The contributors to this website are often accused of having an unthinking devotion to Pope Francis, or of blindly agreeing with everything he says. I’ve seen many critics on social media claim that we make excuses and twist ourselves into pretzels to defend his words and actions. They’ll suggest that we believe “every utterance” of the pope is infallible, or that we regard him as an oracle who receives direct revelations from God. Some of our critics claim that we think the pope has limitless power and can create or change doctrines at will.
All of these claims are false, of course, because they oppose Catholic teaching. That said, it’s understandable to a certain extent that some people believe we blindly and reflexively support Pope Francis. One of the main reasons we started Where Peter Is was to counter the narrative of those media outlets and public figures for whom Francis can do nothing right. Pedro Gabriel summarized their perspective back in January, when he wrote,
“Scarcely a week goes by without a new scandal breaking out involving something Francis says or does. Nothing he does is immune: from his decisions on how to deal with the abuse scandal to his signing of the Abu Dhabi Declaration or the Vatican-China deal. His decisions about the Synod of Bishops are pilloried, whether it’s the main topic for the assembly or his choices on which bishops are invited to attend. His choices on to who to elevate as bishop or cardinal are criticized, his decisions on who he demotes or transfers are attacked. Negative assumptions about his motives are made whenever he accepts a resignation or elects not to renew a curial official’s mandate. He’s accused of plotting against the Church’s doctrine when he decides to reorganize a papal institute. Francis is disparaged when he gives relics to brethren from separated churches. He is accused for every public gesture he makes, from his setting up a Nativity scene in the Vatican representing the corporal works of mercy, to blessing a carved wooden image that the critics are certain is pagan (official denials notwithstanding). Even his choice to wear more humble papal garments is mocked, and his choice to not allow pilgrims to kiss the papal ring is viewed with suspicion.
Everything he does is wrong, wrong, wrong.”
It’s often hard to pin down a papal critic’s perspective. Critiques range from, “I find Pope Francis confusing sometimes” to “Bergoglio is a heretic/antipope/false prophet,” and everything in between. If you are looking for a negative critique of the Holy Father, there are all sorts of flavors and plenty of places to find that on the internet.
While there are many popular media outlets that are quick to criticize or question Pope Francis’s words and actions, there are not very many venues that consistently present his teachings and decisions accurately and charitably. Even rarer are outlets that regularly provide their audience with content that is aligned with the thoughts and priorities of this pontificate. We wanted to do something to change that, and this website is the fruit of our collaboration.
For this reason, it is our general policy to refrain from publishing pieces that are critical of Pope Francis. In rare situations where presenting a critical perspective is warranted, we are careful to do it charitably, refrain from judgment, and—to the best of our ability—to present possible counter-arguments. A good example of this is a piece from February written by Daniele Palmer entitled, “My Clericalism and Querida Amazonia.” In the piece, he expresses his disappointment about the exhortation’s silence on the possibility of ordaining married men of proven virtue (viri probati) to the priesthood in remote regions. Upon deeper reflection, however, Daniele realized that his personal preferences were also a form of the very clericalism he claimed to oppose:
“I guess my expectations were slightly more connoted by a rather odd form of clericalism that affects many progressive Catholics, one that allows us to chime in with Francis about the problems of a clericalist Church, yet still believe that the main solution to the problems in the Amazon is the ordination of more people.”
We all have ideas about how the Church can improve and changes that we believe should be made to assist the Church in its mission. In the end, however, very few of us are in a position to make the types of Magisterial decisions that we would—sometimes desperately—like to see. Pope Francis challenges our prejudices, ideologies, and entrenched views. Some see this as a reason to criticize him. I believe they’re passing up great opportunities to enrich their faith.
Many conservative Catholics criticized us for inviting Dr. Phyllis Zagano to join us for an episode of our Peter’s Field Hospital podcast. Phyllis is widely known for her work to promote the restoration of women to the diaconate, and she has very strong views about why it is necessary and the theological implications of its implementation. I must admit, I was a bit nervous when it was first proposed. Here’s why we did it, and why I’m very happy we did: Phyllis is faithful to the Magisterium, and she makes her proposals and arguments within the boundaries set by the Church.
For example, she is very clear that she accepts the Church’s teaching that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4, emphasis mine). On the question of women deacons, however, there is a historical record and the discussion of their restoration long predates Francis’s pontificate. Phyllis was invited to serve on a Vatican commission on the women’s diaconate in 2016. Like the question of ordaining viri probati in the Amazon, these are questions currently under discussion at the highest levels of the Church.
And while Phyllis is extremely passionate in her stance, and stands by her opinions and research, she is just as insistent on fidelity to the Church. She understands that her case might not prevail under Pope Francis or a future pope. She was very clear that the purpose of her scholarship was not to defy the Church. She told me, “People say, ‘Well, what if he says no?’ I say, ‘Well then he says no.’ I’m not the Pope. I’m certainly not the Holy Spirit. I don’t think the Church will be denied what it needs.”
On other occasions, we’ve had to turn down submissions, either because the position of the writer opposed the teachings of Pope Francis and the Magisterium, or because the author was unwilling to concede that their position on an issue was subject to magisterial approval. Once, we received a submission that argued very strongly in favor of what is known as “embryo adoption.” This is a hotly contested issue, on which the Church has not made a definitive pronouncement. Some well-regarded conservative Catholic theologians, notably Peter F. Ryan, SJ, support the practice, whereas others argue that it is inconsistent with Catholic moral doctrine. In the end, and after consulting with several priests and theologians, I decided to turn down the essay because the writer refused to add language stating that the Church has not given official approval of his position and that he would submit to the authority of the Magisterium on the matter.
This doesn’t mean that the contributors and I don’t disagree with Pope Francis from time to time on important matters. In some cases, contributors have opted not to comment on a decision or statement Pope Francis has made. Sometimes, in very rare cases, we’re just as baffled by his decisions as his critics. That said, we aren’t going to leap to rash conclusions about his motives or rush to the assumption that he’s being duplicitous or negligent.
I will give two illustrative examples.
One issue that confounded me very much was the case of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros. In 2015, Francis appointed him to lead the diocese of Osorno, despite his close connection to the notorious predator priest Fernando Karadima. For reasons that I could not understand, Francis was adamant in his support of Barros, even though several survivors of Karadima publicly testified that Barros had witnessed the abuse. This all came to a head when Francis visited Chile in January 2018 and said of Barros’s accusers, “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I will speak. There is not one piece of evidence against him. It is calumny.”
This happened just weeks before we launched WPI, and the effects lingered for the next three months. For the pope to charge victims of sexual abuse with calumny was inexplicable to me. We didn’t mount a defense of his words and actions because, frankly, we had no idea how we could defend him. In April, following a Vatican investigation headed by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna (leading to a 2,300-page report based on interviews with 64 abuse victims), Pope Francis realized that he made an extremely grave error, and issued a public apology for how he mishandled the situation.
“I have made serious mistakes in the assessment and my perception of the situation,” he wrote. He expressed that those who shared their testimonies were the voices “of many crucified lives, and I confess that it causes me pain and shame.”
We know from his actions that followed that this was a turning point in Francis’s papacy. He summoned all of Chile’s bishops to the Vatican, after which they all submitted their resignation (and many of these have been accepted). Early the next year he gathered representatives from each of the world’s episcopal conferences to bring global attention to the issue. The Vatican then released new, stronger guidelines that required and enforced greater episcopal responsibility. These measures are a step in the right direction. But this also shows that Francis is far from perfect and can make serious mistakes.
Another area of growing controversy is what’s been dubbed the McCarrick Report. We were told in late 2018 that the Vatican was going to undertake a thorough investigation of the rise of the former cardinal-archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick. In June of that year, the Archdiocese of New York revealed that their review board had found allegations that he had sexually abused a minor in 1969 and 1970 “credible and substantiated.” Rumors of sexual misconduct had long surrounded McCarrick, but he had denied all the rumors, and no one had publicly come forward with allegations against him. Once the first substantiated case was made public, however, the dominos began to fall. It is now clear that McCarrick had risen through the ranks despite charges being made against him, concerns being raised, and even two cases of sexual assault against seminarians that were settled out of court. Meanwhile, more victims came forward (including minors), more Church figures who had previously raised objections about McCarrick spoke about being ignored.
McCarrick has now been defrocked. But the questions about who knew what, and when, remain unresolved. We were warned that much of the information would be tough to swallow, that reputations would be shattered, but that the truth must come out. We were told late last year that the release of this report would be “in early 2020.” It is now August and there’s been no update.
I’ve heard rumors that the authors of the report are still working on verifying facts. Some speculate that the delay is in order to avoid litigation by waiting for statutes of limitations windows to close. The most recent “update” of any kind came on June 5, with a letter written by “Nathan,” an anonymous man who claims to be one of McCarrick’s victims. He writes:
“Time will tell, but nothing in my experience thus far indicates any type of cover-up or attempt to minimize anything by anyone involved in the Holy See’s investigation. In fact, my experience has been quite the opposite. The questions that I have been asked have been detailed, searching, and seemingly intent on uncovering truth. There has been a lot of fact-checking and cross-referencing of information. I was actually surprised by the level of due diligence I witnessed.
Based on what I have seen with my own eyes, the Holy See’s investigation looks to me like a genuine search for the truth. In my opinion, if the purpose of the investigation was to whitewash or cover-up any facts, they would not be asking the questions that they have been asking.”
I hope he’s right, but we have no way of knowing until we are given an official update or the report is finally released. I have no inside information. Am I frustrated about the delay and the lack of information? Absolutely. I think everyone who cares about the truth coming to light must be.
No, the pope isn’t perfect. And sometimes he can confound us. Peter, the first pope, was far from perfect. Francis, like Peter before him, is an imperfect man to whom the keys of the kingdom and authority over the Church have been entrusted by Jesus Christ. Like Peter, Pope Francis commits sins and can potentially make serious mistakes. To paraphrase a famous quote by Pope Emeritus Benedict, the only thing the Holy Spirit ensures is that the thing cannot be totally ruined. Somehow—although the means by which this happens is a mystery—the Church is protected by the Holy Spirit and assisted by Jesus’ prayer that Peter’s faith would not fail (Lk 22:32). The Holy Spirit will never fail us, and Jesus’ prayers are always answered.
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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.