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

Papal loyalists become dissidents

(RNS) — Scripture tells us that they will know that we are Christians by our love (John 13:35), but the media tell us that they will know that we are Catholics by our fights.

There have been lots of fights in the Catholic Church lately as reactionary cardinals, theologians and commentators have gone after Pope Francis and his emphasis on God’s compassion and mercy. These dissenters believe that he should stress the rules and divine judgment.

What is remarkable about these critics of Pope Francis is that many were papal loyalists during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict. During these papacies, they harshly criticized as dissidents and heretics anyone who questioned papal teaching. What is clear now is that their loyalty was not to the successor of Peter but to their own theological opinions.

No one epitomizes this transformation more than Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, who recently released his letter to the pope accusing him of confusing the faithful. Weinandy was executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Doctrine from 2005-2013 and used his office like a grand inquisitor to persecute those theologians who questioned papal teaching. True, he did not physically torture his victims, but he did everything he could to destroy their reputations and their careers.

To my knowledge, none of these theologians had the chutzpah to write a letter to the pope and then release it to the press. Rather, they wrote as academics on topics in the areas of their expertise. Most of them were highly respected in their fields.

Now the inquisitor is questioning the pope.

His letter begins by stating that “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate.” Too often, the light of faith “is obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions,” which “fosters within the faithful a growing unease.”

Weinandy and his friends may be confused, but the faithful at large love and support Pope Francis. A Pew Research Center survey released in January found that 87 percent of Catholics express a favorable view of Pope Francis. It should be noted that these Catholics also liked Popes John Paul and Benedict, but unlike the conservative dissidents, they did not abandon the papacy when Francis was elected.

The first problem Weinandy points to is Chapter 8 of “Amoris Laetitia,” which deals with the role of conscience and discernment in guiding divorced and remarried Catholics. He joins his voice to those of the four cardinals and some theologians who have criticized this chapter. He accuses the pope of being “intentionally ambiguous, thus inviting both a traditional interpretation of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce as well as one that might imply a change in that teaching.”

He even asserts that this “seemingly intentional lack of clarity inevitably risks sinning against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth.” He accuses the pope of “calumny” in calling his critics “Pharisaic stone-throwers who embody a merciless rigorism.” This coming from a man who did not worry about calumny when he was accusing some of America’s most prominent theologians of being unorthodox!

Weinandy ignores that fact that “Amoris Laetitia” was the product of wide consultation in the church, including two synods of bishops.

A second issue that Weinandy has with Pope Francis is that he “seems to demean the importance of Church doctrine.”

There is no question that Pope Francis gives a priority to how we live the faith rather than how we explain it, or as theologians would say, he gives more importance to orthopraxis than orthodoxy. As Matthew 25 explains, we will be judged by how we live the faith in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty and clothing the naked. We will not be judged by whether we can answer all our catechism questions.

Weinandy appears to confuse the faith with theology or how we explain the faith. Many in the church, in response to the Reformation, equated the faith with everything in the catechism. Rather, theology is always an imperfect attempt to explain the faith, which is a mystery. Theology is simply an attempt to explain the faith using the best thinking of the day. Augustine used Neoplatonism; Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelianism.

What Weinandy and his inquisitional colleagues never understood is that it is the job of theologians not simply to quote Augustine and Aquinas, but to imitate them by using the best thinking of their day to explain the faith to their generation. One cannot use 13th-century theology to explain the faith to people in the 21st century. The suppression of theological creativity during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict hurt the church badly.

Weinandy's third complaint is that the pope is scandalizing the believers by appointing bishops “who seem not merely open to those who hold views counter to Christian belief but who support and even defend them.” Again, Weinandy confuses the faith with his theology. He is shocked that a pope would appoint men who reflect his priorities for the church when this has been done by every pope. Under John Paul, loyalty was the most important criterion for episcopal appointments, trumping pastoral qualifications and good judgment.

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

Weinandy’s next complaint is that Pope Francis is fostering disunity in the church by encouraging “a form of ‘synodality’ that allows and promotes various doctrinal and moral options within the Church [and] can only lead to more theological and pastoral confusion.” Again, Weinandy believes that any views that are different from his theology are wrong. He even asserts that “Such synodality is unwise and, in practice, works against collegial unity among bishops.”

In reality, collegiality and synodality are trying to explain the same reality — the union of the pope with the college of bishops where there is shared responsibility for the church under the primacy of the pope. Sadly, collegiality under John Paul became defined as the obligation of the bishops to agree with him in all things. Synods became a joke, where bishops quoted the pope to himself and told him how great he was.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, encourages free discussion and debate, which he sees as the path to theological and pastoral development. Ironically, Weinandy complains about the pope allowing too much freedom of discussion and then takes advantage of this freedom to tell the pope that he is all wrong.

Finally, Weinandy accuses the pope of being vindictive. What “many have learned from your pontificate is not that you are open to criticism, but that you resent it.” He goes on, “Many fear that if they speak their mind, they will be marginalized or worse.”

Again, Weinandy appears to have forgotten the fear inspired in bishops and theologians by John Paul, who would allow no discussion on issues on which he had made up his mind. Weinandy has also conveniently forgotten his own role in this inquisition. So far, he can provide no evidence of similar actions against him and his colleagues by Pope Francis.

In brief, Weinandy fails to see that most of his criticisms of Pope Francis are exactly the same as the criticisms that progressive theologians had of Pope John Paul II. While Weinandy believes Francis has betrayed the legacy of John Paul and Benedict, progressive theologians accused John Paul of betraying the documents and spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Progressives too felt that John Paul's episcopal appointments were disastrous. And they saw scores of their colleagues subjected to inquisitional procedures that Weinandy helped carry out for the bishops and the pope.

If a theologian like Sister Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University had written a similar letter to Pope John Paul, the Vatican and the bishops would have come down on her like a ton of bricks.

Weinandy, on the other hand, got a slap on the wrist from the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and lost his position as a consultant to the bishops' Committee on Doctrine.

In his statement, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo noted that “Throughout the history of the Church, ministers, theologians and the laity all have debated and have held personal opinions on a variety of theological and pastoral issues.” But, he said, “every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor's statement than to condemn it." And, "This presupposition should be afforded all the more to the teaching of Our Holy Father," DiNardo said.

I don’t disagree with anything DiNardo said, I just wish dissenters had been treated similarly during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict.

Yesterday’s papal loyalists are today’s dissidents. Yesterday’s dissenters are today’s papal defenders. The true scandal in the church is not what one theologian or pope says, it is that we are not capable of dialoguing with each other. That is the fault of John Paul and Benedict, not Francis. They attempted to impose their theologies (their way of explaining the faith) on the church and silenced anyone who disagreed.

With the papacy of Francis, we are being invited to dialogue in a truly collegial fashion. Why does that scare people like Weinandy? Because they can no longer impose their views on the church. They are no longer in charge.


  1. Pope Francis ignited his opposition by accusing bishops and cardinals who disagree with him of “ legalism,” “closed hearts,” (reuters.coc) “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.” (cruxnow.com)
    So when Weinandy accurately accuses the pope of “calumny” in calling his critics “Pharisaic stone-throwers who embody a merciless rigorism” Reese compares this to Weinandy accusing “theologians of being unorthodox!”
    This is just one example of Reese’s lack of judgement, clarity and fairness.

  2. Are you kidding me here!? There is no reason in Heaven or here on Earth why those who have questions regarding AL should not receive an answer. Since when is it considered sedition for people of faith to point out ambiguity, request clarification from the pope or those he designates to what amounts to very real concerns in their opinion? I personally find it scandalous that those questioning are getting rebuked. Why has the pope been silent? Why have they had to wait for any response? If the issues in question are so clear to everyone else then there should be no problem in answering their questions. The RCC is becoming so ridiculous each and every day, and I am glad that I have moved myself to the farthest margin of this church and dismiss the raging of the Holy See. I have been taught the faith, and the faith I believe. The men and their machinations are just little boy theatrics. Jesus must be so proud of these little boys.

  3. “The true scandal in the church is not what one theologian or pope says, it is that we are not capable of dialoguing with each other. That is the fault of John Paul and Benedict, not Francis. ”

    In other words:
    “It is a scandal that we cannot speak with one another. And oh by the way, that’s because of the bad ‘conservatives’ and not the good ‘progressives.'”

    This is unbelievably hypocritical, totally illogical and positively disgusting from Father Reese. It is also certifiable calumny against a canonized saint. One who was canonized, incidentally, *by Pope Francis.*

    Nice of Father to take a run at a member of the Church Triumphant. May it lead to even greater intercession by St. John Paul II for the Church in general and for Father Reese’s soul in particular.

  4. “What is clear now is that their loyalty was not to the successor of Peter but to their own theological opinions.”

    Ya think?

  5. If he accused bishops and cardinals who disagreed with him, how could he have ignited the opposition? It sounds like it was ignited to begin with. Honestly it all sounds like they’ve been going at each other. “Who started it?” is not an appealing question (yes I know I kind of asked it).

  6. “This is unbelievably hypocritical, totally illogical and positively disgusting from Father Reese.”

    Reese is consistent, if nothing else. He has waged war against Church orthodoxy for more than 30 years, and clearly he doesn’t plan on stopping until his final breath.

  7. In the first instance, the pope was referring to the bishops at the synod (the majority) who didn’t vote in favor of communion for the remarried. In the second, he was referring to the prelates who questioned the ambiguities in Amoris Laeticia. In any case, I should have said he incited a more intransigent opposition by name-calling. As Weinandy wrote: “This kind of calumny is alien to the Petrine ministry. Such behavior gives the impression that your views cannot survive theological scrutiny, and so must be sustained by “ad hominem” arguments.” Finally, Weinandy tells Francis he’s stifling legitimate criticism.

  8. me guesses father reese is of a certain age………..and therefore predictable if nothing else…..

  9. Lot to do about nothing, as with most things about Catholicism, the papacy is based on an inauthentic passage from the NT in this case Matthew’s gospel, 16:18 . See http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb073.html for additional details. See also Professor Gerd Ludemann’s studies published in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 197-198.

  10. If they had questions they should have met with him to voice their concerns, instead they publicly accused him of heresy and you want him to hug them and respond back.

  11. The pastoral concerns that guide clergies and episcopates today consist in seeking to guarantee a sort of egalitarian treatment for the faithful, to gratify them with a public recognition of equal rights of which access to the Eucharist is only the tip of the iceberg, no matter what their situation with regard to moral theology and canon law.
    Rights and advantages, then: pastoral practice tends to resemble a customer loyalty program. Today access to the Eucharist on request, tomorrow much more. In fact, beyond moral theology and law, it is the dissolution of the theology of grace and of the supernatural life, it is the reduction of the sacraments to anthropology and social ethics, which become ever more apparent.


  12. They sent him a private communique for clarification and they were rebuked. Next step is to force a comment and this is what they are doing.

  13. Reese casts a giant, inky smokescreen over the whole controversy by describing it as a matter of “emphases.” One might say he’s taken the discussion from high-resolution to ultra-low resolution.

    It’s not that the Pope “emphasizes mercy” and his critic “emphasize law.”

    It’s that the Pope denies certain truths of the Catholic Faith, and his critics affirm them.

    The Dubia are five yes-or-no questions–which the Pope refuses to answer. Indeed, he refuses to acknowledge their existence. It’s not a matter of “emphasis.” It’s a matter of refusing to say “yes” or “no” to yes-or-no questions.

    As ANY Jesuit-trained person knows, the refusal to answer a yes-or-no question is an INFALLIBLE proof of intellectual dishonesty.

  14. What a joke of an article by a member of the society of Judas.
    Once again he is so wrong. Under the previous popes the dissenters were against church teaching under this pope the dissenters are for church teaching.
    Under this pope the only dialogue is if you are heterodox and if you are orthodox you will be ridiculed shamed and probably forced to the fringes.
    Dialogue and mercy have totally lost their meaning under PF but his SJ social justice warriors are doing their best to present a picture that is false.
    Have mercy on us Lord. How long O Lord?

  15. Lack of judgement clarity and fairness; yes you have perfectly described a Jesuit

  16. PF proves perfectly the old adage ” scratch a liberal and you will find a fascist”… he learned it very well at the Peronist school of dictatorship

  17. It’s in the job description of modern Jesuits to be unfaithful and dissent

  18. They sent him a private letter and it went unanswered for six months before they felt it was their duty to publicize it. Now two of them have died and he has refused to grant them an audience while making for great Catholics like actors Leonardo di Caprio and Other liberal Hollywood elites. Hypocrisy upon hypocrisy. Dialogue mercy and caring…BS

  19. You know comments like these used to really upset me and I would defend the official church but I can no longer do that as the Current pope was elected by a mafia who had as a primary mover Cardinal Daneels from Belgium who protected a fellow bishop who had abused his own nephew. Also under this pope the secretariat of state brought into the Vatican to keep under diplomatic immunity a Monsignor working at the embassy in Washington DC caught with child porn. This group is heavily influenced by those unnatural sexual desires that were once defined as sins but are now being brought into acceptance in the name of Jesuit style mercy

  20. Yes but when a Jesuit does it’s ok. Who are you to judge? They are so far superior than us mere mortals

  21. So he rebuked them so that is a response. Seems like some people aren’t happy with their results like petulant little children. I demand an answer, I must be heard, I’m greater than others you must respond to me! My grandmother used to say to me when I was angry at something the Church said or something I wanted to do that I shouldn’t. She’d say it’s ok to be angry go to church and pray to the Holy Spirit for peace and understanding and a little more piety. I suggest the same.

  22. I demand an answer, I must be heard, I’m greater than
    others you must respond to me! My grandmother used to say to me when I
    was angry at something the Church said or something I wanted to do that I
    shouldn’t. She’d say it’s ok to be angry go to church and pray to the
    Holy Spirit for peace and understanding and a little more piety. I
    suggest the same.

  23. With all due respect if you have actually read the dubia and their follow up letter for a request for an audience, you would actually note that it does not have the childish and crude tone your comments imply. They are princes of the Church, they wear the color red to signify that they must be ready the shed their blood for Holy Mother church and they felt the need to ask for clarity from a most confusing Pope, where we now have different bishops’ conferences with different interpretations of AL. Confusion reigns supreme and confusion is the work of the devil and it is the primary duty of the Petrine office to confirm the faith not to sow confusion.

  24. you see Jimmy’s response ….typical example of a liberal ccomeback, you can’t defend your position so you come back with ad hominems.

  25. 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

    What else do you need to know, just another renegade Jesuit embracing progressive ideology and substituting it for the Magisterium.

  26. Really? NOW the pedophilia of the church bothers you? Because of THIS pope? How about Law being rewarded by JPII? Or other practices of the RCC? Catholic Ireland, for instance? How about the babies of Tuam, thrown into a septic tank by the Bon Secours? Does that bother you? Or since it wasn’t done by Francis, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt?

  27. Scratch a conservative and you get a Nazi or a fascist. You learn from the Mussolini school of dictatorship? This is fun. Throw another stupid dart.

  28. “Saint” JPII, my rear end. This guy ignored repeated complaints from Legionary clerics and seminarians who complained to Rome that their prevert founder, Rev. Maciel, had sexually abused them or tried to do so. This “Saint” also made life hell for bishops and theologians who disagreed with his thinking. “Saint” was your benevolent dictator: Do as I say, and I’ll possibly reward you or at least leave you alone; disobey me, and I’ll make your life hell. “Saint”, my @ss!

  29. As a Catholic not trained by the Jesuits, I think the refusal to answer a yes-or-no question was the exercise of smart thinking. In issuing the “dubia”, Burke et al were inviting the pope to play a “game” that, by definition, would involve a “winner” (them) and a “loser” (the pope). Burke and his fellow cardinals (two now dead, God rest their souls) were betraying a well known characteristic of the authoritarian personality, namely, dichotomous thinking, i.e., seeing everything in terms of black-and-white. At root in authoritarian behavior is plain ol’ fashioned FEAR. The followers are FEARful people, and, ironically, so are their leaders. Aside from their FEAR-based behavior on display, Burke et al also betrayed naivete. They apparently thought that Francis would not see through their blatant attempt at “game-playing”. Francis is an adult with pastoral experience. I’m not sure one can say the same about his challengers.

  30. Adults deal with “ambiguity”. Children do not.

  31. “They are princes of the Church…” God help us 🙂

    “Confusion reigns supreme and confusion is the work of the devil…”

    No, confusion is a manifestation of ambiguity’s challenge to adults to deal with situations that are not black-and-white. Adults are not “sheep”. Adults are not expected to kow-tow to authority figures who demand obeisance (as did JPII and B16). Adults are not going to “stick out their tongues” to authoritarians.

    Deal with it.

  32. He is 72 years old. He was/is a featured writer at America Magazine – and was editor-in-chief of America Magazine until being forced to resign in early 2005 because of the publication of quite a few “contra Fidem” articles in the magazine, articles which drew the attention (and the quite just, justified, and justifiable displeasure) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its then-prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

    And oh yes, he is also a priest, of the Society of Jesus (or is that Society of Judas?). So his byline should properly be listed as Father Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

  33. More accurately, “and Heterodox Dissidents from Church Teaching Become Papal Loyalists.”

  34. Really? What does he strike you as? An “orthodox Catholic,” like you? (All sarcasm intended…..)

  35. “Today access to the Eucharist on request, tomorrow much more.”

    More like “access to the Eucharist on demand”…..

  36. I’m an orthodox Catholic who, unlike you, is educated and informed on the issues facing the Church of Rome. (No sarcasm.)

  37. You can debate whether or not Fr. Reese should have used his priestly initials and title, but there’s an argument to be made against clericalism. Let his arguments stand as written not based on his status.

  38. Catholics seem to forget that strong disagreements among the leaders of the Church are traditional (if not Tradition). And those disagreements were among men and a woman upon whom the flame of the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost and in one case, a man who was knocked on his ass.

    You gotta love this Church! It’s not for the weak of heart.

  39. I always keep in mind these days that the trolls on these comment pages may be Russians. If they’re seeking to sow hate and discontent, what better place than here to do it where Catholics discuss things? Straight out of the old KGB playbook. And experience tells them there has never been a bigger pain in their side than the Roman Catholic Church. Fideles caveant.

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