Let us consider the matter of words, specifically the terminology and argumentation used by extreme critics of Pope Francis. Words matter. Words are symbols of underlying meaning. Words set tone and establish context. What is striking is the tone of many of the critics of this pope and the Second Vatican Council. So many of the comments about the pope, for example, are ad hominem. Language is used which not only attempts to describe fact; they also presume to ascribe motivation. Many comments are rhetorical flourishes and logical fallacies while others are errors of history or theology. My concern is the health of the Body of Christ, and how this language is enflaming without evidence, negatively affecting ordinary Catholics.&
Consider this passage from Father Weinandy’s article of 8 October 2019. “Francis thinks that they [his critics] are unwilling to change, and so refuse to accept the new work of the Spirit in our day. Ultimately, one discerns that he believes his critics are psychologically and emotionally impaired, and so must be dealt with gently (though that gentleness is yet to be experienced by those who fall under his vindictive abuse). He himself has called those who oppose him many insulting names.” Those are some sweeping statements based on an attempt at mind-reading. As Msgr. John Strynkowski, our former colleague at the USCCB, asked Father Weinandy in an open letter about his claim that “bishops feel that the pope is not open to criticism and indeed resents it.” Strynkowski asks, “What is your source for this? Indeed, there has been much criticism of the pope, but he has remained silent. I am not aware of anything that he has said in public to indicate that he resents criticism.”
In reviewing the various letters and statements made by Archbishop Viganò, I can find scant mention of “Pope Francis.” Rather, Viganò—simply and with obvious dismissiveness—refers to the pope merely as “Bergoglio.” This practice is found in most of the archbishop’s letters and statements which focus on Pope Francis. (For one example, consider Viganò’s essay, “The Root of the Problem,” where he refers to “Bergoglio” seven times, “Francis” — alone — twice, and “Pope Francis” only once, where it appears in quotes—an apparent reference to a book’s title.)
While I sense that the pope himself has no problem with this, it communicates clearly that the archbishop refuses to accept the pope as the Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter. He speaks of Pope Francis “surrealistically” wearing the vestments of a pope. The rhetoric is clear: it allows the archbishop to deny the validity and legitimacy of this pope and papacy without actually saying so.
Consider also the words used by Professor Anthony Esolen in an Inside the Vatican essay criticizing the Council. “What the sins were for which the aftermath of Vatican II was the punishment, I cannot tell, unless they were the simmering acts of treachery and apostasy that characterized some of the principals at the Council, and many priests, religious, and laymen around the world in the years that followed” (emphasis added). Bold claims boldly made—but without a scintilla of proof. “Acts of treachery and apostasy”? What were these acts? Name them. What treachery? Name it. What apostasy? Describe it. “Some of the principals of the Council.” Who? “Many priests, religious, and laymen around the world.” Thank goodness, no deacons! But who are these priests, religious and laymen around the world who have committed acts of “treachery and apostasy”? He never identifies them.
Returning to Father Weinandy’s essay for a moment, he refers to “Francis and his cohort.” What does he mean by “cohort”? While this can be a perfectly benign word, it can also have the connotation of a cadre of conspirators in some nefarious plot. Additionally, Weinandy claims that there are people who “wish that an actual schism will take place in America in order to get rid of the obdurate conservative element.” Once again, there is no documentation to back up such a sweeping claim. Who are the members of this “cohort”? Where do we find documentation about this claimed desire to begin an “actual schism” in America? Further, where is the proof that such a schism would be specifically to “get rid of the obdurate conservative element”? I can only imagine the response of a judge on the bench of a secular court if she were presented with such unsubstantiated claims. I have served in many dioceses and parishes and I can think of no pastoral minister, clergy or lay, or any parishioner who has ever made such a nonsensical claim. If there are proper sources that prove the contrary, they should be proffered.
These examples are offered with a plea to Archbishop Viganò and others who want to opine on the current state of the Church to do so by using established scholarly standards. The use of hyperbole, sweeping generalizations (“never in the long history of the Church have we encountered. . .”), ad hominem argumentation, and lack of credible sources or proper attribution are traps we must all avoid. Emotion is not argument; claims are not proof; assertions are not conclusions.
It is safe to say that all of us engaging in this debate do so out of a profound love of the Church. If confusion exists, we must work toward clarity, not cloud matters further. If error exists, we must work to find truth, not compound the errors. If communion is threatened, we must work to rebuild it, not threaten further division. On all sides, we do all of this by guarding the language we use, and by treating each other fairly, with compassion and mutual respect. Above all, we need to seek communion, not division. What we say and how we say it—the rhetoric of Truth—are critical elements in all of this. As we saw at the beginning of this essay, such language causes harm to the Body of Christ. If we only sow division, even with the best of intentions, we are hurting that Body. Through our words, we are called to build up the Body of Christ.
This is the third in a series of essays by Deacon Bill Ditewig on the problematic criticism against Pope Francis and the Second Vatican Council. Part One, “The Spirit of Vatican II: Out into the Deep” was published on Wednesday, August 19. Part Two, “Reacting to Archbishop Viganò: A Pastoral Reflection,” was published Friday, August 21.
Image: Pope Francis speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. EP President Martin Schulz in the background. © European Union 2014 – European Parliament. (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons license). License Some rights reserved by European Parliament