Of Filial Corrections and Divisive Rhetoric

COMMENTARY: ‘Momentarily winning the day’ has characterized Catholic infighting in 2017.

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The “filial correction” accusing Pope Francis of “propagating heresy” published last month by a number of Catholic scholars and priests is both a great surprise and the new normal.

It’s a great surprise because most of the names on the list would have never imagined they would ever be so bold as to publicly “correct” the Pope — something that, by their own reckoning, has not been done since the 14th century. But perhaps it’s also a new normal, because 2017 has been a year in which the Catholic world has witnessed a ratcheting up of the rhetoric, a reality that, if not mitigated, will fray communion in the Church. It began early in the year and reached a crescendo this autumn. If it does not abate, enduring damage may well be done.

Consider — although it is only October — what 2017 has brought:

  • In February, posters appeared overnight in Rome accusing Pope Francis of being hypocritical in calling for mercy but showing none in light of his intervention in the Order of Malta, forcing the resignation of its head.
  • At the same time, a spoof edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper, was emailed around the Roman Curia, making fun of the Holy Father for not answering the dubia of the four cardinals regarding his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).
  • The appearance in Rome of such insolence and open mockery of the Pope, not seen since the anti-clerical fevers of the 19th-century, caused the “council of cardinals,” the nine men chosen by Francis as his principal advisers, to issue, “in light of recent events,” a vote of confidence in the Holy Father and his magisterium. Well-intentioned though it was, the cardinals’ statement had both the effect of giving greater attention to the attacks on Pope Francis as well as conveying a new partisan ethos in Rome, as if the Supreme Pontiff were the prime minister in a Westminster-style Parliament.
  • In June, the four cardinals who submitted the dubia regarding Amoris Laetitia publicly revealed their request for an audience with the Holy Father to discuss the matter — and his lack of response.
  • In July, close papal interpreters Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro and Protestant pastor Marcelo Figueroa wrote a blistering attack on certain Catholic and evangelical leaders in the United States, employing the incendiary characterization that they were engaged in an “ecumenism of hate.”
  • Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, chief theological adviser to Pope Francis and drafter of Amoris Laetitia, wrote an article in which he accused critics of the exhortation of using “death trap” logic that “betrayed the Gospels.” The critics themselves were “intellectual Pelagians” who were an “oligarchic group of ethicists.”
  • Veteran Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister responded that Archbishop Fernandez was a theologian “universally considered less than mediocre.”
  • In August, Austen Ivereigh, biographer of Pope Francis, wrote a commentary diagnosing converts critical of this pontificate of a “neurosis,” as if they were mentally unstable. He then helpfully listed a number of such neurotics by name. The blowback on that psychoanalysis was so fierce that Ivereigh apologized for causing “needless offense.”
  • In September, Father James Martin, a New York Jesuit who wrote Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity, was accused in some parts of the Catholic internet of being a “heretic.” Protests then followed, and at least one of his speaking engagements was canceled.
  • Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego intervened to speak of Father Martin’s critics as a “cancer” in the Church.
  • Defenders of Father Martin described those protests as “cyber-militias” and likened them to the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Father Martin, for his part, speculated that his critics were so hateful because they might be repressed homosexuals themselves. Another defender of Father Martin described such critics as “missionaries of hate.”

Then there is the “filial correction,” with its provocative, even rash, language accusing the Holy Father of “propagating heresies,” instead of limiting itself to raising the questions that, for example, the four cardinals did in their respectful submission of the dubia. The “filial correction” stops short of accusing the Holy Father of being a formal heretic, but charging someone with propagating heresies without being a formal heretic constitutes an implied insult, too: Either the Holy Father is too clueless to know what he is doing or too knavish to do it openly.

All of this is highly regrettable, an environment in which the rhetoric in the Church is increasingly reckless, deliberately rude and seemingly designed to foster rancor rather than any reconciliation. The exchanges are such that both protagonists and commentators alike — including this writer — are tempted to resort to language that inflames rather than illumines.

In reference to the controversies about Father Martin, but making a wider point, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote the following:

First, all of us who claim to be Christians, wherever we locate ourselves on the ecclesial spectrum, have the duty to speak the truth with love. Culture warriors come in all shapes and shades of opinion. The bitterness directed at the person of Fr. Martin is not just unwarranted and unjust; it’s a destructive counter-witness to the Gospel. But it’s also hardly new. It has a perfect mirror-image in the poisonous sarcasm, contempt, and systematic cultivation of skepticism and dissent that has marked some self-described “progressive” Catholic scholars, authors, columnists and publications for decades. …

Cyber-militias, like culture warriors, come in all shapes and shades of opinion. The lesson of history is simple. If we’ve learned anything over the past five hundred years, we might at least stop demonizing each other. On matters of substance, bad-mouthing the other guy only makes things worse.

It might be objected that such frank talk — “brood of vipers” comes to mind — is not alien to the Gospel or the early Church or, for that matter, the lives of the saints. True enough, but it would seem that putting unnecessary stress on fraternal relationships should be a last resort.

Certainly, Pope Francis is well aware of such dangers. Ivereigh, in a well-received and sympathetic biography, details how relations between Jorge Bergoglio and his Jesuit confreres deteriorated to the point where there was a sort of estrangement that lasted nearly 20 years, resolved hastily only after his election as pope. The idea of such similar estrangements multiplying in the life of the Church should give everyone serious pause.

When the Holy Father speaks of “tenderness” in our relations with each other, perhaps he has that unpleasant experience in mind. His instructions to the U.S. bishops during his pastoral visit in 2015 would seem to address the same danger:

“Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor — it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

“Momentarily winning the day” seems to have characterized much of 2017.

Two senior cardinals — Pietro Parolin, chosen by the Holy Father to be secretary of state, and Gerhard Müller, recently dismissed by Francis from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — have both called for respectful dialogue about Amoris Laetitia. It is noteworthy that two such senior prelates, one thought a staunch papal ally and the other considered — falsely, he insists — to be an opponent, would both speak of the need for dialogue; both of them echoing Pope Francis, who always insists on the need for the same.

Will their call be heeded? If it isn’t, more of the same will mean a fractious Church turned ever more inward, engaged in recriminations rather than mission.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the

editor in chief of Convivium magazine.