make the scales fall off from their spiritual eyes. But, no matter how much racket they gather inside their limited virtual turf, Pope Francis’ silence speaks more eloquently and more forcefully than their constant nagging. And, just as he predicted, their flashy light gradually dims away as the light of the Holy Spirit shines through the passing of time, vindicating St. Peter’s successor.
In the meantime, I would advise these critics to take a long, hard look at themselves and to ponder on the mystic wisdom of this excellent essay from Pope Francis. They would do well to learn how to read the signs of the times, for “Silence and Word” has been indeed overwhelmingly prophetic. As for those who support the Holy Father, this essay is a source of hope, for no matter how fierce and numerous the hostile forces may seem, in the end, God will not be mocked and His divine Will shall prevail. It’s His fight: all that is asked of us is to learn how to wield the shield of holy silence. Let us take this Advent, this season of hope, as an occasion to learn with Pope Francis the value of silence.
I conclude with the final paragraph from the essay, a message for this Advent:
“As we await the Lord’s coming to quiet the storm, let us pose to ourselves and each other some questions that imply “demands for hope” more than “certainties.” Let us give ourselves and to others, with our attitudes, “reasons for our hope.” This will help us live in this sacred tension between the memoria crucis and the spes resurectionis. Then we may be able to sing with the Psalmist: ‘Benedictus Deus qui non amovit orationem meam et misericordiam suam a me'”
[Photo credit: Montage created from a photo of Pope Francis, published on the Catholic Thing, and “Our Lady of Sorrows”, from an unknown artist]
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.