It is wrong to assume, as critics of this website often insist, that we hang on every word of Pope Francis and consider every utterance of the pope to be divine law. The contributors to WPI have repeatedly tried to clarify our position, but false narratives—once they’ve taken hold—are difficult to uproot. This is especially true when the false narratives have anything to do with Pope Francis.
An unfortunate byproduct of this is that we are also frequently accused of twisting ourselves into pretzels, desperately trying to squish his teachings and decisions within the parameters of a little box called “doctrinal orthodoxy.” They’ll suggest we’re willing to bend the rules of logic, decency, and common sense to make it all fit.
The truth, of course, is almost completely opposite—we’ll carefully observe his decisions and studiously read his teachings, and then we’ll do our best to understand what he means by them. We do this with a good dose of patience and charity—since we are committed to supporting his mission and vision, after all—because we strive to accurately present Francis’s message and his motives.
For greater clarity on his perspective, we often consult with people close to the pope—bishops, clerics, Vatican officials, Latin American academics, journalists, and other Church leaders. We do this because we really do understand that many Catholics, especially in the English-speaking world, are totally baffled by him. This consultation has been crucial because understanding Pope Francis did not come intuitively for many of us.
Sometimes we’re confused by him, and on occasion we’ll disagree amongst ourselves on how to interpret certain points, but we’ve been doing this long enough to get a decent feel for the way he approaches the faith. It’s not for nothing that the pope’s biographer Austen Ivereigh once wrote, “It is a startling thought that for no money at all you can learn far more about the thinking and the insights of this papacy in one article on Where Peter Is than in weeks of programming by the multi-million-dollar EWTN.”
Based on my conversations with many other Pope Francis-supporting Catholics in the English-speaking world, I have come to realize that for most of us, understanding our pope required a process of acclimation to his style and way of doing things. Like learning a foreign language (or so I’m told, as my recent travels confirmed that I’m a hopeless monoglot), learning Pope Francis takes commitment, openness, and humility. There’s also a whole new lexicon to learn, and it doesn’t come easily.
Is this overwhelming? It can be, but as our friend Rodrigo Guerra discussed in our recent book launch event for Pedro Gabriel’s The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia, this isn’t unusual. He explained that the incomprehension of Pope Francis reminds him of the early years of John Paul II’s papacy. “When he arrived, he was a very weird Polish bishop who wrote a very complex encyclical called Redemptor Hominis, which was built in a kind of ‘spiral’ structure,” he said. “It’s not linear. It’s very complex… there are some paragraphs that are—if you take them out from the context—they are super problematic.” He went on to discuss some of the criticisms of the encyclical—namely the claim that its focus on human experience de-emphasized the reality of the supernatural. Or, in Guerra’s words, some believed the encyclical taught “the immanentization of transcendent faith into a mere human experience of wonder before the dignity of the other.”
But what happened? Guerra explained that the Polish pope “needed a group of friends who helped to explain the philosophical background of John Paul II. Who explained … the present context of his teachings. And then who explained also the projections, the future, the possibilities.” He listed some of the members of this group of friends, including Cardinal Angelo Scola, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, Rocco Buttiglione, and others in Poland and the United States. These ambassadors worked tirelessly to explain the ideas of the pope to those who might otherwise have been pulled into confusion and controversy. Thanks to these friends, the orthodoxy of John Paul’s teachings are not called into serious question by mainstream conservative Catholics in the US, despite countless statements and gestures that could have been seen as “problematic.” (If you don’t believe me, visit some traditionalist websites and you will see hundreds of examples.)
Guerra said that Pope Francis is also in need of friends who can help communicate his message to Catholics in Europe and North America who have trouble understanding him. Today, unfortunately, “the main group of friends are just a few, mainly laymen.” He went on to explain that these ambassadors of the pope are much harder to find today because in the case of John Paul II, “a Polish priest at least is European. At least he read some European authors that are more or less familiar to the main theologians of the Catholic Church in Europe.” Conversely, Guerra notes, Pope Francis “studied some authors and some trends that are not very common here in Rome.” He explained how many of the most important figures in Latin American theology and philosophy are totally unknown in Rome and North America.
Guerra encouraged us to keep up what we are doing. “We need to help Pope Francis to be known, to be understood properly,” he said. He pointed out that Pope Francis “cannot explain every single argument” in every single document. “He needs to be helped. This is a true diakonia of intelligence. It has to be done with freedom, with faithfulness, and with sound arguments, facing the contemporary challenges of communication.”
To be clear, what Guerra describes is not attempting to take the pope’s words and “interpret” them by making them mean something more palatable to conservative Catholics in the US. Certainly, everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, especially the pope. But twisting his words so they align with one’s own point of view does no one any favors. I’ve seen some of Pope Francis’s false friends put forth “defenses” of him that have dramatically strained credulity. This happened frequently in response to Francis’s 2016 exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In the years following its release, the US conservative Catholic establishment was split between those who insisted that chapter 8 of the document was heretical and those (among them bishops aligned with former Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and theologians from the John Paul II Institute) who argued that the document was very confusing, but surely contained nothing new. They all, however, agreed that the “dubia” submitted by four cardinals was a true act of fidelity. They also unanimously refused to accept what the pope actually taught.
Very few followed the example of Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet—who had previously been on the “conservative” side of the debate—by accepting the teaching at face value. Ouellet later wrote a strong, well-reasoned, and solidly orthodox defense of the exhortation. Instead, many prominent Catholics have opted for skewed interpretations that align with their entrenched views, minimizing and distorting the Pope’s teaching. In other words, these are Catholics who really do twist the pope’s teachings like a pretzel. These false “moderate” positions advanced by false friends of the pope like Archbishop Chaput have hindered the reception of the pope’s message by the faithful. This intellectually dishonest approach not only causes rupture and disunity in the Church, but it ultimately leads to anger and disillusionment.
Because the false moderates have become so entrenched in the US Church, those Catholics who really do accept the pope’s magisterial teachings and truly seek to align themselves with the priorities and vision of the Successor of Peter are marginalized by the US Catholic establishment. Such Catholics are labeled as progressive, heterodox, modernist, or leftist. This group includes Cardinals Joseph Tobin, Blase Cupich, and Wilton Gregory, Cardinal-Designate Robert McElroy, and – well – Where Peter Is. I know this is hard to accept for many conservative Catholics in the US, especially because the false moderate narrative is prevalent in their Catholic world.
In my next article, I will discuss the lessons to be learned from an episode in which the false moderates’ futile attempts to draw Pope Francis into one of their causes has done little but increase anger and division in the Church: the question of denying communion to pro-choice politicians.
Image: Thomas Cizauskas, Archbishop Wilton Gregory invested as Cardinal. Vatican City. 28 November 2020. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). https://flic.kr/p/2kbH3Pv
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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.