BRUCE DUNCAN. Pope Francis under attack

Nov 13, 2017

Despite his immense popularity among most Catholics and many others, not just Christians, Pope Francis is meeting increasing opposition and outspoken criticism, even from some cardinals and bishops, as well as from some prominent academics and writers.

Contention centres on his views on the pastoral implications of moral theology on divorce and remarriage, and strident opposition to his criticisms of how the international economy generates such extreme wealth and inequality. Stung by his criticisms, the very wealthy in the United States in particular have been pouring billions of dollars into right-wing think tanks and networks to discount Church teaching on social justice.

Criticism of popes

Criticism of popes is not new in the Catholic world. Pope John XXIII lamented in the 1960s the opposition and ‘disobedience’ of his directions in the Vatican curia and among some bishops. Pope Paul VI also faced criticism of his handling of the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reforms, his Ostpolitik and dialogue with communist governments, his enlightened social initiatives, and of course the consternation following Humane Vitae.

Practically everyone applauded Pope John Paul II’s extraordinary role in Poland, helping undermine the Soviet Union, and generally pursuing a vigorous human rights agenda. Others criticised his handling of the liberation theology debates, his roll-back of some liturgical reforms, his conservative moral theology, his inability to engage positively with the gender issues of many women, including nuns, and particularly his failure adequately to address the sex abuse issues in the Church.

Pope Benedict was determined to clean up the Church, and was alarmed that John Paul II’s long, slow decline had allowed things to drift. Benedict decided that would not happen to him, and so he retired in 2013. He too faced criticism, though, from those saying he spent too much time writing theology books and not attending properly to governance, particularly over the sex abuse crisis.

Some Catholics are prone to attributing to a pope what is referred to as ‘creeping infallibility’, as if everything a pope says must be accepted automatically. Pope Francis himself does not support that view. He certainly does not claim infallibility, and acknowledges that he can make mistakes, asking people to help him correct any such mistakes, and to make their views known in a reasoned dialogue.

He asks his cardinals, bishops, and others, rather than forming underground cliques or parties, to speak openly and courteously, attending to the culture of dialogue promoted by Pope Paul VI in his first encyclical, On Dialogue, in 1964. Francis believes people have a right to voice their concerns, but also to listen carefully to others, in order to arrive at consensus views under the prayerful guidance of the Holy Spirit.

But Francis does not approve of outright public refusal to accept decisions which have been well discussed and for which consensus positions have been reached, as at the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family, which he reflected in his 2016 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Love in the Family, The Joy of Love.

A war against Pope Francis?

In a recent article in The Guardian, titled ‘The war against Pope Francis’, Andrew Brown wrote with considerable hyperbole that ‘Pope Francis is one of the most hated men in the world today. Those who hate him most are not atheists or Protestants or Muslims, but some of his own followers’. Francis was being attacked because of his views on migrants, climate change, and global capitalism, as well as for his review of Church teaching on sex. Brown argued that almost a quarter of the cardinals ‘believe that the pope is flirting with heresy’.

It is true that there is disquiet and confusion among conservative groups in the Church, especially among those wishing to reverse the liturgical reforms and return to the old Latin rite of the Mass. Many of the young clergy have also embraced the old clerical culture favoured in some circles since John Paul II, with an elevated notion of the priesthood. Some have insisted on conformity to a strict set of rules and regulations, a law and order approach, drawing a line in the sand to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.

Francis rejects such exclusion strongly, and insists that the Gospel is for everyone without exception. Priests should demolish any pedestals on which people may put them; they should go into the streets and homes, get mud on their boots, ‘smell like the sheep’, and listen carefully to their people, supporting them in their struggles.

Before becoming pope, Francis set an example of being with the poor in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, where many people were in irregular marriage situations. He understood their difficult circumstances, and always encouraged people to do the best they could in their circumstances, trusting in the love of God.

A central issue: respect for conscience and motivation

Francis has also prioritised attentiveness to the search for meaning and motivation in the great variety of situations today, appreciating the difficulty of personal circumstances and relationships. He demands of priests and pastoral workers great sensitivity to the consciences of people as they strive to care for their families and societies.

He spelled out many of the implications of this perspective after the Roman Synods on the family in The Joy of Love. Without changing fundamental Church teaching, he highlighted an approach to moral theology which drew from St Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on the role of ‘prudence’ or insightful judgment in moral decision-making, allowing for flexibility in what was reasonable and possible for people in often complex situations and faced with conflicting responsibilities.

This debate about how strict we should be in conforming to ideal moral norms has a long history in moral theology. Jansenism infected Catholic thinking from the seventeenth century, stressing the sinfulness of human beings before a harsh or angry God. Against such fear of hell and judgement, opponents of Jansenism, like the founder of the Redemptorists St Alphonsus Liguori, stressed the mercy of God, and promoted devotion to Our Lady who became a powerful symbol and gentle advocate of God’s love and mercy.

In recent times, there has been a recovery of the moral theology of Aquinas and the role of ‘prudentia’ or discernment in judgment about seeking the good in people’s lives. It respects the ideal and moral principles, but contextualises them in the life and conscience of people. It is strict in principle, but liberal in pastoral practice. God does not demand what is morally impossible for people, but calls them to strive for the good that is reasonably open to them in their circumstances.

This is also the view of Pope Francis, who wrote that it is not enough “simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations”; the natural law is not like a set of rules imposed a priori on people, but a “source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions” (Joy of Love #306). Francis writes that such discernment “must remain open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realised” (#303).

He concludes that becoming aware of the circumstances of people’s lives will help us ‘stop demanding of our interpersonal relationships a perfection, a purity of intention, and a consistency which we will only encounter in the Kingdom to come. It also keeps us from judging harshly those who live in situations of frailty’. Life is not ‘black and white’ (#325), and each path to God is unique.

Pope Paul would agree with Francis on conscience

Pope Paul VI would strongly endorse the moral theology of Pope Francis. When Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, he meant it to be interpreted in the light of people’s consciences in their circumstances. Fr Gustav Martelet, who helped draft the encyclical for Pope Paul, later wrote that Paul VI identified the ideal of married love, but recognised the complexity of situations and obligations faced by couples

Pope Paul urged them, in an address to the General Chapter of the Redemptorist order in 1973, to “find out how much indulgence is necessary, how much, I would say, ‘elasticity’ the Law of God itself is capable of assuming, for the very purpose of adapting itself to the weaknesses and requirements of man’s human condition”. The law must serve the needs of people.

Some of the bishops’ conferences around the world saw the issue similarly in terms of an ideal, while recognising difficulties in personal conscience and situations. Alas, others saw the issue in terms of moral absolutes, demanding compliance. Pope Paul was never able satisfactorily to clarify the confusion in agitated public debates.

Why has this issue become such a major problem in the Church? In part at least because many of the clergy were taught moral theology by canon lawyers who were not well versed in moral theology, and did not understand Aquinas’s insistence on the role of ‘prudentia’ in decision making. In the debates over Humanae Vitae, many nuanced voices were shouted down by hard-line defenders of the encyclical.

Francis versus neoliberal economics & the super-rich

Francis has constantly highlighted the Church’s stringent criticism of the way the international economy has worked to benefit excessively the very rich, while leaving millions of others in great need. His attacks on social inequality and poverty and the political ideologies which justify these have alienated some among the rich elite, particularly in the United States. Over recent decades, these elites have poured billions of dollars into think tanks and networks to counter Church social teaching and justify their aggrandisement.

People like the fabulously rich Catholic Koch brothers have generously funded right-wing think tanks with their very extensive networks of radio and TV programs, magazines and journals, newspaper syndication, and public lectures, and promoted Catholic academics and writers like Michael Novak, George Weigel, and John Richard Neuhaus, as well as groups like the Acton Institute.

Some Catholic politicians have become leading figures in the Republican Party, and focused with Evangelicals on issues of sex and abortion, but they have little time for Catholic social teaching, calling for improved distribution of wealth, workers’ rights, and fair treatment for migrants. Various Catholic politicians have rejected Pope Francis’s views on climate change, refugees, and nuclear issues. Most recently, they have disagreed with the US Catholic bishops who are urging improved social policies for the poor and vulnerable.

It is not surprising that Pope Francis has drawn such strong criticism, not just from within some sections of his Church, but also from the great oligopolies and political powers. Surely that is to be expected, if he is to be faithful to his role and mission. Yet he is very conscious that he too will have to come before God and give an account of his ministry. Like the rest of us, he is merely a servant who is doing no more than his duty.


Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who lectures in history and social ethics at Yarra Theological Union, within Melbourne’s University of Divinity. He is one of the founders of the advocacy network, Social Policy Connections.


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