We’re seeing a lot of activity on the blogosphere from conservative Catholics who aren’t too impressed with Pope Francis’ recent statements. The concerns are often well founded because the Holy Father has made several ill-advised comments that are causing confusion, damage and scandal. That being said, caution is required when criticizing the Holy Father, because we risk undermining the people’s trust in the institution of the papacy.
Mature Catholics understand the difference between the Office of the Pope and its current incumbent, but not everybody grasps this. The Office is of the utmost importance, having been instituted by Christ Himself as a vital part of the Church. The incumbent at any given time is also very important and must be treated with respect. But that doesn’t mean that Popes have been of equal quality over the last 2000 years. Some have been canonized, while a few have been downright awful.
It is theoretically possible to reproach the incumbent without questioning the institution, but that distinction often gets lost in the heat of the debate, even among mature Catholics. I’m already witnessing this problem at the level of the episcopacy, where the scandals of recent years have generated a lot of cynicism towards bishops and — often without people realizing it — is undermining the institution of the episcopacy even among mature Catholics who should know better.
For example, a few weeks ago there was a town hall meeting at my parish, which is known as one of the most traditional and orthodox parishes in Ottawa. On a few occasions, I heard faithful and mature Catholics calling on the pastor to ignore policies of the archdiocese regarding the requirement to create a Pastoral Council in each parish. In case you didn’t know, Canon Law specifically grants the local bishop the authority to mandate the creation of a Pastoral Council in each parish, a fact that was explained by the pastor to the congregation at the meeting. Yet, several mature Catholics told the pastor to just ignore Archbishop Prendergast’s policy on this matter because the Archbishop has been “out to lunch” (their words) on a number of issues (they were likely referring to the Archbishop’s arguably passive approach to dealing with various problems in Ottawa).
Similarly, several mature Catholics in attendance told the pastor to ignore small tweaks introduced with the 2011 Roman Missal, specifically the fact that the priest is to preside from the Chair and not from the altar. These Catholics again invoked the Canadian bishops’ lack of faithfulness to the Church as a justification to disobey. Never mind that those tweaks were approved by Rome and were also within the purview of the authority of the bishops.
So here we have mature Catholics who, without realizing it, are calling for disobedience on matters where the bishops have legitimate authority. The institution of the episcopacy has been eroded.
I fear that we’re headed in the same direction with the papacy if we don’t tread carefully.
Yes, we have valid reasons to question what Pope Francis said in those interviews. The Vatican has heard us loud and clear too. That’s why Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, was forced to remind everybody last week that statements made by the Pope during interviews do not constitute magisterial teaching. Ouch, that’s as blunt as it gets in the Vatican.
Since we’ve been heard and we’ve all blown off some steam, I suggest we now make a truce and stop complaining about Pope Francis’ past statements, in the interest of avoiding an erosion of the institution of the papacy. Let’s wait and see how the Holy Father adjusts to the reactions he’s getting to his mistakes.
This is not a vow of silence. If more problems arise at a future date, we’ll deal with them then. But until that time, let’s give it a break.