Some thoughts about Francis’s “Querida Amazonia”

Francis has released Querida Amazonia, his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation following the 2019 Synod of Bishops meeting on Amazonia. Despite the extensive speculation during the Synod and afterward, Francis did not provide an obvious opening to married priests or deaconesses. The disappointment of his liberal interpreters, by and large self appointed, has been palpable. However, Francis did return to the themes of Laudato si’, his social encyclical, which dealt at great length with technology and ecology. Indeed, Querida Amazonia builds upon Laudato si’ in interesting ways, evoking not only Fr. Romano Guardini, long known as one of Francis’s most important intellectual influences, but also the hugely influential German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. The focus, therefore, on the questions of married priests and deaconesses is, therefore, missing a valuable opportunity to reflect on Francis’s serious philosophical and theological challenge to modernity, especially technology and globalization’s pernicious effects on tradition and traditional ways of life.

I.

For the most part, the ecclesiastical-political dimension has driven the reaction to Querida Amazonia. It cannot be denied that Querida Amazonia is a disappointment: progressives in the Church have been agitating for some time for openings for married priests (sometimes referred to by means of the phrase viri probati) and deaconesses. The problem concerning deaconesses has been a long-running one for Francis. I think his commission studying the historical sources went through one round, issued a report, and then has been reopened in some dimension. The question of married priests—and the concomitant effect on priestly celibacy—predates Francis’s pontificate. However, because Francis is widely believed to be a progressive, there is renewed vigor in the demands.

Based on the Synod’s final report, there were very definite notions that he would open up the question of deaconesses in a broader way. Obviously the memories of Amoris laetitia are still fresh. (Of course, precisely why residents of Amazonia clamored for the two things that have lately been controversial in liberal Catholic spheres is a little unclear.) And reports in the press stoked this expectation. Indeed, shortly before Querida Amazonia was released, there was a definite report that Francis would endorse the ordination of married men. The report went so far as to allege that a draft exhortation had been sent to various prelates in advance of its release. But shortly before the document was released, there were other rumors that Francis would not even address the proposal. These latter rumors turned out to be true: Francis did not open the door to the ordination of married men. He did not even discuss the proposal in any detail.

Querida Amazonia is a second major bust for progressives. The first, Christus vivit, was Francis’s response to the 2018 Youth Synod. It was widely anticipated that this would provide an opening for reconsideration of the Church’s teaching about homosexuality in particular. Much was made, in pre-Synod surveys and in the working document for the Synod, of the fact that young people have difficulty understanding (or even outright disagreements with) the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. When Christus vivit was issued, however, no such opening appeared. Indeed, it was another entry in a long line of papal statements aimed at young people that are wholly uncontroversial.

It has been suggested that Robert Cardinal Sarah and, possibly, Benedict XVI’s intervention—a book in favor of priestly celibacy—had some effect on the Pope’s ultimate decision. Certainly, the book became a significant controversy, with the exact nature of Benedict XVI’s contribution challenged. The book seems to have had consequences for Francis’s government of the Church, with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, heretofore prefect of the Papal Household and Benedict’s personal secretary, being reassigned pretty much permanently to the latter duty. This appears to be Francis’s sanction for Gänswein’s murky role in the whole controversy over Benedict’s involvement. However, in recent weeks another possibility has emerged.

On February 19, Sandro Magister published a lengthy piece arguing that Francis’s decision was motivated by the ongoing issues with the German Church. Magister notes that the German Church’s ongoing “Synodal Way” is aimed—at least in the minds of some of its most prominent voices—at loosening the celibacy requirement for priests, finding some mechanism by which holy orders could be conferred on women, and blessing same-sex relationships. Magister details the series of interventions taken by Francis and his deputies in the Curia to rein in the “Synodal Way,” all of which have been politely received and subsequently ignored by the German authorities. Magister suggests that the silence of Querida Amazonia on the issues of viri probati and deaconesses is part of Francis’s attempt to deflate the German process.

An interesting sidenote: if Magister is correct, Walter Cardinal Kasper has been an important advocate against the German “Synodal Way” as it has developed. Kasper was more or less the villain of the 2014-2015 Synod that produced Amoris laetitia, though his profile has not been so high since the document was released. Magister suggests that Kasper raised the alarm in a way that other German prelates, such as Cardinal Müller or Cardinal Brandmüller could not, and subsequently helped Francis get a handle on the situation in the Church in Germany. It was with the assistance of Kasper’s consultation that Francis wrote his letter to the German Catholics, calling for caution and deliberation.

Whatever the reason for the decision, the self-appointed interpreters of Francis’s pontificate swung into action almost immediately. Francis’s apparent decision not even to refer to the final report of the Synod means that all of the issues in that document remain open. Francis, we are told, meant to present that document and guide its reception by the Church. Of course Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, let the cat out of the bag at the press conference presenting Querida Amazonia: in Episcopalis communio, Francis’s 2018 document reforming the Synod, there’s a mechanism for endorsing the final report and incorporating it into the pope’s ordinary magisterium (art. 18). Francis has not done so, which means that it has the weight of a Synod final document, whatever that may be.

II.

Yet it is a disservice to the Pope’s vision to talk about Querida Amazonia in the narrow, concrete terms of what Francis approved or did not approve. As Matthew Walther has explained, Querida Amazonia is an extraordinary document. Francis returns to the themes of his great encyclical, Laudato si’, but this time by means of poetry and reflection. One is hard pressed to think of another papal document that contains phrases such as “this dream made of water” and “a dance of dolphins,” much less the copious references to poetry. Throughout the document, one detects the influence of Fr. Romano Guardini, who has long been an influence for Francis. One also detects other influences, such as Martin Heidegger.

I have often wanted someone who has a profound knowledge of Francis and Heidegger to write about the connections between the two. Both Laudato si’ and Querida Amazonia seem deeply influenced by Heidegger’s Essay Concerning Technology and his 1966 Spiegel interview, more commonly known as “Only a God Can Save Us.” Francis’s meditations on the traditional Amazonian way of life, affected by technology and exploitation, seem to have roots in Heidegger no less than Guardini. Even the turn to poetry in Querida Amazonia seems as though it is influenced by Heidegger, especially Heidegger’s emphasis on the poetry of Hölderlin. It is true that Francis does not explicitly cite Heidegger, either in Laudato si’ or in Querida Amazonia. In contrast, Francis has explicitly cited Guardini, especially The End of the Modern World. However, it seems strange—to me at any rate—that Francis would be familiar with Guardini’s writings on technology and man without also having some familiarity with Heidegger’s influential writings on the same topics.

A few examples may suffice. Consider the passage from the Spiegel interview: “Everything is functioning. That is precisely what is awesome, that everything functions, that the functioning propels everything more and more toward further functioning, and that technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth.” Compare this with Francis’s assessment of the historical situation in Querida Amazonia: “It is well known that, ever since the final decades of the last century, the Amazon region has been presented as an enormous empty space to be filled, a source of raw resources to be developed, a wild expanse to be domesticated. None of this recognizes the rights of the original peoples; it simply ignores them as if they did not exist, or acts as if the lands on which they live do not belong to them.” Francis appears to be describing in particularly evocative terms the same phenomenon Heidegger is describing. Indeed, in the Spiegel interview, Heidegger used similar terms to describe the process that took place in Provence.

Heidegger went on to say “I know that, according to our human experience and history, everything essential and of great magnitude has arisen only out of the fact that man had a home and was rooted in a tradition.” This statement could well be a summary of chapter two of Querida Amazonia, which includes Francis’s dire warning: “The globalized economy shamelessly damages human, social and cultural richness. The disintegration of families that comes about as a result of forced migrations affects the transmission of values, for ‘the family is and has always been the social institution that has most contributed to keeping our cultures alive.’” In this dimension, we see Francis’s profound conservatism. The globalized economy, for Francis, attacks directly the home and tradition in which man is rooted. Indeed, it attacks the most central element of the home and the tradition as Francis sees it: the family. By reducing individuals to mere economic variables and forcing them to migrate for various reasons, globalization (i.e., late-liberal capitalism) destroys those things that produce “everything essential and of great magnitude” as Heidegger would say.

One could go on in this vein, especially by means of the Essay Concerning Technology. It would be an interesting exercise to consider the similarities between Francis’s treatment of the Amazon and Heidegger’s treatment of the Rhine, especially by means of the poet Hölderlin. Of course, there have been attempts in the past to draw connections, especially via Guardini, between Heidegger and Francis. But I am not sure that I have seen a good, concise presentation, especially drawing upon Francis’s thought about technology. Given that the discussion about Querida Amazonia has been mostly about the concrete questions about what Francis did or did not do, I am pessimistic about whether anyone will take the opportunity to use the springboard presented by Querida Amazonia to write such a presentation.

The unedifying nature of the debate over Querida Amazonia becomes obvious though. Francis has offered the whole Church—indeed, the whole world—an opportunity to discuss issues that are at the very heart of the theological and philosophical tradition, both inside and outside the Church, since the Second World War. His contribution here, especially as a ground for further thought, is no less rich than the philosophical and theological contributions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. To take this opportunity and reduce it to a polemical, ideological confrontation about who did or did not “win” the Synod or who will or will not receive the prize of ordination is, therefore, a superficial response. Worse than that, it is a sign that it no longer really matters what Francis says.

Some thoughts on Francis and the conservatives

Ross Douthat has made waves with a lengthy interview with Raymond Cardinal Burke, who has become a sort of figurehead for the conservative reaction to Francis, and an essay about the future of conservative Catholicism under and after Francis. One point jumps out at me, which is sort of tangentially related to the matter at hand. That is, the extent to which conservative Catholics, at least in Douthat’s estimation, view John Paul II’s pontificate as the stable state of post-Conciliar Catholicism. However, this is, in my view, wrong. For almost all of the hot-button issues of Francis’s pontificate, one sees that he is simply heightening contradictions left by John Paul II. Consequently, the crisis for conservative Catholicism is, fundamentally, a crisis of inattention.

Douthat makes the point like this:

Four years ago I wrote an essay describing the Francis era as a crisis for conservative Catholicism — or at least the conservative Catholicism that believed John Paul II had permanently settled debates over celibacy, divorce, intercommunion and female ordination. That crisis is worse now, manifest in furious arguments within the Catholic right as much as in online opposition to the pope himself. And I don’t think we’re any closer to a definite answer to what happens to conservative Catholicism when it no longer seems to have the papacy on its side.

This narrative seems pretty common to me. Expanded, it goes like this: everything was basically fine until the Council. After the Council, the liberals started causing problems and Paul VI was too paralyzed with horror to do much about the problems. Then John Paul II was elected and he “permanently settled debates over celibacy, divorce, intercommunion and female ordination.” Then Benedict XVI was elected and he developed John Paul’s settlement by opening the door to more traditional liturgical practices. Then Francis came and blew it all up.

This narrative is, I believe, wrong in some pretty important dimensions. First of all, there had been signs of strain in the pre-Conciliar Church, beginning with the modernist crisis addressed by Pius X in Lamentabili and Pascendi. Pius attempted to suppress modernism with things like the Anti-Modernist Oath, but I think we can say that he was ultimately unsuccessful. Benedict XV and Pius XI had pressing social and moral issues to address. However, the doctrinal issues that began to shake the Church under Pius X never really disappeared, leading to Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis in 1950. The Council took place in the wake of Humani generis, and, indeed, there were fierce debates in the preparatory phases of the Council about the deference owed to Humani generis in particular. Seen in this light, one can say that the post-Conciliar storm that rocked the Church was a continuation (and perhaps an intensification) of a storm that had been rocking the Church for over sixty years by that point. To put it another way: the Council and the aftermath of the Council were the midpoint of the story, not the beginning.

One of the unquestionably good things that is happening, as I have written about on many occasions, is that Catholics are delving deeper and deeper into the traditional teaching of the Church on social and political issues. From this perspective, one begins to see that the 20th-century crises in the Church are merely the continuation of the 18th- and 19th-century crises in the Church. The anti-liberal teachings of Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII did not happen in a vacuum. There are theological differences between liberalism and modernism in the strict senses of both terms, but there is, if one compares Pius IX’s Quanta cura and Syllabus errorum with Pius X’s Pascendi and Lamentabili, a common spirit to the two. And to a certain extent, the crisis in the Church for the past 200 years or more has been a crisis of liberalism, both in theological and social terms. The notion that the Second Vatican Council was the beginning of the period of turmoil is simply false. What can be said is that modern modes of communication have made it easier for people to recognize what is going on, though without much historical context.

But there is a more serious problem for the sort of conservative Catholicism identified by Douthat in his essays. It is the notion of John Paul II as the ideal exemplar for conservative Catholicism in the modern age. In liturgical terms, this is simply not the case; neither Benedict XVI nor Francis have followed John Paul’s lead. Indeed, whether it is Benedict’s unapologetic traditionalism or Francis’s sobriety (which, to my mind, hearkens back to Paul VI after the adoption of the new Mass), neither of the post-2005 popes have come within a country mile of John Paul’s flamboyant liturgical style. But the issue is more significant than mere liturgical style. One could argue that Francis merely heightens the contradictions in the magisterium since 1962. To be more precise: Francis heightens the contradictions in John Paul II’s magisterium.

Now, let me say at the outset that one needn’t accept necessarily the claim that John Paul or Francis deviates (or deviated) from the apostolic faith on any of these issues. One can follow the canonist Bouix’s discussion of the question of the pope heretic to see the various positions taken by learned and eminent doctors. One needs only to accept that certain actions by Francis have been criticized by what Douthat calls conservative Catholics as breaking from the consensus John Paul II established. What conclusions are to be drawn if it is shown that Francis is actually closer to John Paul than previously suggested, I leave to the reader.

Let’s consider three burning issues of Francis’s pontificate: the Amoris laetitia debate, the 2018 decision to amend the Catechism to declare the death penalty inadmissible, and Francis’s interfaith enthusiasm. These may, in fact, be the primary points of contention with respect to Francis’s pontificate. Other issues are controversial, such as Francis’s social teaching in Laudato si’, but Francis’s critics are simply wrong. Francis is more or less completely in line with his predecessors and his frank suspicion of modernity is, in fact, closer to the teaching of Pius IX and Leo XIII than some of John Paul and Benedict’s social encyclicals. As I’ve said on several occasions (though maybe not here): putting Romano Guardini and Martin Heidegger in a retort and mixing them up does not precipitate out a conventional European liberal. It does no good to call Francis a “globalist” or whatever, either, when his two immediate predecessors have also been globalists in almost exactly the same way. So, the three burning issues I identify are, I think, the live controversies in Francis’s pontificate. 

On the question of divorced-and-remarried Catholics, it seems fairly clear that Francis is heightening a contradiction left in John Paul’s magisterium. Familiaris consortio, pointed to as the touchstone of perennial Catholic teaching with respect to the divorced and remarried, says, more or less, that the they can live together “as brother and sister.” One could read Amoris laetitia as providing some guidance for what the Church’s response is when what would happen does happen. (Douthat closes by quoting T.S. Eliot; there is another Eliot line applicable to the debate over divorce and remarriage: “What you get married for if you don’t want children?”) One could also point to John Paul’s 1996 letter to Cardinal Baum, then the major penitentiary, in which he observes, “it is indeed possible that, despite the sincere intention of sinning no more, past experience and the awareness of human weakness makes one afraid of falling again; but this does not compromise the authenticity of the intention, when that fear is joined to the will, supported by prayer, of doing what is possible to avoid sin.” In other words, Amoris laetitia simply pulls together the strands of John Paul’s teaching and makes manifest what was merely implicit.

One could make two other points. First, Veritatis splendor says that concrete circumstances cannot make evil actions good, but they can make evil actions less evil (no. 77). John Paul made this point at some length earlier in his pontificate, in Reconciliatio et paenitentia (no. 17), when he wrote, “Clearly there can occur situations which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint and which have an influence on the sinner’s subjective culpability.” This is more or less Rocco Buttiglione’s argument in favor of consistency between Amoris laetitia and Veritatis splendor. Second, there is a sense in which Amoris laetitia‘s practice, if taken literally, represents a significant assault on laxity about communion for the divorced and remarried. The decision about whether one should approach communion is, in many cases, not taken after careful discernment with one’s pastor. We all have stories and it would be unedifying to repeat them. However, requiring people to at least have a chat with Father before trooping up for communion would be an improvement over the practice in many American parishes, whatever else it would be.

Turning back to the question at hand, Francis’s decision in 2018 to amend the Catechism to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” simply emphasizes John Paul’s turn from the Church’s traditional teaching on the death penalty. In Evangelium vitae, John Paul said “[i]t is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Cardinal Ladaria’s letter explaining the change to the Catechism bases itself heavily on John Paul’s teaching. Certainly the 2018 amendment is logical if one begins with John Paul’s teaching. The death penalty is admissible only in cases of absolute necessity; there are no cases of absolute necessity today; therefore, the death penalty is not admissible. You can decide for yourself whether John Paul’s premise holds up in the light of the Church’s prior teaching, but it seems clear that Francis’s teaching flows from John Paul’s.

Finally, Francis’s interfaith enthusiasm, notably the controversial Abu Dhabi document but especially the unedifying Pachamama affair during the Amazon Synod, seems to be nothing more or less than a continuation of John Paul’s interfaith enthusiasm. One has only to look back at the history of John Paul’s interfaith efforts, whether it was the 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi or his exuberance with respect to the Koran, to see precedents for Francis’s various statements. And the reactions to John Paul’s actions have been more or less the same. Indeed, the similarity of the events is confirmed by the similarity of the reactions to the events. Consider Archbishop Lefebvre’s December 2, 1986 declaration against the events in Assisi or his August 27, 1986 letter to a handful of cardinals about the same events. There is not a lot of daylight between the rhetoric surrounding the recent Pachamama affair in Rome and Archbishop Lefebvre’s response to Assisi in particular.

Lefebvre’s reaction is particularly important here. Douthat asks a question in the context of Cardinal Burke’s position, namely whether the pope can lead a schism. Cardinal Burke rejects the idea, but Douthat goes on to say:

The pull of such ideas, though, explains why you need only take a step beyond Burke’s position to end up as a kind of de facto sedevacantist, a believer that the pope is not really the pope — or, alternatively, that the church is so corrupted and compromised by modernity that the pope might technically still be pope but his authority doesn’t matter anymore. This is the flavor of a lot of very-online traditionalism, and it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t (eventually) lead many of its adherents to a separation from the larger church, joining the traditionalist quasi-exile pioneered after Vatican II by the Society of Saint Pius X.

One must remember that Archbishop Lefebvre’s position was expressed most forcefully on November 21, 1974, following the visitation of the Ecône seminary by Belgian priests deputed by Paul VI as apostolic visitors. The main assault on the Society of St. Pius X by the Roman authorities took place in the wake of the November 1974 declaration and with the declaration as a pretext for the action. In other words, the most serious phase in the conflict between Archbishop Lefebvre and Rome began only in early 1975. Much of Archbishop Lefebvre’s conflict with the Roman authorities, therefore, took place while John Paul II was pope. Indeed, Archbishop Lefebvre routinely stated that John Paul was expressing the spirit of the Council. Consider, to take one example aside from his criticism of the Assisi spectacle, his comments about the 1983 Code of Canon Law. All of this is to say that Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X found themselves at odds with John Paul II more or less to the same extent and for the same reasons that they found themselves at odds with Paul VI.

As a special bonus issue, consider the brewing controversy over deaconesses. Francis has promised to reopen his commission examining the question after the Synod mentioned that in the Synod fathers’ consultations, the indigenous people of the Amazon demanded deaconesses. I will set to one side how curious it is that the people of the Amazon happened to demand action on one of the modernists’ obsessions and in precisely the manner that the modernists want. The deaconess controversy is simply a heightening of the contradiction inherent in the teaching that the diaconate is a ministry of humble service, as opposed to part of the sacramental priesthood. This issue began with Lumen gentium (no. 29) and was enshrined in the Code of Canon Law by Benedict XVI in Omnium in mentem. The suggestion that Benedict opened the door to female deacons has been pretty firmly rejected by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, but the diaconate as a ministry of humble service, as opposed to a liturgical ministry and part of the sacramental priesthood, presents contradictions. It is also historically incorrect, but that’s another story.

For all of these reasons, I think the notion that Francis represents a significant break with John Paul II particularly is misguided. Francis has, as I have said, heightened contradictions inherent in John Paul’s magisterium or continued practices that John Paul was criticized sharply for. To the extent that Francis represents a crisis for conservative Catholicism, it is ultimately a crisis that has existed for some time. Conservative Catholics, for reasons I think have more to do with broadly political reasons, have simply failed to engage meaningfully with the issues John Paul presented during his pontificate and find themselves confronted with clearer expressions of those issues by Francis.

The new catechism

Today, the Vatican released a letter from Luis Cardinal Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, informing the bishops (and the world) that Pope Francis has approved a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, holding that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” To keen observers of Francis’s public statements, this was no surprise. Francis, in an address about a year ago, signaled his view that the death penalty was “inadmissible” and his desire to change the Catechism to reflect his views. At the time, we were writing a column for First Things, and we addressed Francis’s comments there. You may find that column here, if you are so interested; we recede from none of our comments. Despite the fact that we had a year’s warning, many Catholics, especially Catholics on Twitter, reacted to Francis’s changes with great dismay and alarm.

I.

It is hard to know how to respond to the dismay and alarm of so many of our friends and brothers and sisters in the Faith. One could, if one were inclined, parse the revised Catechism text closely. It is a string of non sequiturs culminating in a declaration of “inadmissibility.” None of the three paragraphs seems logically connected to any one of the other two, much less both of them. It is unclear what the reasoning is, and it is unclear what “inadmissible” means in the context of an incoherent argument. One could also, if one were inclined, discuss how Francis’s statement is not really a radical departure from what John Paul II said in Evangelium vitae. If one were a glutton for homework, one could also explain how the inclusion of a statement in the Catechism does not add magisterial weight to the statement itself; that is, a statement’s weight is determined on its own terms. One could conclude by pointing to the International Theological Commission’s document on the sensus fidei and suggest that one could withhold one’s assent to the new teaching and appeal to the universal magisterium.

Our initial impulse was to explain how bizarre the new Catechism text is in light of Thomas Aquinas’s normative teaching on the death penalty, as set forth in ST II-II q.64 a.2 and SCG III.146. The note that came from Cardinal Ladaria mentions, albeit in a confused way, the development of doctrine. However, it is unclear how the Thomistic arguments in favor of the death penalty could develop at all, much less develop in such a way that the death penalty is made inadmissible. This argument is relatively easy, and it points to all sorts of ideas, including the common good and an understanding of human dignity that is not altogether present in the Catechism text or Cardinal Ladaria’s letter. Anyway, excellent thinkers like Ed Feser will no doubt intervene decisively to demonstrate the profoundly un-Thomistic nature of the new text and the explanation that comes with it.

We also thought about reading the Vatican tea leaves. For example, a sharp friend of ours observed that this might be one of the reasons why Francis was so eager to fire Cardinal Müller. As Francis’s first quinquennium has come and gone, we had expected, under the principle he articulated when firing Müller, to see a whole raft of dismissals. No one needs to be in the Curia longer than five years, especially when the judgment of the hierarchy is as suspect as it is now, in the wake of the disturbing revelations about Archbishop McCarrick and about Pennsylvania. Such dismissals have not been forthcoming—shock of shocks! So, we see Müller ousted on grounds that seemed to have been invented to oust Müller. Perhaps his resistance to this, in addition to his evident unhappiness with Amoris laetitia and his exclusion from Francis’s court more generally, was a factor. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, he says.

However, there are other valid takes. If one were trying to get a lot of traffic from traditionalist blogs and Twitter accounts, one could discuss the great canonist Franz Xavier Wernz, S.J., who discussed in his great Ius Canonicum, volume 2, numbers 453 and 454, the process by which the Church can declare that a heretical pope has deposed himself. Note that such an argument is not conciliarism—that is, one need not hold that a general council is competent to judge a pope and deprive him of office. Instead, Wernz holds that the pope effectively deprives himself the papacy by teaching error and that the general council merely declares the fact of the error. We are a little surprised that such takes have not been forthcoming in greater quantity. How soon we have forgotten the bruising battles over Amoris laetitia! Not two years ago, everyone was an expert in Cardinal Bellarmine and John of St. Thomas and the Canon Si Papa.

Speaking of Amoris laetitia, one could get a few laughs by constructing an argument, as some have already done, that, whatever the objective norm against the death penalty may be, concrete circumstances must be taken into account. It may not be possible, in the light of such concrete circumstances, for a country, while recognizing that the death penalty is objectively inadmissible, to live up to the norm immediately. Instead, the country must be accompanied by the law of gradualism to execute fewer and fewer of its citizens until it can live more fully in keeping with the inadmissibility of the death penalty. Surely the country that prefers to execute its murderers is no less entitled to pastoral accompaniment than a person who has divorced and remarried a few times. Times are tough all over.

II.

The thought that we find hardest to shake is this: the Catechism plays basically no role in our life. Whenever we have a question about the Faith, we turn first to Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, then to other works by Thomas, then to commentaries on Thomas’s works, then to magisterial documents like the acts of Trent or the Vatican Council, and then to papal documents, and finally to trusted commentators. Also, candidly, the old Catholic Encyclopedia is an excellent resource, especially if we do not know where to begin. The Catechism is only useful when we are looking for a prooftext when in dialogue with someone who seems like they would find the Catechism an important source. If no one had told us that the Catechism was changed on this point, we never would have found out.

The Catechism is the summit of the consensus John Paul II forged. It cites, insofar as we can tell, scripture, the acts of the Second Vatican Council, and John Paul’s magisterium, almost to the exclusion of anything between the death of the last Apostle and 1963. The Catechism represented the idea that history had ended within the Church: we could finally say that there was a definitive compendium of Catholic teachings. Yet this end of ecclesiastical history in the Church required John Paul’s force of will to maintain the consensus. And as soon as John Paul went on to his reward, that consensus crumbled. Benedict XVI backed away from it, beginning with the Christmas address to the Curia, and definitely with Summorum Pontificum. And Francis has backed away from it even more decisively. As we have noted elsewhere, history has begun again in the Church.

Of course, it is unclear that the collapse of the John Paul II consensus really needed Benedict’s or Francis’s help. The recent revelations about Archbishop Theodore McCarrick have rocked the Church in the past few weeks. Indeed, they led McCarrick to resign the cardinalate and the Vatican has ordered him to solitude and prayer while a canonical investigation and trial against him proceeds. Among the revelations is the fact that individuals claim that they warned Rome about McCarrick’s infamous behavior prior to his translation from Newark to Washington, D.C., under John Paul II. This has the potential, we think, to lead to a serious reappraisal of John Paul’s reign, especially as it relates to the administration of the Church. Indeed, we have seen signs of such a reappraisal over the last few weeks. At the very least, it raises awkward questions about how such reports were handled—questions that have appeared under Francis’s watch, too.

Moreover, as we noted above, it seems strange to have a discussion about the Catechism changes outside the context of Amoris laetitia, Gaudete et exsultate, the protestant communion fight, and any number of more or less formal papal statements. It is clear that Francis wishes, to the extent possible (which is a bigger caveat than you’d think), to move doctrine leftward. He has not been able to do so with any great success, and he has produced a bunch of borderline incoherent statements, the new Catechism text among them. While one can give thanks that the Holy Spirit has protected Francis and the Church so well, one can also note that there have been doctrinal controversies since 2013 before now. However, it is obvious that most of these changes seem to be motivated by Francis’s desire to abandon the John Paul consensus and return to the debates that John Paul put on hold and kept on hold during his pontificate.

While the Catechism has been a helpful resource in the Church for many, we are told, it is a sign of a consensus that no longer exists. The doctrinal disputes putatively settled by the big green book have re-emerged, with as much ferocity as they had in August 1978. Indeed, it seems significant that we are only a few days away from the fortieth anniversary of Paul VI’s death on August 6. The clock has been rolled back to August 2, 1978 in many ways. Seen in this light, Francis’s change to the Catechism, whatever its merits in doctrinal terms, is as good a sign of the current state of the Church as the Catechism itself was in its day. What remains to be seen is the course of history in the Church, now that it has so clearly begun again.

A brief excerpt for your attention

We have found ourselves detained lately on matters less pleasant than we would like. However, not too long ago, we were reading Cardinal Newman’s Grammar of Assent, yet another one of the great man’s books that is cited and respected more than it is read, and we stumbled upon a passage that seemed to us to have great force, to say nothing of its applicability to this moment in the life of the Church:

In solving this difficulty I wish it first observed, that, if it is the duty of the Church to act as “the pillar and ground of the Truth,” she is manifestly obliged from time to time, and to the end of time, to denounce opinions incompatible with that truth, whenever able and subtle minds in her communion venture to publish such opinions. Suppose certain Bishops and priests at this day began to teach that Islamism or Buddhism was a direct and immediate revelation from God, she would be bound to use the authority which God has given her to declare that such a proposition will not stand with Christianity, and that those who hold it are none of hers; and she would be bound to impose such a declaration on that very knot of persons who had committed themselves to the novel proposition, in order that, if they would not recant, they might be separated from her communion, as they were separate from her faith. In such a case, her masses of population would either not hear of the controversy, or they would at once take part with her, and without effort take any test, which secured the exclusion of the innovators; and she on the other hand would feel that what is a rule for some Catholics must be a rule for all. Who is to draw the line between who are to acknowledge that rule, and who are not? It is plain, there cannot be two rules of faith in the same communion, or rather, as the case really would be, an endless variety of rules, coming into force according to the multiplication of heretical theories, and to the degrees of knowledge and varieties of sentiment in individual Catholics. There is but one rule of faith for all; and it would be a greater difficulty to allow of an uncertain rule of faith, than (if that was the alternative, as it is not), to impose upon uneducated minds a profession which they cannot understand.

But it is not the necessary result of unity of profession, nor is it the fact, that the Church imposes dogmatic statements on the interior assent of those who cannot apprehend them. The difficulty is removed by the dogma of the Church’s infallibility, and of the consequent duty of “implicit faith” in her word. The “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” is an article of the Creed, and an article, which, inclusive of her infallibility, all men, high and low, can easily master and accept with a real and operative assent. It stands in the place of all abstruse propositions in a Catholic’s mind, for to believe in her word is virtually to believe in them all. Even what he cannot understand, at least he can believe to be true; and he believes it to be true because he believes in the Church.

(Emphasis supplied.)

This is the way things have always been

Today, Francis released his Apostolic Exhortation On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. It has been given the Latin incipit of Gaudete et exsultate. As much as any of Francis’s major documents, it is a snapshot of his pontificate. On one hand, there is valuable content in the exhortation, especially when Francis talks about the value of the Rosary or the spiritual combat Christians must do with the forces of evil. Likewise, Francis returns to some of his favorite themes, including a clear-eyed diagnosis of the sickness of late liberalism. On the other hand, Francis returns to some of his favorite themes. Francis discusses in a lengthy passage what he calls neo-Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism despite the fact that his doctrinal chief, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, just issued a letter, Placuit Deo, on this topic. It is clear that Francis means, broadly, people who care too much about doctrine and people who care too much about rules. Moreover, Francis finds time to bring Cardinal Dearden’s Seamless Garment out of cold storage and complain about online feuds. These critiques, while vague, seem to be pointed to the conservative (or traditionalist) wing of the Church.

Whether Francis means to criticize all the conservatives in the Church is not exactly clear. For example, Gaudete et exsultate follows a Holy Week celebrated in many places according to the pre-1955 use of the Roman Rite by an indult of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei. Nevertheless, it can reasonably be anticipated that Francis’s critiques will be taken up by his supporters in the media to do exactly that. And given Francis’s fondness for letting others implement vague statements, one cannot dismiss out of hand the idea that this is something he wants to see. Whether it is or not, Gaudete et exsultate falls victim to the the narrative that has consumed this pontificate. Liberal pope and his liberal supporters set against conservative prelates and their conservative supporters, with the battle playing out on Twitter and Facebook. The takes and counter-takes and tweets all write themselves at this point. Despite calling for openness to newness, the narrative of Francis’s pontificate is, sadly, anything but new.

I.

To those who follow Francis closely, there is very little new in Gaudete et exsultate. For good or for ill, Francis has a core of ideas that he returns to pretty regularly. One will find most or all of them in Gaudete et exsultate. In a sense, Francis’s pontificate points toward a document like this. He has spoken for years about accompaniment and discernment and personal growth in holiness. Even the most controversial passages of Amoris laetitia are couched in this language. Nothing could be more natural, then, to see Francis broaden his scope. And he does precisely that, writing at times quite incisively about what Christian life in 2018 demands. More than that, he has a set of rhetorical strategies that he uses whenever he can. It is hard to read Francis’s exegesis on the Beatitudes (¶¶ 63–94) without thinking of his exegesis on First Corinthians 13:4–7 in Amoris laetitia (ch. 4). Consequently, there is much to admire in Gaudete et exsultate.

Consider some examples. Francis also offers a healthy dose of the practical, almost earthy, pastoral advice that is his second-best mode. (More on his best mode in a minute.) A striking passage comes when he follows a woman through her day, pointing out definite steps she can take to advance in holiness. He also speaks frankly about evil, warning us that “we should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 161.) He concludes the exhortation with a stirring passage about Our Lady: “She does not let us remain fallen and at times she takes us into her arms without judging us. Our converse with her consoles, frees and sanctifies us. Mary our Mother does not need a flood of words. She does not need us to tell her what is happening in our lives. All we need do is whisper, time and time again: ‘Hail Mary….'” (Ibid. ¶ 176.)

Francis also reaches into what we consider his best mode: critique of the sickness in modern society. His ecological encyclical, Laudato si’, setting to one side the specific policy considerations that have since come to characterize the encyclical, is a brilliant dissection of the fundamental disorders of liberalism. Francis returns to the theme throughout Gaudete et exsultate. Francis clearly identifies the symptoms of the disease when he says, “The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard. We are overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din, filled not by joy but rather by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning. How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 29.) And he identifies the bacillus at the root of the disease: “Saint John Paul II noted that ‘a society is alienated if its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer this gift of self and to establish this solidarity between people’. In such a society, politics, mass communications and economic, cultural and even religious institutions become so entangled as to become an obstacle to authentic human and social development.” (Ibid. ¶ 91.)

When Francis is at his best—and he is at his best when he plays the country pastor offering blunt advice to his flock and when he criticizes the incoherence and unsustainable nature of life under neoliberalism—there is every reason to be happy that Francis returns to his favorite themes, well worn though they may be. After five years one knows generally what to expect from Francis. Just as promised, Evangelii gaudium has proved to be a broadly programmatic document. Moreover, Francis’s regular homilies and addresses have indicated the themes that are close to his heart. And Francis has stayed true to form. After five years of this, we can say that when Francis issues a major document it is going to include a set of ideas and a set of rhetorical strategies for communicating those ideas.

II.

But there is a flip side to Francis’s reliance on a handful of ideas. Much attention will no doubt be devoted to Francis’s extended explanation of neo-Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism. This is one of Francis’s favorite topics, too. He returns to these ideas over and over, and he clearly thinks that he has the range of his opponents in the Church with them. Now, one would have thought the matter closed with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s interesting and, by and large, excellent Letter Placuit Deo. However, Francis explains them and in further detail. And it is when considering these ideas that one sees that Francis’s pontificate is now locked, more or less, in a pattern. Francis makes some vague statements that are obviously but not explicitly aimed at his critics; Francis’s friends in the media sharpen the statements and hurl them at those deemed to be insufficiently supportive of the Pope’s agenda; and the Pope’s critics in the media respond in kind.

It is now clear that when Francis talks about neo-Gnosticism, he does not mean “a model of salvation that is merely interior, closed off in its own subjectivism.” (Placuit Deo ¶ 3.) He means, broadly, people who care too much about doctrine making sense. (Cf. Gaudete et exsultate ¶¶ 37, 43–46.) Likewise, in Placuit Deo, Archbishop Ladaria explained the neo-Pelagian tendency to believe that “salvation depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God.” (Placuit Deo ¶ 3.) Francis now clarifies: neo-Pelagians suffer from “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 57.)

One is tempted to ask, perhaps a little too cheekily, “Oh, and which doctrines ought we to be less punctilious about, Your Holiness?” Ought we to stop insisting on the accompaniment described in Amoris laetitia? Do we care too much about the decentralization apparently required by Sacrosanctum Concilium and implemented anew by Magnum principium? Confronted with yet another expression of Francis’s mild antinomianism and apparent prejudice against clear doctrine, one is reminded of Cardinal Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: “did the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from under his feet. His very mission is to proclaim the moral law, and to protect and strengthen that ‘Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world.'” One is tempted to take it a step farther and apply Newman’s dictum to doctrine. Put another way: when an authority figure tells you (and tells you and tells you) to stop caring so much about rules, eventually you will take him at his word. This ought to concern the authority figure the most, as one day he might like to command this or that on the basis of his authority only to find that it’s gone.

Francis might not be hugely upset by this, either. His emphasis on decentralization and synodality have, likewise, the effect of diminishing the authority of the Roman Pontiff. However, they also have the effect of guaranteeing that his reforms, presuming that the next pope does not take radical action, will endure in some parts of the world. It is clear that, while not every bishop and episcopal conference is on board with Francis’s agenda, at least some are. Perhaps a great many. Reducing any pope’s authority makes it more likely that these bishops and episcopal conferences will be left alone to deepen and develop these ideas. Francis’s supporters talk at length of his goal of irreversible reforms to the Church, and one way of achieving these reforms might simply be to leave future popes’ authority in a precarious state.

All of this is a particularly neuralgic spot for Catholics left out in the cold by Francis. It is, in fact, hard to imagine that traditionally minded Catholics will not see this as yet another direct attack by Francis on traditionally minded Catholics. The situation is more complicated than that, of course. This year, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei issued an indult permitting celebration of the Holy Week rites according to the books before Pius XII’s 1955 revisions. The indult, given to traditionalist orders like the Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and the Institute of Christ the King (ICRSS), appears to have been given fairly liberal application. We are aware of several pre-1955 Holy Week celebrations personally and have heard of many more. One imagines that such a major decision would have involved the Pope at some stage. Moreover, it is hard to argue that the Society of St. Pius X has not gotten a better deal from Francis than it ever did from Benedict XVI or John Paul II. Francis has conceded priests of the Society the jurisdiction to hear confessions and witness marriages without receiving significant concessions in exchange from the Society. In other words, it is hard to be too gloomy about the state of tradition under Francis, since, whatever he may say, his actions are generally favorable toward tradition in a way his predecessors’ weren’t. Can one imagine John Paul or Benedict authorizing the use of the pre-1955 books for Holy Week? Can one imagine John Paul or Benedict opting for a unilateral resolution of some of the most vexing aspects of the SSPX situation?

On the other hand, once again, Francis sharply criticizes individuals who have historically been considered orthodox Catholics. What other way is there to describe someone concerned with the Church’s doctrine or liturgy? There probably are elements of the Church that meet these descriptions in precisely the way Francis imagines. There are certainly elements in the American Church that meet Francis’s description, in fact. However, the descriptions are so vague that anyone can see anything they want in them. And it is already clear that progressives and modernists in the Church see a description of orthodox Catholics seeking to do nothing more than hold firm to the apostolic faith instead of Catholics who come awfully close to a bourgeois evangelical mode. (Though the progressives and modernists are happy to criticize the bourgeois evangelicals, too.) After five years and endless debates over Francis’s vague language, one might be excused for thinking that the vagueness is intentional. And given that there are no corrections or clarifications from Francis or the Press Office when Francis’s media partisans hurl these critiques at traditionally minded Catholics, one might also be excused for thinking that this process, by now a feature of life in Francis’s Church, is precisely what Francis wants. We know already that sometimes Francis prefers others to take his vague words and add a little form to them. (Cf. Apostolic Letter Recibí el escrito.) Already we see, for example, Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, editor of Civiltà Cattolica and a close collaborator of the Pope, alleging that Francis is taking on Robert Cardinal Sarah, “the most authoritative representative of a vision of the Catholic Church alternative to the one advocated by Pope Francis.,” with passages in Gaudete et exsultate.

Likewise, one suspects that Francis knows how his words will be interpreted when he says things like, “[w]e often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 102.) Compared to St. John Paul’s clear rejection of allegations of obsession with abortion in Crossing the Threshold of Hope and then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement in his letter to Cardinal McCarrick that “[n]ot all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia,” Francis’s intent here is crystal clear. He clearly means to revive the slightly moth-eaten Seamless Garment rhetoric of the 1970s and 1980s. This is no doubt red meat for Francis’s progressive base, which has clearly chafed at the political exigencies imposed by John Paul and Benedict’s stance on the centrality of abortion as a moral issue, and Catholics who hold to John Paul and Benedict’s understanding of the problem can expect to have Francis’s words thrown in their faces.

At this point, we must recognize that it is not as though Francis is unaware of the toxic discourse, especially online, surrounding his pontificate. He condemns “networks of verbal violence.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 115.) But he goes on to say “[i]t is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others.” (Ibid.) Once again, it is hard to see this pointed critique aimed at the toxic progressives who use the Pope’s words as a cudgel to beat mercilessly anyone who expresses any reservations about the Pope’s agenda. One does not suspect for a moment that Francis includes his close collaborators at Civiltà Cattolica or America or The Tablet or any of the other favored outlets when he talks about “networks of verbal violence.” But these collaborators are themselves part of the unhealthy ecosystem that Francis decries. Indeed, when reading Fr. Spadaro’s gratuitous invective at Cardinal Sarah, one is reminded of nothing more than not only paragraph 115 but also paragraph 94. Yet one does not see Francis turning on Fr. Spadaro—or those like him—with the same incisive wit and blunt advice that he applies to traditionally minded Catholics. It is clear, therefore, that Francis intends to respond to his critics (and only his critics) when he discourses on this handful of topics—and to respond sharply.

Of course, one might, in response, point to Francis’s own statement that, “[f]ar from being timid, morose, acerbic or melancholy, or putting on a dreary face, the saints are joyful and full of good humour.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 122.) “Ill humour,” Francis tells us, “is no sign of holiness.” (Ibid. ¶ 126.) But such rhetorical cleverness is unlikely to have an effect on either Francis or the discourse about Francis’s pontificate, which has fallen into a largely fixed—certainly predetermined—narrative. Francis is the good, liberal pope who will restore the Church to the course that it was on in August of 1978. He is resisted by a handful of squeaky-wheel traditionalists who are, depending on who you ask, too fond of fancy vestments and Latin, too worried about rules, too opposed to the Spirit of the Council, or all of the above. The Pope’s progressive defenders take it upon themselves to dunk viciously on those they identify as squeaky-wheel traditionalists and the Pope’s conservative critics take it upon themselves to dunk viciously on the Pope’s progressive defenders. The Twitter beeves practically write themselves at this point.

This state of affairs is depressing not least because Francis warns us, “Complacency is seductive; it tells us that there is no point in trying to change things, that there is nothing we can do, because this is the way things have always been and yet we always manage to survive. By force of habit we no longer stand up to evil. We “let things be”, or as others have decided they ought to be.” (Gaudete et exsultate ¶ 137.) Yet the Pope who says this seems to be uninterested in shaking up the narrative of his pontificate. The Pope who preaches a God of surprises and the newness that Jesus Christ brings to the world seems to be stuck in a narrative that is beyond his control.

Edit 4/10/18: We added a hyperlink to Sandro Magister’s coverage of Antonio Spadaro’s presentation of Gaudete et exsultate to clarify the nature of his apparent allegation that Francis responds to Cardinal Sarah in the exhortation.

 

Benedict’s letter finally revealed

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.

Five Years

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.