Back on March 2 and 3, the Thomistic Institute held a conference at Harvard University on “Christianity and Liberalism.” We were unable to attend, though we know quite a few people who did. However, as you may remember, March 2 and 3 were bad days to be in Boston with a windstorm battering the northeast. Thus even people who planned to attend met with great difficulty in getting to Boston. Recordings of the conference are now, we are told, available on the Thomistic Institute’s Soundcloud page. (The page is a goldmine for anyone with an interest in Catholic thought, with many interesting lectures recorded and freely available.) One may now catch up on what we are reliably told was one of the most exciting events in a long time.
At long last, the question of Benedict XVI’s letter to Msgr. Dario Viganò, prefect of the Secretariat for Communications, on the occasion of the presentation of a series of short books about Pope Francis’s theology, has been answered. Benedict declined to write a brief note introducing the series and criticized sharply the inclusion of German theologian Peter Hünermann, a strident liberal critic of John Paul II and Benedict himself. This follows a misleading presentation of Benedict’s letter by Monsignor Viganò at the presentation of the books, and a series of leaks purporting to show a very different letter. Obviously, Viganò wanted to quote part of the letter, in which the Pope Emeritus identifies an interior continuity between himself and Francis, no doubt in an attempt to silence conservative critics of the Pope. However, by omitting the passage critical of Hünermann’s inclusion in a city known for its leaks, Viganò made this conclusion inevitable.
The affair has been a slow-rolling debacle. First, the text released by the Secretariat for Communications after Monsignor Viganò quoted a bit of it, discussing the inner continuity between Benedict and Francis. This was, without a doubt, music to the ears of Francis’s partisans like social-media guru Massimo Faggioli and Francis’s biographer Austen Ivereigh. At last, they crowed, Benedict himself put paid to the idea that Francis’s pontificate represents a serious departure from his own. Then it turned out that the Secretariat for Communications had altered the letter in various ways and had to admit doing so, earning a pungent rebuke from the Associated Press. A second text emerged, with Benedict apparently (frankly) admitting that he had not read and likely would not read the books. Now, a third text has emerged presenting a very different letter: Benedict sharply criticized the inclusion of Prof. Peter Hünermann, a German theologian who, in Benedict’s assessment, “virulently attacked” papal teaching on moral theology during his pontificate. Benedict cites Hünermann’s opposition to Veritatis splendor in particular. This text appears to be the correct text and has been released by the Vatican.
One could discourse at length about the incompetence displayed in this affair, which only confirms the sense that Francis’s Secretariat for Communications, which has swallowed up the Holy See Press Office, is the worst public-relations office on earth. They completely bungled the Barros affair to the point where Francis’s personal credibility on one of the gravest matters in the Church was compromised seriously. (Remember all those bishops in the United States who had to resign in disgrace when their personal credibility on this issue was compromised?) And now we have had a disaster in slow motion involving nothing less than a letter from Benedict XVI. Now, it is obvious why the letter was selectively quoted in the first place—Viganò wanted to get that bit about interior continuity into the media. No doubt he wanted liberal journalists like Faggioli, Ivereigh, and the rest of that set to run with it. He wanted to quote Benedict to own the trads, as one might say on Twitter.
However, nothing about this pontificate has stayed secret. Almost every significant move has been leaked, analyzed, and responded to well in advance of the official publication date. The leaks range from the text of Laudato si’ to a press office summary of Amoris laetitia to the dismissal of Cardinals Burke and Müller to the coup against the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. It would require a supererogatory act of charity to think that, in such an environment, a letter marked confidential from the Pope Emeritus would be treated as such—especially after one of Francis’s officials selectively quoted from the letter.
The whole affair is deeply embarrassing at every level. First, Benedict is not wrong when he criticizes the inclusion of Peter Hünermann in a series of books with official approval. Hünermann may well be influential with Francis, but this does not change the fact that he was deeply critical of John Paul II and Benedict and has tried to resist the directions of those pontificates. Second, Viganò got out over his skis when he tried to drag Benedict into the ongoing controversy over Francis’s pontificate. Viganò, despite his role as communications chief at the Vatican, is not really a participant in the polemics in the same that, for example, Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, is. (Poor Greg Burke!) Finally, everyone had to know, under these circumstances, that the actual letter would leak sooner or later. Once again, one is left scratching one’s head. How could this have happened?
But one thing is certain: this not how Francis’s closest collaborators wanted to end his anniversary week.
On March 13, 2013, Francis walked out and greeted the people in St. Peter’s Square. Five years later, in many ways, it feels like that was the high point of his pontificate. Of course, that is far from true. One could identify other highlights of Francis’s reign, such as the release of Laudato si’ or the diplomatic work he did between the United States and Cuba. One could point to the Jubilee of Mercy or the improved relations with the Society of St. Pius X, too. Any pontificate is going to have its share of high points and its share of low points. And Francis’s reign has had its share of low points, to be sure. The ongoing doctrinal debate over Amoris laetitia, the high-visibility conflicts Francis has had with high prelates in the Church, and the serious struggles Francis has had enforcing accountability on the Church are not good by any stretch of the imagination.
One can also talk about the promise of reform of the Roman Curia, which was a major reason behind Francis’s election five years ago. There was a sense—largely correct—that a pope was needed who could take the Curial bull by the horns and introduce some much needed reforms. Five years in, we have implemented and suppressed financial reforms, we have created commissions and dicasteries, we have consolidated other dicasteries, and we have reconstituted various commissions along lines more congenial to Francis. However, there is broadly a sense that this has not amounted to much. There are worrying rumors that the sticky-fingered old regime has managed to return to power. By the same token, there are also statements that those rumors are simply chatter from the Pope’s enemies. Whether that’s true or not, it cannot be denied that there has not been a replacement for Pastor bonus and that the reforms have proceeded in an unusual manner. One has only to discuss the botched PricewaterhouseCoopers audit that was suppressed by command of the Secretariat of State to open up the whole question.
It is exactly the combination of highs and lows we just mentioned that makes it difficult to talk about Francis’s pontificate in any coherent manner. This is most acutely true in the doctrinal arena. We have been thrilled to see Francis bring anti-liberalism—albeit qualified anti-liberalism—back into the Church’s vocabulary. For too long, the narrative practically wrote itself. Once upon a time, the Church was staunchly anti-liberal, then, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church changed its mind and decided that liberalism wasn’t so bad after all. John Paul II—particularly his best known social encyclical, Centesimus annus, along with his commitment to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue—was, in this telling, simply putting the finishing touches on the new liberal face of Catholicism. Sure, there were those who rejected the direction of the Church, such as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X, but they were bad and wrong and probably schismatic.
For a long time, one corrected this narrative as best as one could. For example, John Paul’s notion of liberalism was not shared by some of his loudest American supporters. Even in Centesimus annus—and before that in Sollicitudo rei socialis and Laborem exercens—John Paul expressed reservations about the unbridled market ideology that crept into liberalism somewhere along the line. Moreover, one could argue for what is now called the hermeneutic of continuity. But forensically this was a dead-end street. Francis’s great social encyclical, Laudato si’, came long and changed the game. (Perhaps to avoid mixing our metaphors we should say that it knocked a hole in the wall at the end of the street.) With precision, clarity, and insight, Francis diagnosed the spiritual and anthropological sickness at the heart of modern liberalism and condemned the effects of the disease. Laudato si’ does not quite blot the post-Conciliar narrative, of course, but it at least returns a deeply anti-liberal strain to the Church’s teaching.
Unfortunately, Laudato si’ has not been received by the liberal elements in the Church—left-liberals and right-liberals alike—who most need Francis’s incisive critique of modern liberalism. It proved all too easy for everyone to focus on the ecological stuff, both in admiration and derision, and ignore the real genius of the encyclical. We could cite all manner of snide comments about air conditioning and carbon credits from right-liberals who are, in their own way, bound to the vision of the Church articulated by John Courtney Murray and allegedly implemented by the Second Vatican Council. On the other hand, we could find adulatory reviews of Laudato si’ that make it sound like an annex to the Paris Climate Accord. Both groups miss the point, and their missing the point has made it difficult to have the discussion that Laudato si’ demands. Furthermore, Francis’s priorities quickly shifted from expanding upon Laudato si’ and deepening his analysis there to the Family Synod and Amoris laetitia.
The debate over Amoris laetitia rages still, and in many ways has become the central issue in Francis’s pontificate, for good or for ill. The debate has been covered here and elsewhere at staggering length. The consequences of the debate, however, are clear. There is a sense not only that the doctrine on communion for bigamists has been changed or unsettled in a meaningful way but also that Francis is somehow in favor of doctrinal changes, not only on the questions addressed in the eighth chapter of Amoris laetitia but also on other questions. Here we have in mind the debate currently simmering over Paul VI’s Humanae vitae. More broadly, there is a resurgence of the post-conciliar sense that the doctrine of the Church is somehow up for grabs in a meaningful way.
Indeed, one could say that the most important development of the first five years of Francis’s pontificate is the resurgence of a post-conciliar sensibility in general. That is, the idea that the Second Vatican Council is the most important event in the Church since Pentecost—and, in some ways, the most important event—had diminished significantly under Benedict. That trend has reversed under Francis. Now, here, as everywhere else, one ought to distinguish between Francis and his partisans, especially his partisans in the media. However, it is clear that Francis at least believes that he must emphasize the importance of the Council and the reforms allegedly ordered by the Council. (Recall Magnum principium?) The Spirit of Vatican Two, so doughtily fought by John Paul and Benedict, is, as a consequence, back. We see this, for example, with various liberal prelates, particularly some of Francis’s high-profile appointments in the United States, whose names we need not mention now.
Francis’s appointments, by the way, are part and parcel of the controversy over Amoris laetitia; an important aspect of Amoris laetitia has been a sort of decentralization of teaching authority. The recent approval by Francis of the guidelines of the Buenos Aires bishops shows that this decentralization is in one sense entirely intended by Francis. For whatever reason, Francis did not want to spell out the consequences of some statements in the eighth chapter of Amoris laetitia. Some of his old colleagues in Argentina did, however, and Francis was willing to approve their guidelines as an authentic, magisterial interpretation of his own words. What this means in specific terms is yet unclear. However, in general, the meaning cannot be mistaken: Francis is happy to devolve doctrinal authority to bishops, and he has been happy to appoint bishops to high-profile sees who are very much on board with his agenda. Gone are the days when John Paul and Benedict appointed even theological or ideological opponents to high-profile sees. By the same token, however, the faithful are happy to devolve doctrinal authority to bishops in line with their agenda. Rightly or wrongly, Francis’s authority has been compromised in the minds of many Catholics disturbed by Amoris laetitia. They have turned to other figures, particularly other high prelates in the Church, for guidance and clarification. We could name some and so could you.
There are several ways to look at this development. On one hand, nowhere does one find in Pastor aeternus, Lumen gentium, or Christus Dominus a statement that the pope is the only teacher in the Church. The bishops of the Church—in communion with the pope—have a teaching office to exercise. There is nothing wrong with Francis encouraging bishops to teach and there is nothing wrong with the faithful looking to bishops to be taught. However, the pope, as we know from Pastor aeternus and other teachings, is supposed to ensure the unity of the Church’s teaching and its consistency with tradition; that is, it is probably not the pope’s job to spark a debate but to restrain a debate. Likewise, it is a very serious situation if various bishops throughout the world are seen as more reliably orthodox than the pope. This is not to say such a serious situation could not happen; we know it has happened. Yet it is difficult to respond to the position that holds that Amoris laetitia is at odds with the tradition. Francis manifestly wants a decentralized approach to doctrine, and that necessarily means disagreement, some of it likely sharp.
It is, as we say, difficult to approach Francis’s pontificate consistently and coherently. To tell the story of Laudato si’, especially from the viewpoint of the Church’s traditional teachings against liberalism, is to tell the story of a wildly successful pontificate. A pontificate, indeed, that has reinvigorated the Church’s traditional hostility toward liberalism in many ways. But to tell the story of Amoris laetitia is to tell the story of a pontificate bogged down by confusion and controversy. Lately the controversies have been mounting, too. Francis’s handling of the case of Bishop Juan Barros of Chile has ballooned into a broader controversy about Francis’s commitment to reforming what Benedict XVI memorably called the “filth” in the Church. Francis’s personal credibility took a major hit in the Barros affair when it turned out that, despite his annoyed protestations that he’d never seen any evidence against Barros, none other than Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, one of Francis’s closest advisers who holds a brief for cleaning up the abuse situation, had delivered to Francis a lengthy, extremely detailed letter from one of Barros’s accusers.
While one can debate Francis’s record on abuse—even Robert Mickens criticized Francis severely—one cannot question the fact that the Barros controversy revealed the weakness of Francis’s team. There have been other signs that Francis is not always well served by his subordinates, but the inability of the public relations operation to get in front of the furor, especially after the O’Malley angle became public, was astonishing. The Vatican’s public relations operation is more and more revealed to be a disaster, as the recent debacle over the doctored letter from Benedict XVI shows. However, Francis has made it clear that he is not the prisoner of the Vatican, instead claiming personal responsibility for acts by his collaborators in the Curia. As Damian Thompson has noted, after five years, Francis finds himself where Benedict found himself: struggling to maintain control over the bureaucracy and the message of his pontificate.
It remains to be seen, however, what long term effects these events will have. One cannot write the story of Francis’s pontificate quite yet. However, five years in, it would be curious indeed to see the highs and lows resolve themselves into the same paralysis that afflicted Benedict’s pontificate in its last years. Perhaps “curious” isn’t the right word, as such an outcome would answer many questions and give the next pope the clearest agenda in a long time.