A little more on the new catechism

John Joy has done it again! Just a few days ago, we cited Joy’s brilliant defense of the infallibility of Quanta cura against the anti-integralists of the Witherspoon Institute’s house organ, Public Discourse. Now, after Francis’s baffling declaration of the inadmissibility, Joy lays out at The Josias an unanswerable case against assent to the new text of the Catechism. Joy digs in to the language of the new Catechism text and Cardinal Ladaria’s letter to argue that the Catechism text is an act of the authentic papal magisterium and as such presumptively entitled to religious submission of will and intellect. He then rebuts the presumption, showing how ambiguous and contradictory it is. More than this, the morality of the death penalty is, Joy shows, a dogmatic teaching of the Church. For these reasons, Joy concludes, the faithful are well advised to withhold assent from the new teaching until the Church sorts things out.

For us, Joy’s piece shows how weird the change and the arguments adduced in support of the change really are. In particular, given the language in the new text and Cardinal Ladaria’s letter about the once-upon-a-time morality of the death penalty, it is hard to see how “inadmissible” can mean intrinsece malum. Fr. John Hunwicke, as always full of Latin erudition, has picked up on this point. Of course, the Pope knows how to say something is immoral—though he seems to spend more time saying things aren’t immoral, no matter how they might seem—and his Latinists know how to say something is intrinsece malum. Thus, the fact that they chose the baffling non posse admitti over intrinsece malum suggests that they did not intend to say that it was intrinsece malum. Perhaps they meant to imply it though. Francis is a master of implication, as we have seen time and time again, and perhaps, acknowledging the doctrinal difficulties in saying the death penalty is intrinsece malum, he merely wished to imply it. We think not.

In Veritatis splendor (no. 80), John Paul cites Gaudium et spes 27 for a long list of acts “always and per se” seriously wrong, regardless of their circumstances. The text of the new Catechism could have compared the death penalty to those acts, taking the Council’s condemnation and dragging it into this context, instead of relying on the march of progress to make it “inadmissible.” Moreover, John Paul went on to teach, “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person” (no. 81). Yet the text of the new Catechism acknowledges that, “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.” (Emphasis supplied.) The text goes on to speak about “Today” and “a new understanding” and “more effective systems,” implying that the moral liceity of the death penalty hinges on this narrative of progress. If Francis or Cardinal Ladaria or whoever wanted to imply that the death penalty was intrinsece malum, they sure picked a funny way to do it. Indeed, given what John Paul says in Veritatis splendor, they have picked the exact backwards way to do it. Consequently, we do not believe that they even imply that the death penalty is intrinsece malum. Given the fact that they neither say nor imply that it is intrinsece malum, we must conclude that they do not think it is intrinsece malum. Good! Francis may just have saved his tiara after all!

Moreover, the question has occurred to us whether the change to the Catechism may rightly be called a papal act. If a dicasterial text is to be considered a papal act as opposed to an act of the responsible dicastery, in the practice of the Church (see, e.g., art. 126 of the 1999 Regolamente Generale della Curia Romana), then it must be approved in forma specifica. In fact, it must contain the magic words approbavit in forma specifica (with reference to the Roman Pontiff). In the Latin rescript accompanying the new Catechism text, we find only approbavit. Does this mean that the change to the Catechism is merely an act of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? (Remember that Francis knows how to promote someone else’s text to his authentic magisterium.) Some clever canonist or theologian will have to explain it to us! Perhaps it doesn’t matter: Francis has made on a couple of occasions statements basically the same as the new Catechism text. But given his manner of speaking, it might be argued that those statements have basically no magisterial value.

But these speculations are ultimately unnecessary. Francis’s partisans, official and otherwise, will insist simultaneously that this is a major change and that it is simply a development in existing doctrine. Only a few members of Team Bergoglio, like Massimo Faggioli, will have the intellectual honesty to assert that this is a major rupture with the Church’s prior teaching. However, they will in the same breath assert that such ruptures are simply part of the Church’s life. In this respect, Faggioli (and those like him) are the mirror image of the traditionalists who likewise assert that there have been numerous ruptures in teaching, especially since the Second Vatican Council. That said, there is no sense meeting Francis’s partisans with narrow technical arguments about whether or not the rescript approving the new text had the three magic words to make it a papal act.

However, there is a lot of sense, for those inclined to do so, to meet Francis’s partisans with John Joy’s argument. But we stand on the point we made a couple of days ago. The merits of the Catechism change itself are what they are. Joy’s argument against assent is, we think, quite unanswerable. However, the Catechism text is not ultimately about the death penalty. It is about returning to the dialectic that prevailed in the Church prior to Paul VI’s death forty years ago tomorrow. Seen in that dimension, Francis has succeeded.

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

A word on that John Paul II address

At Life Site News, there is a translation of a 1987 speech by St. John Paul II touching upon, among other things, Humanae vitae. In the speech, John Paul stated, “What the Church teaches about contraception is not a matter of free discussion among theologians. Teaching the contrary is tantamount to inducing the moral conscience of the spouses into error.” In this view, John Paul joined Paul VI and Pius XI, both of whom taught—in Pius’s case, perhaps infallibly—that contraception was always and everywhere objectively evil. John Paul went on in his speech to rebut briefly the idea that the doctrine of the Church, while objectively true, is infeasible in some circumstances. (Recall that this address was before Veritatis splendor was issued.) Not so, John Paul teaches us: God does not command the impossible and He gives grace to all to follow His commandments. Obviously, as the attack on Humanae vitae ramps up—with people appointed by Francis to the Pontifical Academy for Life in the vanguard of the assault—Life Site News offers the translation as a counter.We wonder, however, whether it really matters at this point.

Since March 2013, two things have been obvious. The perennial teaching of the Church on questions like communion for bigamists and contraception is well known. Francis and his staunchest partisans don’t care. Familiaris consortio and Sacramentum caritatis—to say nothing of the words of Our Lord and St. Paul—were well known on the communion-for-bigamists question prior to the disastrous family synod. Yet, despite the ambiguous votes of the bishops at the family synod, Amoris laetitia was issued, apparently in contradiction to Familiaris consortio and Sacramentum caritatis. Now, a few years later, the Pope has declared the Buenos Aires guidelines, themselves profoundly ambiguous in light of the Church’s prior teachings, “magisterial.” One wonders how it happened that the Pope’s old colleagues in Buenos Aires came to issue guidelines that he responded to in a private letter, which was later promoted to the status of an Apostolic Letter. One wonders if Cardinal Parolin and Cardinal Baldisseri know. Did the clear teaching of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI matter, even as Francis canonized John Paul and can still see a light burning in Benedict’s monastic cell?

Likewise, the teaching of the Church on contraception is clear. Pius XI, in Casti connubii, proclaimed that it was evil, and he did so in a way that some theologians believe was infallible. The infallibility of Pius’s statement in Casti connubii was debated by the commission that resulted eventually in Humanae vitae. The status of Pius’s statement in Casti connubii in light of the doctrinal commentary to Ad tuendam Fidem probably should be discussed, too; that is to say, the question has gotten harder, not easier, to answer in the negative. Then, in an act worthy of St. Peter himself, Paul VI stood up to his own commission and the entire world and proclaimed all forms of artificial birth control were intrinsically evil. This act will never be forgiven by the progressives in the Church, always ready to make another accommodation with the world, and they have not stopped complaining about it. Nevertheless, Paul’s solemn discharge of the munus Petrinum has made possible the Church’s defense of life on every front. John Paul and Francis could not inveigh against the death penalty without the Church’s opposition to abortion, and Paul’s rejection of contraception made the Church’s steadfast opposition to abortion possible. Everyone knows this. Nevertheless, there is a mounting campaign against Humanae vitae.

The progressives see Francis as their last, best chance to achieve their long-cherished goal of setting aside Paul’s act. And not without good reason! Members of the Pontifical Academy for Life appointed by Francis challenge the applicability of Humanae vitae. What’s worse: Edward Pentin reports that a spokesman for the Academy claims that it “knew” about the positions of these members prior to their appointment. Moreover, Francis has handed the proponents of communion for bigamists a major victory. Why would the progressives arrayed against Papa Montini think they will fail? Indeed, the logic of Amoris laetitia is already a victory in their eyes! Thus, while we think it is unquestionably a good thing that Life Site News has presented the translation of John Paul’s 1987 speech, we are not sure it matters all that much.

On the other hand, it is clear that the confusion over once-clear moral questions is spreading. As the Second Vatican Council in Lumen gentium reminds us, the Church does not consist of the hierarchy, clergy, and vowed religious alone. Lay men and women, the Council tells us, make up a significant part of the entire Church. Progressives react with horror to the suggestion that the words of St. Pius X in Vehementer nos about the duties of the laity have much applicability today. As confusion mounts, the laity have, the Council would tell us, the right to the spiritual goods of the Church and the right to make known to their pastors their opinions. Parrhesia is not merely a synonym for progressives saying what a pope does not want to say. Consequently, the laity ought to understand what the doctrine of the Church is, what the recent popes have said, and in what ways the favorites of the current pontificate are deviating from that doctrine. This is, in fact, likely the only way that the confusion spreading in the Church will be addressed.

Cardinal Müller speaks

At the National Catholic Register, there is a very lengthy and very frank interview with Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, until recently the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is well worth reading in its entirety. Naturally, it is with Edward Pentin, who is, we are comfortable saying, the single best English-language Vaticanista today by a country mile. We are sure—as Cardinal Müller himself says—that excerpts will be selected and warped by his enemies, especially in the press, and used to allege that he is a reactionary, out of touch, or an enemy of the Holy Father. This is the tactic progressives have settled on in their frantic attempts to shore up their agenda against the rising resistance from faithful Catholics. We won’t quote every interesting passage, but we will quote what we think is the heart of the interview:

All my life, after the Second Vatican Council, I’ve noticed that those who support so-called progressivism never have theological arguments. The only method they have is to discredit other persons, calling them “conservative” — and this changes the real point, which is the reality of the faith, and not in your personal subjective, psychological disposition. By “conservative,” what do they mean? Someone loves the ways of the 1950s, or old Hollywood films of the 1930s? Was the bloody persecution of Catholics during the French Revolution by the Jacobins progressive or conservative? Or is the denial of the divinity of Christ by the Arians of the fourth century liberal or traditional? Theologically it’s not possible to be conservative or progressive. These are absurd categories: Neither conservatism nor progressivism is anything to do with the Catholic faith. They’re political, polemical, rhetorical forms. The only sense of these categories is discrediting other persons.

We have Holy Scripture, we have eschatological revelation in Jesus Christ, the irreversibility of Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, the salvation of the cross, the Resurrection, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ for the end of the world. … The responsibility of the Pope and the bishops is to overcome the polarization. Therefore, it’s very dangerous for the Church to divide bishops into friends and enemies of the Pope regarding a footnote in an apostolic exhortation. I am sure that anybody will denounce me also for this interview, but I hope that the Holy Father will read my complete interview here and not only some headlines, which cannot give a complete impression of what I said.

(Emphasis supplied.) Read the whole thing.