May 10, 2019
Catholic fundamentalists are taking aim on Pope Francis. On April 30, a group of 19 Catholics, called more or less “prominent,” released an open letter to the bishops of the world, accusing Pope Francis of heresy.
Certainly, a formal public accusation of heresy against a pope by a group of Catholics, associated with Catholic universities and institutions, cannot simply be ignored. When one examines their accusations, however, one sees a list of what I would call more administrative and public relations issues than strict theological problems: Francis’ efforts to expand relations with China, his work in interfaith dialogue, and what I would call his “perceived” openness to L.G.B.T. people.
The papal critics also take issue with “Amoris Laetitia,” the 2016 apostolic exhortation on family life issued by Pope Francis. Some bishops have interpreted it as opening the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. This is more about church discipline than theological heresy. In the days of widespread Catholic clerical sexual abuse of children, men, and women religious, enabling divorced people to receive communion is not high on my list of Catholic worries.
Finally, the singers of this anti-Francis letter lapse into complete foolishness when they complain that, at the opening mass for the Synod on Youth in 2018, Pope Francis carried a staff in the form of a “stang” an object used in satanic rituals. No. Francis is neither satanic nor diabolic. Some of his theological critics however are devious old demons.
Francis is not a heretic. There will be no burning at the stake in front of St. Peter’s. But is Francis blameless? I don’t think so…. Francis can appear friendly, down to earth, and like-able. I do criticize him, however, for his leadership short-comings.
A number of my friends are appalled that I would dare criticize Pope Francis. My criticism, however, is constructive. It is neither nasty nor demeaning. Constructive criticism helps the individual as well as the institution.
I suggest that Pope Francis is a well-intentioned old time administrator trying to save his collapsing institution. He cannot see that his Catholic Church needs major structural change and rebuilding. It is time for the Church of Rome to become less Roman.
If I were to write a letter to the Pope Francis, here are the concerns I would mention:
(1)PR PACKAGING: Be careful about the public relations trap of saying the catchy phrase, that draws applause and headlines, like “who am I to judge?” And then you fall back into the old ecclesiastical homophobia. (Which in today’s Vatican is quite ironic to say the lest.) Positive words need positive action. You praise women but then complain that “every feminism ends up being a machismo with a skirt.” You have a clever speechwriter but people are getting mixed messages. And nothing really changes.
(2)REORGANIZATION: I think it is great that you want to reorganize the Roman Curia. It is greatly needed. So far it looks to me, however, like you are still locked in a bureaucratic institutional mindset. You are still re-arranging the deck chairs on what appears to be a sinking ship. Disband burdensome structures. Decentralize, and decentralize ….Retire the old bureaucrats. Maybe you should move them into an old folks home in Castle Gandolfo. Give more decision-making responsibility, around the world, to local committees of bishops, lay and ordained experts. They know local conditions and needs. The days of imperial Rome, with its overpowering central administration, are gone. Over. Finished. Let’s move ahead.
(3)CLERICAL CLOTHES: Signs and symbols are important. Please stop the wearing of outlandish medieval and Renaissance clothing by church leaders. It is outdated and silly. It doesn’t fit. It is offensively archaic for church leaders who proclaim simplicity and solidarity with the poor. I understand it costs about $6,000 to put a cardinal in his “simple” red uniform, from red hat to red socks. And that is just for starters….
(4)INFLATED TITLES: While you are at it, drop the archaic language of “monsignor,” “your eminence,” “your excellency,” etc. We are brothers and sisters.
(5)SISTERS: And yes, we are brothers and SISTERS…. In the community of faith we are equal. We don’t need a papal commission to determine this. We know who we are today and we clearly understand our history.Get on with it. Acknowledge the many women today who are already ordained ministers: deacons, priests, and bishops. And let all ordained ministers get married if they so choose — men and women, gay and straight. There is great richness in the community of believers. Let’s acknowledge it and promote it. It would certainly provide a more realistic, balanced, and healthy church environment.
(6)INTELLIGENT REALISM: Speaking about being realistic, lets acknowledge that we grow in our understanding of human nature, of history, and of course in our understanding of Sacred Scripture and theological tradition. If we are solidly anchored in our Faith, we understand the need for development in our Belief. We do not fear it. Healthy growth in understanding promotes a healthy Faith life. We either grow or we become old relics. I do respect you, but you really do need remedial theological education. You and most of your close collaborators.
(7)OPUS DEI: Speaking of your collaborators, I realized long ago that many of them belong to Opus Dei: a very secretive, very powerful, and ultra-conservative Catholic organization. For me, this is a very big red flag. Opus Dei behavior is often closer to the style of Franco of Spain than to Jesus of Nazareth. This is a serious issue. Unlike the DaVinci Code it is not fiction.
(8)POWER: The Catholic institution is still caught up in a distorted understanding of power as power OVER people. Often unexplained and secretive. Indeed, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith used to be called “the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.” Thanks to Constantine and a long line of popes who followed his example, power over people became the Catholic way. But now seriously, Brother Francis, Jesus was not an imperial power boss. He understood that pastoral ministry is a ministry of support and empowering people to take charge of their lives. It is not an exercise of power OVER people.
A CONCLUDING NOTE: Like you I am an old Catholic. I am not anti-Catholic. I am grateful for the many ways in which our Catholic tradition has educated and formed me as a person and a believer. Right now however, I fear that our tradition is on its death bed. It is not finished, however. You can help change course before its too late. And Francis please don’t allow those old unhappy traditionalists, who call you a heretic, to get under your skin. Be strong.
Please do acknowledge however that you do need better advisors. Talented young men and women from a variety of disciplines. Not just a bunch of aging bishops in colorful dress.
And you do need to put constructive action behind your pleasant-sounding words.
Your old friend, Jack