Faith Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

More Catholic than the pope

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience June 28, 2017, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Photo by Tony Gentile/Reuters

“More Catholic than the pope” used to be a joking reference to conservative Catholics, but these days there truly are some people who think they are more Catholic than the pope.

Four cardinals (two of whom have recently gone to their eternal reward) criticized the pope publicly in 2016 by issuing what they called a “dubia,” asking the pope to clarify what they considered his straying from the true faith. Last month, several dozen theologians accused the pope of spreading heresy.

The fuss is over the pope’s willingness to open the door to the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion, even if they do not have a church annulment. But it raises a larger question:  Who has the right to challenge the pope’s teachings in the Catholic Church?

These criticisms of Pope Francis put progressive Catholics in an awkward position. Progressives are big fans of Pope Francis, but it would be somewhat hypocritical of them to suddenly become papal absolutists when they clearly had disagreements with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. On the other hand, conservatives who are now critical of Pope Francis accused progressives of being “cafeteria Catholics” when they disagreed with John Paul or Benedict.

All I can say is, “Welcome to the cafeteria.”

The truth is all Catholics are cafeteria Catholics. Conservative Catholics were quite willing to ignore John Paul’s and Benedict’s strong statements on justice and peace, and progressive Catholics are happy to ignore Francis’ opposition to women priests.

Disagreeing with the pope was not welcomed during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict. Bishops, priests, theologians, and Catholic publications were expected to unreservedly cheer any statement that came out of Rome. Priests were silenced, seminary professors were removed, and magazine editors were fired if they strayed from the party line. The open debate that occurred during the Second Vatican Council was closed down. Candidates for the episcopacy were chosen based on loyalty to Rome rather than on intelligence or pastoral abilities.

The atmosphere has changed under Pope Francis. Bishops are being chosen because of their pastoral abilities and identification with the poor. Theologians are free to speak and write what they please. Catholic publications are not subject to censorship. And cardinals and theologians are publicly criticizing the pope, something that would never have been allowed in earlier papacies.

Pope Francis talks with bishops during an audience he held for participants at the 68th national Liturgical Week on Aug. 24, 2017, in the Pope Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. AP photo by Domenico Stinellis

Pope Francis can only blame himself for this. He asked for it. At the beginning of the 2016 synod on the family, he told the bishops to “Speak clearly. Let no one say, ‘This can’t be said, they will think this or that about me.’ Everything we feel must be said, with ‘parrhesia’ (boldness).”

The Greek word “parrhesia” comes from the Acts of the Apostles where Paul takes on Peter, the first pope, in arguing that the Gentile Christians need not be circumcised. Paul won that argument.

Pope Francis remembers how when he was a cardinal at an earlier synod, officials from the Roman Curia told him what subjects could not be brought up. Although the purpose of the Synod of Bishops is to advise the pope, most bishops at earlier synods spent most of their time quoting the pope to himself. It was a silly exercise.

Pope Francis is not afraid of open discussion in the church. “Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow,” he said. “That doesn’t frighten me. What’s more, I look for it.”

Well, he got it. Some people would like to see him crack down on those dissenting from his teaching, but I rather admire him for his patience and willingness to let people speak their minds. He trusts that the Spirit will guide the church in the right direction.

Catholics need to grow up and learn to live in a church where arguments take place, but we should not let disagreements break up the family. We need to understand that people have different viewpoints and that we can learn from one another by having dialogue. Rather than dividing into partisan factions, we need to model what it means to be a community.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

39 Comments

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  • Popes are only regarded as infallible when they speak ‘ex cathedra’, which has happened only a very few times in 2000 years.

  • What is ‘ex cathedra”?

    Indeed, infallibility also belongs to the body of bishops as a whole, when, in doctrinal unity with the pope, they solemnly teach a doctrine as true. We have this from Jesus himself, who promised the apostles and their successors the bishops, the magisterium of the Church: “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16), and “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). ” Catholic.com (edited)

  • Officially, it’s where the Pope ‘defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church’. Other than the Assumption of Mary, there haven’t been any ex cathedra pronouncements in our lifetime.

  • faith or morals like when Peter ate one way with Jews, and another with Gentiles?
    thanks though.

  • This pope is not liked in too many quarters, and is not looked on by other Christian leaders as one who speaks for the true faith. His PR skills are amazing and that may be his legacy, but someone has to speak for the truth.

  • 1. The pope accused bishops and cardinals “with different viewpoints” of “ legalism,” “closed hearts,” “blinkered viewpoints,” judging “sometimes with superiority and superficiality,” lacking “understanding,” unable to “discern,” cowardice in “burying their heads in the sand,’ “a nasty spirit in order to sow division,” and psychologically “born from something missing, from trying to hide one’s own sad dissatisfaction behind a kind of armor.” He warns that they are a “cancer of the Church” in pursuit of glory rooted in “the logic of ambition and power.”
    http://www.reuters.com/article/us-pope-synod-idUSKCN0SH2O620151025 https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2016/11/18/pope-fires-back-critics-amoris-ecumenism/
    2. “Pastoral bishops” are men who, like the pope, are opposed to health care for women and full human rights for LGBTQ persons, but are PR experts in saying it without vitriol.
    3. “For the poor”? The Italian financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, stated the Vatican’s assets – securities, commercial real estate and bank accounts – for all its departments and offices combined “by a conservative estimate” would be around 15-17 billion euro. The pope also keeps secret how much money is donated to him “for the poor.” Vatileaks II author Fittipaldi disclosed this was 378 million euro in 2013. The Vatican Bank’s annual profits are also “offered the Holy Father in support of his apostolic and charitable ministry.” This was €50 million in 2013.

  • The pope is liked in most quarters. He has said the truth the truth of the gospels. the good news that Jesus came to save those who were lost, he did not come to tie humanity down with the shackles of self-righteous ideologues. if 30of the 99 want to keep the lost one out of the fold and stand on scripture tradition and their claim of the holy spirit, who will be drawn to the Good Shepherd?

  • Suppressed dissent becomes destructive of good order. It makes the dissenter angry and it erects walls. Those walls prevent the very communication that would resolve the dissent.

  • And you are soi dissant guardian of the one and only true truth. Lots of luck with that one. I’ll trust Francis unless you can demonstrate a doctorate in theology.

  • There is a lot of history involved Read Jaroslav Pelikan and John Henry Newman on the history of ecclesiology. Models have changed.

  • This article isn’t particularly helpful. It relies much on stereotype, caricature and, frankly, rumor taken for truth. The idea that disagreeing with a pope on any matter whatsoever makes one a “cafeteria catholic” is absurd. RNS isn’t well-known for its reasoned and objective assessment of things Catholic. This article doesn’t improve that reputation.

  • Interesting discussion, Tom. Taking for granted that the institutional church is really and truly the Mystical Body of Christ. What the world needs is not more discussions but witnesses. More people ready to be part of that Body, that Mystical Body, which the Church should be and which, too often, it is not.

    What our world needs is Jesus, people who want to be (become) Jesus so that our world can get to know Him. Else He will remain just a historical figure, nowhere to be seen in our world – non-existent in other words. And the discussions will go on and on…

    Paul

  • It seems just too coincidental to me, maybe because I was a victim at age 11, that after CENTURIES of judgmentalism, condemnation, and punitive rigidity going all the way to excommunications, anathemas, and stake burnings, when priests are caught in wide-spread atrocious acts of soul-murdering sexual abuse, ALL OF A SUDDEN we have a Pope who preaches FORGIVENESS AND MERCY. Just too coincidental for me.

  • Well done. Yes, Pope Francis has opened a door to real discussion of issues that are very important and troubling to many Catholics and many Christians. After the “keep your mouth shut” attitude of the two previous popes, it is a wonderful breath of fresh air. It will be taken advantage of in negative ways – the “dubia” cardinals, for example. And, it takes some getting used to, some rearranging in our minds of what is and is not permitted. Some can handle that – but many cannot allow anyone to question the never wrong, never changing doctrines/dogma, traditional “truth”.

    So much needs to be reexamined, especially the way that cultural practices of particular times and regions came to be seen as some sort of eternal “message” from God. Interpretations of “sacred” writings based on Greco/Roman philosophic principles, rituals based on ceremonial practices in those regions 2000 years ago. Catholic Church structure that mimics how power was controlled and used in the time of emperors. Roles of women – oh, my!

    If the Catholic Church is to have a future, it needs to learn how to dialogue all over again. But that means dialogue with the people, learn the reality of the lives they live. Guide, but don’t try to rule. Thank you, Pope Francis.

  • “Theologians are free to speak and write what they please.”

    Tell that to the recently fired Professor Josef Seifert.

  • I think he is liked in most quarters because the Church has failed a lot of Catholics who were divorced, among other things.

  • I like this Pope because he is willing to listen and have a dialogue. He sees that the Catholic Church cannot stagnant and has actually pushed Catholics away. The Church has treated those who divorce like they are lepers. If they cannot get an annulment before remarriage, the Church is basically saying your out. If you go to confession, any sin is forgiven (if you are sincere). But, if you make a mistake in picking your life partner, then that is unforgivable under certain circumstances.

  • Even KNOWING GOD is not enough, Mary Gee. God wants a RELATIONSHIP with you and me, not ANY relationship, but a LOVING RELATIONSHIP, like a man has with his wife and vice versa. God wants to give me and you all that He(She)-God has no sex-has ( not much since God doesn’t own anything) and all that He(She) is – which is LOVE AND NOTHING ELSE. That’s what HEAVEN is and it’s God’s gift to you and me – IF I WANT IT! And that’s the question – DO I WANT IT.

    If I do, then it’s going to cost me. I’ll have to BORN AGAIN as Jesus said, BECOMNG ANOTHER JESUS in other words – and that’s too difficult – and so many, too many, just opt for laws and regulations and more phariseeÎsm – which has infected our Church ever since Constantine.

    Paul

  • When Clergy disagree with the Pope and give their views, it should be just that, not an open opposition. It should be open to discussion, but not demands if the Pope disagrees, it should not be pressed to an argument that leads to a divide. People may have different views, and can discuss, but not when their views are from their misunderstanding of the Church teachings, or lack of faith.

  • You must be very, very old… the Assumption of Mary ex cathedra pronouncement having been in 1870.

  • Gerard.let go of that pain and please, dispense with the sarcasm. If yo know anything of history in the Church, NOTHING is all of a sudden and Pope Francis is doing nothing more than calling on all to extend what Jesus would. Note, that he has been holding those guilty accountable, as well as bishops, archbishops and cardinals who shuffled those who were guilty around, in an attempt to hide their devious behaviors. I know of what I speak. My former religious community paid out over $29 million dollars for 8 men ( OUT OF OVER 400) who were found to be guilty of such behavior. A good number had been found through internal investigation and had been removed from active ministry for some time……

  • Jane, the church has failed more than just the divorced. Speaking as a former Roman Catholic and Brother for 10 years is religious community, one area that we failed at miserably was the teaching and practice of the faith. For example, in my parish ministry over many summers as a religious Brother, I encountered many lasped Roman Catholics who had not received the sacraments of confession or communion because of their misunderstanding of the church’s teaching on Formation of Conscience. As a result, many who practiced artificial birth control felt they were in a state of mortal sin and could not receive communion….However, if they had prayed about that specific matter, were fully informed about the Church’s teaching on it and still felt that God was calling them to practice it, then they had undertaken a Formation a Conscience and even though they were in conflict with church teaching, were not in state of mortal sin AND could receive the sacrament of communion. HOWEVER, many RC’s were never informed correctly of the church’s teaching on Formation of Conscience because in my opinion, it seemed to meet the hidden agenda of many leaders of the Church…..

  • No, the ex cathedra statement of Pope Pius IX in 1854 was regarding the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
    The pronouncement making the Assumption of Mary official dogma came from Pius XII in 1950.
    And yes, I used the phrase ‘in our lifetime’ regarding 1950 somewhat liberally, since that was well over a decade before I was born.

  • ” Let go of that pain and dispense with the sarcasm ” That’s good advice. After 31 years of therapy, I can tell you that letting go of certain kinds of pain is easier said than done, and as to the sarcasm, I will endeavor to dispense with it by saying simply that Bergoglio is a Jesuit prevaricator, well-schooled in equivocation and mental reservation who, under the guise of mercy and forgiveness has done essentially NOTHING to stop these atrocities. As to the large sums of money paid by your order and others to victims somehow assuaging the damage done, I would suggest you consider what paying money to someone for having had sex with them actually amounts to, what that actually makes that victim feel like in his or her psychologically damaged mind. Doesn’t help much toward “letting go of the pain.”

  • Also from the article:

    “Pope Francis is not afraid of open discussion in the church. “Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow,” he said. “That doesn’t frighten me. What’s more, I look for it.””

    Except when he doesn’t. Such as in refusing to even acknowledge, let alone answer some questions from his own cardinals. Can you say cognitive dissonance.

  • I am a Catholic, I was divorced by my 1st wife, not to my liking, I remarried to my second wife a Catholic, we chose to marry Episcopalian we continued to go to communion and where active in our Catholic Church, teaching CCD and Men’s retreat’s, my wife was a Eucharistic Minister for years, we raised 2 kids Catholic, my second wife died of cancer. at age 58 She was a great person. I could have been a good Lutheran but I stayed Catholic. I will let my God judge me, even though I did not live like a true Catholic by the book, but like a good Christian. My divorce was my only downfall, I was accepted by my second dear wife with that baggage. I am sure she is in heaven with our God. My goal is to live chist Like as best as I can.

  • This pope does not practice what he preaches.

    He is very selective on who he gives audiences to, and who he leaves out in the cold.

    He has harsh words for those with whom he disagrees. Not very catholic one might say.

    Catholics are starting to notice.

  • Priests who commit sexual assaults should face justice, no question. Pope Francis’s revocation of the defrocking of a priest, Father Mauro Inzoli, who committed sexual abuse against a 12 year old was extremely bad judgment on his part. Benedict had defrocked him, Francis reversed it.

  • Problem is, defrocking is just that, taking off the priest costume. Still a “priest forever.” What must change is the theology of priesthood. It’s just too hard for a believer, especially a child, to say no to ” Alter Christus” -ANOTHER CHRIST.

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