The Puzzling Pontificate of Pope Francis


National Catholic Register, 9 May 2019

COMMENTARY: The worthy signatories of the open letter accusing the Pope of heresy are attempting to interpret in a precise way a teaching style that is not intended to be precise.

It’s a grave matter — and for that reason practically unprecedented — for learned and respected Catholic scholars to accuse the Holy Father of heresy, as recently was done by 19 signatories to an open letter.

The letter has occasioned much analysis. A certain consensus has emerged that where there is smoke there is usually fire, but in this case there is plenty of smoke but no real fire. And calling for the fire brigade when there isn’t a fire actually raging may lead to a certain complacency about all the smoke in the air.

I agree with the consensus that Pope Francis is not guilty of heresy, in part due to the fact his teaching style is not sufficiently clear as to sustain such a charge.

I would not make the charge myself. But if a theologian of the world-class reputation of Dominican Father Aidan Nichols and a philosopher of similar status, professor John Rist, would take this step, it is noteworthy on those grounds alone. Father Nichols and Rist are serious scholars who know the Catholic tradition far better than nearly all of their critics. They deserve to be heard.

If they are crying wolf, it is not because they are out to make mischief; it is because there are wolves about. Even if the charge that the chief shepherd is indeed a wolf is not sustainable, it does not mean that the flock is entirely safe from danger, even from the pastors of the Church.

There is here a flawed approach. The signatories of the letter are attempting to interpret in a precise way a teaching style that is not intended to be precise. To put it another way, a pontificate whose principal interpreter — Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, the editor of the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica — argues that in theology 2+2 can equal 5 is a pontificate that challenges the usual way of understanding pontifical texts.

Consider some recent examples of papal communication.

On the recent return flight from North Macedonia, Pope Francis answered a question about the study commission he had set up to investigate the history of women deacons in the Church. This was a major study of great import, which long ago reported and about which nothing has been publicly said.

Pope Francis gave a long answer, summarizing that the commission did not come to a consensus. His answer is at best confusing and does not cohere easily. At the end of the answer, it is possible to reach various, contradictory conclusions about the state of the issue.

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