In February, Lent began, and Pope Francis with the Roma Curia began a Lenten spiritual retreat. Upon his return, he will face many challenges, both material and spiritual. The defining moments of this pontificate lie just ahead.
Pope Francis stands at a crossroads. Now 78, he can be rightly pleased with many of the great successes he has had during his first two years as Pope… the enormous crowds he drew in Brazil, Sri Lanka, the Philippines… the millions of hearts he has moved with his simple words and his kind gestures. His diplomats helped broker an end to United States sanctions on the Castro regime in Cuba. He held a vigil for peace in Syria, and is contemplating traveling to Ukraine to help bring peace there. The world has acclaimed him for these things. But this acclaim has come from the same media that criticized his predecessor to the point of ridicule.
This acclaim, therefore, is not a sign of love and respect for the Successor of Peter as the Successor of Peter. If that were so, Benedict too would have been praised for his kindness and goodness. But Benedict was not so praised. Rather, he was chased from the Apostolic Palace and into a monastery in the Vatican Gardens by a series of attacks and scandals, ending with “Vatileaks” — his own butler stealing his private letters from his very desk…
The media praise of Francis, then, is largely false praise. It springs from a desire to influence the Pope’s agenda. It springs from a desire to affect and change the teaching of the Church Francis leads and guides.
Essentially, this praise seeks to place Francis in a position of fait accompli before a difficult choice: (1) either accept the world’s understanding of morality, and keep the world’s acclaim, or (2) restate, with the authority of Peter (yes, that same, weak Peter who denied Christ, but then returned, was strengthened, and made able to confirm his brethren in the faith), the perennial teaching of the Church and… lose the world’s acclaim.
If Francis fully and unambiguously reaffirms the content of the Christian faith, the faith Pope Benedict, like all his predecessors, preached “in season and out” despite the world’s derision, he may expect the media to turn on him as they turned on Benedict… like ravening wolves. The media will find ways to malign and ridicule Francis, just as they have found ways to praise and honor him. It will be — as it was for Benedict — a type of bloodless martyrdom…
Inside the Church, the Pope is also being widely praised. Many are hailing him as a new “Good Pope John,” like John XXIII.
But he is also beginning to be criticized. First the criticism came from obscure Catholic bloggers. Now it is coming from cardinals — including cardinals in the Roman Curia itself.
The essential criticism is that, in a praiseworthy effort to reach out to all (especially the wounded, the marginalized, the “peripheral”) with the mercy of Christ, Francis appears to be reversing aspects of the course charted by his predecessor, Benedict, and so causing confusion. Since the criticism comes primarily from “traditional” Catholics, it is generally discounted in circles close to the Pope. The critics are seen as having an emotional (not rational) “animus” against reforms Francis is attempting. So it is not seen as a serious, theologically-based criticism of Francis and his plans. But this may be a misunderstanding, and perhaps a mistake.
Two recent examples of this emerging criticism are significant. The first is from African Cardinal Robert Sarah, 69, from Guinea on Africa’s west coast, currently Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and so an important official of the Holy See. The second is from American Cardinal Raymond Burke, 66, formerly the head of the Apostolic Signatura, now ecclesial patron of the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta.
On February 16, the French Catholic magazine Famille Chrétienne published on the internet brief extracts from a full-length interview-book with Sarah. The book is entitled God or Nothing (“Dieu ou rien”). (Its subtitle is Entretien sur la foi (“Conversation on the faith”), calling to mind the book-interview of another cardinal published in the 1980s, Rapporto sulla fede (“Report on the Faith,” published in English as The Ratzinger Report).
Sarah has this to say: “The idea that would consist in placing the Magisterium in a pretty box by detaching it from pastoral practice, which could evolve according to circumstances, fads, and passions, is a form of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology. I therefore affirm solemnly that the Church of Africa will firmly oppose every rebellion against the teaching of Christ and the Magisterium.” Sarah is referring to the idea at the heart of the “progressive” agenda for the bishops’ synod, which argues that the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage (the Magisterium on marriage) may be “detached” from “pastoral practice” — retaining the teaching, but ignoring it in practice. Sarah boldly judges this thinking “a form of heresy.”
On February 8, Cardinal Burke gave a 6-minute interview to a French public television network, France 2. Here is a summary:
The interviewer asks: “You are a great admirer of Benedict XVI?” Burke replies: “Oh, yes!… Of all the qualities of Benedict XVI, I think that the greatest is the one of being a master of the faith. When there is confusion, protest, I always turn towards him, towards his writings on the liturgy, but also on other doctrinal matters. Now I must get used to a new Pope and…” A voice-over follows in which the interviewer says several cardinals are defending the traditional family. Then the interviewer asks: “How do you intend to place Pope Francis on the good path?” Burke replies: “On this also, one must be very attentive regarding the power of the Pope. The classic formulation is that ‘the Pope has the plenitude, the fullness, of power.’ This is true. But it is not absolute power. His power is at the service of the doctrine of the faith. And thus the Pope does not have the power to change teaching, doctrine.” The interviewer then tries to provoke Burke: “Can we say that the true guardian of doctrine is you, and not Pope Francis?” Burke smiles, shakes his head. “Let us leave aside the matter of the Pope. In our faith, it is the truth of doctrine that guides us.” The interviewer persists: “If Pope Francis insists on this path, what will you do?” Burke then makes the remark that has become famous in recent days: “I will resist. I cannot do anything else. There is no doubt that this is a difficult time, this is clear.”
The Pope is on his Lenten retreat as this is written. The subject of the retreat is “Servants and Prophets of the Living God.” The Pope’s agenda for this year is very full. We must pray that he make his decisions not based on the acclaim of the media, or even on the criticism of cardinals. There is only one person now the Pope must consider, only one person whose approval he must seek: Christ alone. This will define his legacy.