“Opposition to the pope is not new, but what is new is the level and intensity that is there…It’s the insidiousness of the opposition movement that I think is scandalous for us.” 

Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the new archbishop of Washington, DC, made that statement last week during a panel discussion at Georgetown University. At first glance, this may seem unnecessarily polemical or dramatic. An archbishop talking about a powerful and insidious movement against the pope, really? 

It can’t be denied that over the past six years, the level of opposition and suspicion directed at Pope Francis has become part of the air that American Catholics breathe, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to notice. And if you step back for a second and look at the state of Catholicism in the United States, the situation that Archbishop Gregory describes becomes clear. There is a cardinal who travels to speaking appearances across the country and regularly voices disagreement with and disregard for the pope’s magisterial teachings. There are multiple bishops who made public statements supporting the character and integrity of Archbishop Viganò after he wildly and irresponsibly called for the pope to resign. We have once-respected publications like First Things that now frequently publish articles questioning the orthodoxy of the pope. There is an entire industry of reactionary media outlets like LifeSite News, Taylor Marshall, and Church Militant with substantial influence over both laity and clergy. Finally, there’s EWTN, the world’s largest religious media network, which uses its tremendous platform to promote ideas and individuals that are openly opposed to the pope. This network and its affiliates are perhaps the greatest contributors to the culture of suspicion against Pope Francis today. These and many others have manufactured a culture of opposition towards Pope Francis among American Catholics with real-life consequences.

Within my sphere of Catholics across the country, and in my experiences as a parish minister, I’ve witnessed the results of this organized opposition. For example, I’ve heard more than once from friends that members of  their Catholic fellowship and study groups have refused to read the pope’s documents because they don’t like Pope Francis. At conferences and events for parish ministers, I’ve noticed that not a single word will be spoken about Pope Francis — even when the theme is directly related to his message and teachings.  I’ve seen devout, orthodox, and faithful Catholics criticized by their fellow Catholics simply because they defend Pope Francis. It’s as if for some Catholics, the papacy is on hold, and the most prudent response to Pope Francis is to ignore him. 

This culture of opposition is a real stumbling block between real people and Jesus. Christ gave His people the teachings of Pope Francis to be words of healing and transformation for this generation, but many Catholics aren’t hearing this message because public Catholics with platforms have poisoned the well. They’ve constructed barriers between the faithful and the leadership and teachings of Jesus Christ’s Vicar. Truly, the culture of opposition is an injustice against God’s Church, an act of spiritual violence towards God’s people. 

To compound this injustice, many of these Catholic leaders insist that they don’t oppose the pope at all, that they actually support him. Even if these leaders don’t have an ulterior agenda and are simply ignorant of their role in perpetuating this culture of opposition, this reaction is a subversive form of gaslighting. Archbishop Pierre (pictured above), the pope’s ambassador to the United States, wrote a letter to the US Bishops ahead of their meeting a couple of weeks ago. There he listed concrete examples of what supporting the pope actually means. Here are some of his comments (emphasis mine): 

“While we can reflect on this communion [with the Bishop of Rome] in a theological way, we ought to examine it practically, namely by measuring to what extent we as individuals and our local churches have received the Magisterium of Pope Francis. Certainly, many have grappled with Evangelii Gaudium, and the Convocation of Catholic Leaders was a successful venture; by now, Evangelii Gaudium should be the framework for efforts at evangelization. Adopting its missionary impulse and being in a permanent state of mission might represent tangible signs of communion with the Holy Father, for it would show the reception and implementation of his teaching as the key for missionary evangelization.

The pastoral thrust of this Pontificate must reach the American people, especially as families continue to demand of dioceses and parishes the accompaniment envisioned by Amoris Laetitia. Other parts of the Magisterium of Pope Francis have been well-received by young people but will require greater effort on our part if they are to reach the hearts of political and civic leaders; here I think about the Holy Father’s message about our common home and the environment, articulated in Laudato Si. In a pluralistic society such as the United States, the emphasis on human fraternity by Pope Francis could serve as a means for deepening the richness of American culture and of creating an openness to the new waves of immigrants who are seeking a brighter future. Our communion with the Holy Father can be expressed in the concrete actions that we take to make his Magisterium better known among our people.

Archbishop Pierre sets the bar here. When a Catholic leader doesn’t bring the pope’s magisterial teachings to the people in concrete ways, then how can they truly say they support the pope? Here’s the reality: opposition can be loud and public, but it can also be silent. When suspicion of Pope Francis looms heavily in the air around us, the quiet absence of support is itself a form of opposition. Catholic leaders need to examine their own hearts for feelings of suspicion against the pope and pray for the grace to be healed of them. They must then actively work to correct the damage to the Body of Christ that they may have caused. 

Archbishop Gregory, when he was installed in Washington D.C. earlier this year, boldly proclaimed his personal and pastoral support for Pope Francis and his teaching:

“Pope Francis has now summoned the Church – and by that I mean all the baptized – to leave our comfortable confines and to encounter and welcome the poor, the marginalized, and the neglected, and to place them at the very heart of Christ’s Church. Beginning today, that is my task here in the Archdiocese of Washington. I thank the Holy Father for that righteous challenge – more an opportunity – and I pledge my loyalty, respect, and fraternal affection to him once again. I proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with him as he governs and guides Jesus’ Church as a man of uncompromising faith and intractable joy.”

 May all Catholic leaders have the courage to do the same.

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