From Vermeule to Newman

Former Catholic and amateur butter importer Rod Dreher has criticized Harvard Law professor and current Catholic Adrian Vermeule for his insufficiently critical stance toward Pope Francis. Dreher, currently in communion with one of the several Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, argues that Vermeule’s ultramontanism stems from Vermeule’s Schmittian priors. You can read the blog post and decide for yourselves. However, Dreher’s screed follows hot on the heels of a general meltdown over Francis’s decision to canonize Pope Paul VI. Additionally, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò continues to publish statements about his allegations regarding the handling of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s case. All of these things have us thinking about the correct mode of criticism and the need for crucial distinctions.

In some circles, it seems that the default position on Francis is one of criticism. This is true both. in traditionalist circles and mainstream conservative circles. Michael Brendan Dougherty just had a cover story at National Review setting forth “the case against Pope Francis.” Likewise, Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written a lengthy book, which is in some respects very critical of Francis. Other voices from more traditionalist circles, like H.J.A. Sire and Peter Kwasniewski, have been heard, raising issues personal and theological about Francis and his pontificate. Speaking purely for ourselves, and going purely on impressions, there seems to have been a shift in the criticism of Francis from raising questions about particular acts toward a general opposition to his pontificate.

We would not pretend that there are not serious questions about Francis’s pontificate. John Joy, for example, has set out an (unanswerable) argument that the Church’s teaching on the death penalty is infallible and irreformable, despite Francis’s decision to declare it “inadmissible.” We have discussed on innumerable occasions the debate over Amoris laetitia, which seems for the moment to have died down. (Francis’s insistence on the independence of episcopal conferences seems to have cut both ways in this case.) There are other issues that have cropped up, and the ongoing Youth Synod has been a flashpoint for still other issues, including same-sex attraction, contraception, and even the ghost of liturgical reform (a ghost that has gotten long in the tooth and whose shroud is moth eaten by now).

The doctrinal issues are, to our mind, somewhat separate and apart from the ongoing crisis roiling the American Church. The current iteration of the sex-abuse scandal has led to the downfall of not only Archbishop Theodore McCarrick but also Washington’s Donald Cardinal Wuerl. It appears that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a RICO investigation into the Church in Pennsylvania. This will, no doubt, please those Catholics who were calling for greater state intervention into the Church in the wake of the latest abuse revelations. (For our part, we are far from sure that this will end as well as the voices calling for intervention think it will.) The American crisis follows on the heels of the protracted, frankly embarrassing affair in Chile.

One might say, perhaps not unreasonably, that the default position toward Francis in these circles is critical because there is so much to be critical about. However, it seems to us that a fundamental principle is lost when the default position toward Francis becomes one of criticism. Indeed, we might go so far as to say that there is an inversion of the right order of things when this is the case. Here we could discuss Thomas, who held that fraternal correction is a matter of virtue and therefore subject to all the requirements for any act of virtue. There have been magisterial interventions, both by the Plenary Councils of Baltimore and by Leo XIII, about the duties of Catholics commenting on current events. To our knowledge, no one has collected these interventions in one place for serious study. Hopefully someone more inclined to careful research and scholarship will do so.

But maybe they don’t have to.

It may not please Professor Vermeule to know that, in all of this, we are reminded of Blessed John Henry Newman, who, in a sermon preached October 7, 1866 (somewhat before Pius IX called the Vatican Council, when the infallibility debate reached its fever pitch), said:

[W]hat need I say more to measure our own duty to it and to him who sits in it, than to say that in his administration of Christ’s kingdom, in his religious acts, we must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side? There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies. Our duty is,—not indeed to mix up Christ’s Vicar with this or that party of men, because he in his high station is above all parties,—but to look at his formal deeds, and to follow him whither he goeth, and never to desert him, however we may be tried, but to defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would a father, and as a wife a husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God.

The whole sermon is well worth reading, not least because it treats at length of the Papal States and the union between the Church and state power. However, for our purposes the extract here is sufficient.

Recall also Newman’s so-called biglietto speech, given May 12, 1879, upon the formal notification that Pope Leo XIII, who had been elected pope just over a year before, had raised Newman to the dignity of cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.” Newman went on to say on that occasion,

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

Perhaps the current criticism of Francis is not quite Newman’s loathed liberalism in religion. However, it is not so far off as one might like to imagine. Certainly the right to express one’s opinions of Francis—good, bad, especially bad, or otherwise—is implicit in all of the criticism of Francis swirling today. Therefore, it seems to us that there is something profoundly illiberal in Newman’s insistence in 1866 that, in the pope’s religious acts, Catholics “must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side.” This view rejects, fundamentally, that every opinion ought to be expressed. Indeed, it holds that basically no opinion ought to be expressed, except, of course, opinions supportive of the pope’s rule over the Church.

Consequently, Professor Vermeule’s position seems to us to be an entirely reasonable anti-liberal position. One of the leading opponents of liberalism of the 19th century adopted a position no less deferential to the pope than Vermeule’s apparent ultramontanism. Of course, there are other explanations, including the notion that Professor Vermeule does not think Francis is as disastrous as his critics do. But given his thorough anti-liberalism in other respects, it is at least plausible that his attitude toward the Pope is motivated by distrust and dislike for liberalism.

Dreher is not wrong when he notes a fundamental tension in this position; that is, Francis seems a committed partisan of political and theological liberalism and it therefore is bizarre to adopt an anti-liberal attitude toward criticizing him. This, we think, is a misreading of Francis’s pontificate. It is far from clear that Francis is the liberal that has been advertised. Certainly in political and environmental terms, he is no liberal. Indeed, as Rusty Reno noted, Francis is as suspicious of liberal modernity as Pius IX ever was. And there’s a case to be made that Francis thinks that liberal modernity has rendered us incapable of strenuous moral life. This is, in fact, far bleaker than anything Pius IX ever held. And it is, of course, debatable. Highly debatable.

Even if Francis is a liberal, it is far from clear to us that the proper response is liberalism. This, then, is the crux of the problem. Barring the Head of the Church returning, there will be other popes. Perhaps some will be, in the words of the great Louisiana philosopher and theologian I.J. Reilly, good authoritarian popes. Perhaps some will be liberals. However, the anti-liberal position works as well with a good authoritarian pope as it does with a liberal pope. Indeed, it works even better. And it has the advantage of avoiding a perpetual oscillation between ultramontanism and neo-Gallicanism.

The Youth Synod

It is October, which means it is time for the Youth Synod. Already it is clear that doctrinal novelty is once more on the agenda. There has already been a skirmish about the appearance in the instrumentum laboris of the term “LGBT.” The Synod’s top official, one of Francis’s earliest supporters from his time at the Congregation for Bishops, indicated erroneously that the term had been used by youth. Not so, but he refused to remove the term, according to Life Site News. One anticipates that the Synod will be a battleground for the renewed dialectic over same-sex attraction, contraception, and other moral issues much beloved of modernists and progressives. However, the Synod comes at a difficult time for Francis, following a dreadful summer of revelations about the abuse crisis and the sense that Francis’s pontificate is winding down. It remains to be seen how much all of this will affect the final product of the Synod.

It is clear that progressives in high places have not abandoned their agenda. It is clear from the instrumentum laboris that the Synod will address youth with same-sex attraction and, once again, the battle between the divinely revealed doctrine of the Church and the pressures of secular liberalism will be joined. The same will no doubt be true with respect to contraception. No doubt other issues related to sex will be taken up, with the familiar tension between the doctrine of the Church and the apparently unfailingly progressive youth heightened. We anticipate hearing that, not only do young people want an unqualified endorsement of same-sex relationships and contraception, young people want married priests, deaconesses, and greater theological exploration of the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. Whether two-thirds of the Synod fathers will agree to these novelties remains to be seen.

In the 2014-2015 process, there was still some question about Francis’s doctrinal commitments, and that made the really extraordinary battles in the Synod seem altogether more significant. However, in 2018, it is clear where Francis’s doctrinal commitments lie. It is unlikely that he will endorse wholesale revisions of Church doctrine. Instead, the language of pastoral accompaniment and development of doctrine will be employed. In this regard the stakes for this Synod are much lower. There is, in fact, a sense that we have returned to the stage-managed Synods of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The final report is probably mostly written. Francis can choose to endorse it and give it magisterial weight, or he can choose to issue an exhortation. It probably will not be openly heterodox, but it probably will contain ambiguities and openings to immoral conduct under the guise of discernment and pastoral accompaniment. The stories write themselves at this points.

Of course, Edward Pentin reports that there is substantial confusion about the voting procedures at the Synod, perhaps in an effort to avoid subjecting controversial propositions to a straight up-or-down vote, instead requiring bishops to vote on the entire document. Given how the 2014-2015 process worked, it is reasonable to expect that the Synod secretariat, with Francis’s support, will manipulate the process to achieve the predetermined result with a minimum of dissent. While the concept of a synodal, “listening” Church is one of Francis’s favorite talking points, there are significant questions whether this is anything more than a talking point. Clearly, the Pope likes the idea of consensus backing up certain moves; however, he has shown himself time and time again willing to go it alone, relying on his inherent authority and the willingness of his supporters to defend his decisions.

This is not to say that the outcome of the Synod is inconsequential. As we have written before, history has begun again in the Church. The dialectic between continuity and rupture, between tradition and novelty, is in full swing, and this Synod will be for a few weeks the epicenter of the process. Perhaps this one is a little different, in that it is impossible to deny that things have changed in the world and even the pastoral strategies of 1978, 1988, 1998, or 2008 are inadequate to reach today’s youth. Traditionally minded Catholics point to the young people who engage enthusiastically with tradition; modernists point to the young people who want same-sex relationships blessed and contraception permitted. The strategy of tension employed by modernists since the days of Pascendi will no doubt be observed. But to say that the dialectic is inconsistent with apostolic faith, which rests primarily in tradition, and has since the days of St. Paul (cf. Gal. 1:8), is somewhat beside the point. The fact is that the dialectic will take place.

Nevertheless, is an autumnal feel to this process, and not only because it is happening in October. There is a sense that there is more time behind Francis than before him. Already people are making plans for the next conclave. In fact, just in the last couple of days, it has been announced that a well funded group is going to be investigating cardinal electors so that compromised candidates will be known prior to entering the conclave. (The suggestion is that Cardinal Bergoglio was compromised and would not have been elected pope if that had been known; whether or not this is true is anyone’s guess.) There is not much reason to think this, other than Francis’s age. Unlike John Paul II, Francis has not had high-profile health crises or sudden trips to the Gemelli clinic. And unlike Benedict XVI, who grew visibly frail before abdicating, Francis does not appear to be weakening with age. It is strange therefore that all this activity is taking place. However, there is still a feeling that the Synod may be one of the last major engagements of Francis’s pontificate. For this reason, despite the lower stakes and likelihood of few surprises, the Synod may well be significant as a sort of referendum on the future direction of a post-Francis Church.

However, for reasons entirely aside from doctrine, this Synod comes at a terrible time for Francis (and the Church). There has been a steady drumbeat of allegations that Francis has either downplayed abuse or simply ignored abuse. It began with the case of Bishop Juan Barros in Osorno in Chile, who was accused of being involved with the coverup of Chile’s most notorious abuser, Fernando Karadima. Francis first backed Barros, but that position became untenable when it was revealed that one of Karadima’s victims had passed a letter to Francis through Cardinal O’Malley regarding Barros’s involvement. The affair resulted in the abdication of most of Chile’s bishops, though only some of the resignations have been accepted—most notably Barros’s. Given Francis’s decision to back Barros in unmistakable terms, the affair damaged his credibility on abuse.

However, the fall of former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick has proved to be a more serious crisis for Francis than even the Barros affair. McCarrick, long one of the most prominent figures in the American Church, was credibly accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians and a minor. Rumors about McCarrick had circulated for years, even reaching the Vatican when a professor at a seminary wrote to Rome about McCarrick’s behavior after his appointment to Washington was announced. Quickly, McCarrick resigned from the cardinalate and was ordered to a life of prayer and penance while the canonical process wound its way through Rome. Given McCarrick’s prominence and influence, the case was proving to be embarrassing for Francis and some of his most prominent American supporters.

Until Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wrote a lengthy “testimony” about a long-running coverup in Rome of McCarrick’s misconduct. Viganò made many allegations, the upshot of which is that Benedict XVI ordered McCarrick out of public life, and Francis rescinded the order because McCarrick was a friend and supporter of Francis. Francis has not really answered the allegations. However, it appears that Benedict XVI did direct McCarrick to keep a lower profile, but McCarrick basically ignored the direction. It is impossible to say more than this, given the Vatican’s silence on the matter and the fact that some key figures, such as Pietro Sambi, the former nuncio, are dead.

In the background of the allegations about what Francis knew or didn’t know, the American Church has been dealing with another iteration of the abuse crisis, this time focused on several Pennsylvania dioceses. While Philadelphia had addressed the past instances of abuse and coverup, other dioceses had not, and the Pennsylvania attorney general initiated a grand jury probe. The results of the probe are chilling: over 70 years hundreds of predator priests abused over a thousand children. There have been calls for immediate action, ranging from greater civil oversight of the Church to improved reporting and compliance mechanisms within the Church, including greater participation by the laity.

However, the overwhelming reaction to the Pennsylvania report has been grief and outrage. Washington’s Donald Cardinal Wuerl, who was bishop of Pittsburgh for some of the time covered by the report, was named and accused of furthering the coverup of an instance of abuse. He contests the allegations, but he has also indicated that he intends on asking the Pope to accept his resignation so that Washington can move forward with new leadership. Joseph Cardinal Tobin, whose Newark archdiocese has a direct connection to McCarrick’s abuse, has informed Francis that he will not be attending the Synod, instead staying in Newark to address the issues there. One has only to look at Twitter or Facebook or do a Google search to see the numerous outraged comments from Catholics stunned by all these revelations.

With all of this going on, the Youth Synod seems like a pointless exercise. For one thing, many youth find the abuse crisis to be a major stumbling block in their relationship with the Church. Indeed, it seems that the abuse situation has the potential to undermine any renewed presentation or engagement with young people. It will not make much difference if clergy present Church teachings in a new, more attractive and understandable light if clergy are simply not believed by young people, upset and confused by the abuse crisis. Given that there are allegations about Francis’s conduct, though the allegations are by no means proved, it is impossible to dismiss this as a purely American problem.

All eyes on Viganò

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s Saturday bombshell has had quite an effect. Francis, asked about Viganò’s statement aboard the papal plane from Dublin to Rome, refused to respond, instead telling journalists to look into it for themselves. Msgr. Jean-François Lantheaume, formerly the first counsellor at the Nunciature in Washington and named by Viganò as a witness, has confirmed Viganò’s statements. Moreover, some interesting Facebook posts, purportedly from Lantheaume have been circulating. Naturally, Cardinals Cupich, Wuerl, and Tobin have all issued statements not-quite-denying Viganò’s allegations. And Cardinal Wuerl’s spokesman has issued a statement admitting that Wuerl canceled an event with McCarrick at Viganò’s request.

The Italian journalist and blogger Aldo Maria Valli has a long post, explaining how Viganò approached him to release his statement. Our Italian isn’t great and Google’s English version isn’t much better; however, the gist of the piece comes through. Hopefully it will be translated into English. The big bombshell of Valli’s piece is that Viganò, currently one of the most talked-about figures in the Church has gone into hiding outside of Italy. (This echoes some sinister comments in the Facebook post apparently written by Msgr. Lantheaume.) Aside from that dramatic touch, it’s an interesting piece that portrays Viganò as troubled by what he sees and aware of the responses he would receive.

And what responses! Some time ago, we wrote, for another venue, a piece comparing Francis to Donald J. Trump. That piece was criticized for such an outrageous comparison. (Never mind that others have made it.) This weekend shows that, regardless of President Trump’s similarity to the Pontiff, Francis’s supporters have much in common with the President’s. The liberal-Catholic media response to Viganò’s piece has been a chorus of claims that Viganò is making it up, that this is part of a coup against Francis, that Viganò is settling scores. “Fake news,” the “deep state,” and conflicts of interest might be how Trump’s supporters express those ideas, but the ideas are the same.

Despite the fact that the liberal Catholics in the United States and Italy have taken great pains to distance themselves from Trump and his policies, it is clear that they have learned well from Trump’s book of (extremely effective) communications strategies. When Villanova professor and leading Italian ice-cream enthusiast Massimo Faggioli is talking about a failed palace coup, you know that the language of the “deep state” works. One defender of Francis on Twitter has even gone so far as to call Viganò’s allegations “fake news.” It is astonishing to see strident critics of Trump fall immediately to his rhetoric to defend Francis. We doubt that Francis would be heartened by this.

Of course, the safer course has been marked by many prelates, including Cardinal DiNardo and even Cardinal Wuerl: there needs to be a full investigation into Viganò’s allegations. This poses its own problems. A key figure in Viganò’s allegations, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, his predecessor as nuncio, died unexpectedly in 2011. Viganò states that Sambi would have been the one to inform Cardinal Wuerl about Benedict’s sanctions against McCarrick. Wuerl has denied that Viganò provided him with detailed information on the matter, but his statement did not address whether or not Sambi had provided him with information. Additionally, it is entirely possible that McCarrick’s influence on Francis was not known to men McCarrick allegedly promoted, such as Joseph Tobin and Blase Cupich.

This is why Francis’s refusal to admit or deny the allegations is so troubling. At a moment in the Church when the laity is sick to death of reports of sexual abuse and cover ups, Francis’s position strikes a sour note. This follows his Letter to the People of God written in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. In that letter, before turning to the problem of clericalism in the context of abuse, Francis wrote, “I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.” Given that the allegations against McCarrick are basically that he preyed on children and vulnerable adults—seminarians—Francis’s nonresponse on the plane is especially disheartening.

In that letter, Francis went on to write: “This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be renewed from within.  Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.” It is hard to square “penitential openness” with a refusal to answer the allegations of a longtime Curial official and diplomat—an archbishop—even if to deny them or explain them.

We thought Francis was perhaps out in left field when he linked the crisis with clericalism. His supporters’ rhetoric—so far from penitential openness—seems, however, to be linked intrinsically with the clericalism he condemns. He wrote, “whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives.” The response of his supporters, denying Viganò’s statement not by adducing facts but by attacking character seems precisely like this exclusionary vision of the Church. Viganò, who is not one of the sons of light in the new order, has dared to speak out. He must be silenced, ignored, or excluded—precisely the clericalist attitudes that Francis identifies as root causes of the abuse crisis. Is this really the renewal Francis has called for?

The sober response of many—the call for an investigation—is the beginning of Francis’s penitential openness, not Trumpian cries of “fake news” and “deep state” and “coup.” If there is nothing to Viganò’s allegations, if they are the bitter rhetoric of a disappointed old intriguer, as the critics claim, then an investigation can be nothing but a good thing.

The bombshell

Today, an eleven-page document, apparently written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the United States, was released. It is a stunning document, alleging basically that the Holy Father was aware of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abusive activities but promoted McCarrick for a variety of reasons. More than that, it paints McCarrick as a close adviser to Francis on American matters. Indeed, it suggests that McCarrick was the architect of Francis’s high-profile American appointments, such as Blase Cupich’s appointment to Chicago and Joseph Tobin’s appointment to Newark. Some of these allegations were known; for example, Rocco Palmo reported when Tobin was translated from Indianapolis to Newark that McCarrick was behind the move. However, after McCarrick’s meteoric fall, Tobin’s partisans pressured Palmo to recant the reporting. He has refused to do so. However, other allegations are coming to light for the first time.

Viganò’s document implicates a huge number of high-profile churchmen. Three Secretaries of State—Sodano, Bertone, and Parolin—are alleged to have furthered McCarrick’s career, despite warnings in Rome about his misdeeds. Other high prelates are alleged to have known about McCarrick’s crimes. Viganò states that Benedict XVI imposed some sanctions on McCarrick following these warnings, basically ordering him out of public life. However, Viganò’s most serious allegation is that Francis rescinded these sanctions upon his election in 2013. Viganò goes on to claim that McCarrick became—along with Cardinal Maradiaga—a kingmaker in the Curia under Francis and a trusted adviser, especially with respect to the Obama administration. The whole document must be read, and the allegations take one’s breath away.

In a small but explosive bit of Edward Pentin’s coverage of Viganò’s statement, Pentin writes that Benedict XVI was aware of the allegations against McCarrick and recalls (today, presumably) ordering Cardinal Bertone to impose sanctions on McCarrick, but he cannot recall what the nature of those sanctions was. This adds some confirmation to Viganò’s statement, since he alleges that Benedict’s sanctions against McCarrick were common knowledge in the Curia and had been communicated repeatedly to McCarrick and his successor, Donald Cardinal Wuerl. He suggests that Cardinal Bertone and others may have helped McCarrick skirt Benedict’s sanctions by delaying their imposition.

The bottom line is this: Viganò alleges that McCarrick was aided and abetted by prominent churchmen from Pope Francis on down, despite his misconduct with seminarians being documented thoroughly. As a result of the corruption that Viganò details in his letter, Viganò demands that the Pope and high prelates resign over all this. At the very least, one wishes that there would be total transparency on the McCarrick case. Surely someone in Rome has a scanner and could make a PDF of his file at the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for Bishops; ideally, this would be posted on the Vatican’s website, so that the Church, if it is interested, can review the documents and come to its own conclusions about the McCarrick affair. But Viganò’s demand that Francis abdicate goes well beyond a Truth and Reconciliation Process for the McCarrick case.

The demand is not quite unprecedented—after all, in the climax to the Investiture Controversy, Kaiser Heinrich IV demanded that Pope Gregory VII resign. But it is hard to think of more recent examples of an archbishop and longtime Vatican bureaucrat and diplomat calling for the abdication of the Roman Pontiff. It is supremely unlikely that Francis will abdicate over this. But it is a sobering reminder of the corruption at the highest levels of the Church. It is rumored that Benedict XVI abdicated when he realized he lacked the strength to reform the Roman Curia. Tonight, anyway, Francis’s pontificate teeters on the edge under the weight of these allegations—allegations that are remarkably similar to what is alleged to have brought down Benedict’s papacy.

No doubt the Pope’s partisans will dredge up Viganò’s misdeeds. He will be presented as the far-right culture warrior who brought Kim Davis to meet the Pope. He will be presented as a longtime malcontent and complainer, whose letter to Benedict about his promotion to the nunciature (engineered by Cardinal Bertone when Viganò started poking his nose into Bertone’s business) touched off the first Vatileaks scandal. He may even be presented as someone who has played his own sorry role in the abuse scandal, as it is alleged by the people who investigated Archbishop John C. Nienstedt that Viganò told them to keep quiet. Of course, this last affair begins to look strange in the light of Viganò’s allegations today.

However, the funny thing is that it’s hard to see how Viganò’s misdeeds make him a liar. He may, in fact, be a culture warrior who has a grudge against Francis for sacking him from the nunciature and withholding the customary red hat. He may, in fact, be a talented Curial bureaucrat who torpedoed his career by asking questions better left unasked. And he may have made bad decisions when confronted with the misdeeds of others, like Nienstedt. But it’s hard to spin this past into the conclusion that Viganò is a fabulist. Indeed, he seems like exactly the sort of character who ends up spilling the beans on everything for a variety of motives, some noble and some less noble.

The ball is now in Francis’s court—not a happy thought from any perspective. The Vatican seems incapable of managing a crisis, and this probably counts as a crisis. The Holy See Press Office has been caught flat footed time and time again. The Barros affair in Chile seriously damaged Francis’s credibility and the narrative was out of control before the Vatican acted. The combination of the McCarrick revelations and the Pennsylvania grand jury report imperiled (and still imperils, frankly) the moral authority of the U.S. hierarchy, but it took quite some time for Francis to respond. And when he did, he blamed clericalism. It will be bitterly ironic if Viganò’s allegations are confirmed, either by individuals with knowledge who are emboldened to come forward or by solid reporting by outside journalists, since there’s no other word for McCarrick’s protection and promotion under Francis than clericalism.

Pointing to noted non-Catholic and bouillabaisse enthusiast Rod Dreher’s coverage of the breaking news, Alan Jacobs seems to think that nothing will come of this. We shall see. We agree with Jacobs that Francis probably will not address this head on, but we already see Francis’s partisans like the anonymous (but allegedly well connected) Twitter account @Pope_news coming out to attack Viganò. We know that Francis is perfectly happy to use intermediaries, like Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., or the bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region or any of a whole host of people, to make his arguments for him. How they react to this will be a good sign of how Francis reacts to it. Moreover, it will be harder for prelates like Blase Cupich, Joseph Tobin, and Robert McElroy, to maintain silence if intrepid journalists follow up on Viganò’s allegations and find confirmation. In the meantime, there is little for the rest of us to do—except watch, wait, and pray.

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.

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.

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.