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'Francis the Awesome'

The Consequences of an Off-the-Cuff Papacy

Christopher A. Ferrara POSTED: 9/23/13

Editor’s Note:  This article appears in the latest issue of The Remnant but was in fact written before the now famous interview of Pope Francis in which, as the New York Times put it, the Holy Father “reprimanded the church for emphasizing dogma and moral doctrines over ministering to its people” and “said the church could not afford to be ‘obsessed’ with same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.”  The Remnant is preparing an Open Letter to the Holy Father, in which we intend to ask for clarification on what may appear to be a significant sea change for the  Barque of Peter but could turn out to be yet another massive gaffe from an off-the-cuff papacy. Stay tuned, and please pray for Pope Francis. MJM

Let me say it at the very outset: no Pope should make it a habit to offer his spontaneous reflections to the world. This is so because the world is not the Church’s friend but rather her perennial adversary. And by “the world” I mean, of course, the powers and principalities that dominate the human scene when the grace of God is rejected. This is why Paul VI lamented, as the Second Vatican Council’s vaunted “opening to the world” had already begun to cause endless calamity, that “the opening to the world became a veritable invasion of the Church by worldly thinking. We have perhaps been too weak and imprudent.” (Speech of November 23, 1973).  Indeed, the very mission of Our Saviour was, as He Himself declared (John 16:33), to “overcome the world,” not to be “open” to it.

Given the adversarial relation between the Church and the world—it is the height of naiveté to deny it—the Supreme Pontiff must be careful to weigh every word and phrase he chooses to utter in public, for the world will eagerly seize upon any ambiguity or telling omission in order to declare triumphantly that a new breach has appeared in the citadel and that the invasion of the Church by worldly thinking has made a stunning new advance. Thus a Pope’s pursuit of “simplicity” and “sincerity,” if it leads to the idea that the Pope must shun all formalism in his public addresses and “speak from the heart,” can come—inevitably will come—at the expense of all the faithful and at the risk of undermining the very credibility of the Church herself.

This past May 22, for example, Francis stated during an unscripted homily that “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! … ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.” This remark, which made no distinction between the objective redemption of humanity and its subjective application to each individual man in the act of faith, or between natural and supernatural virtue, was widely reported, with great delight, as a papal declaration that atheists can be saved merely by doing good. That development, as
John Allen noted, prompted then papal spokesman Fr. Thomas Rosica to issue “a 2,300-word clarification May 23 insisting Francis had ‘no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation.’”

Granted, the Pope did not have that intention, but such is the peril of off-the-cuff papal remarks that lack the necessary theological completeness and exactitude. A Franciscan priest I know once told me that even before Vatican II it was an old joke that a priest is allowed no more than five heresies in a given sermon—a comment on the perils of sermonizing without hewing to the texts of prepared sermons. The Pope, however, does not have the luxury of sermonizing extemporaneously because his sermons are effectively given to the whole world. And here we have had no clarification from the Pope himself regarding what exactly he meant regarding the relation between salvation and the good deeds of atheists.  The ambiguity thus remains in the public record the Pope himself created.

This past July the world delighted when Pope Francis declared “
Who am I to judge?” respecting the pervasive presence of those he called “gay” among the priesthood, the hierarchy, and even the Vatican apparatus he is supposed to be cleansing of the “gay Mafia” representing the “filth” his predecessor identified shortly before his own elevation to the papacy. (“How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the Priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!” Cardinal Ratzinger, “Reflection on the Ninth Station of the Cross,” Good Friday, 2005.)  That remark set off a worldwide eruption of delighted media reports.

Typifying the media’s delight, the New York Times reported that “Francis’s words could not have been more different from those of Benedict XVI, who in 2005 wrote that homosexuality was ‘a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil, and an ‘objective disorder’ [and that]… men with ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ should not become priests.” While, the Times noted, “Vatican experts were quick to point out that Francis was not suggesting that priests or anyone else should act on their homosexual tendencies, … the fact that he made such comments—and used the word “gay”—was nevertheless revolutionary, and likely to generate significant discussion in local dioceses, where bishops are divided over whether to accept priests who are gay but celibate.” In other words, the Pope’s remark is being construed as a green light to continue ordaining men afflicted by the homosexual disorder, despite their patent impediment to ordination. The consequence will be perpetuation of a “gay culture” in the Novus Ordo priesthood in defiance of the 2005 instruction on seminarians quoted by the Times, which cited precisely support for this “gay culture” as a reason to deny ordination.

In other spontaneous utterances Francis has suggested that Catholic traditionalists comprise a “
Pelagian current” of “restorationist groups” that are guilty of “triumphalism,” including a “triumphalist” liturgy—which happens to be the traditional Roman Rite so strongly defended by his immediate predecessor. He is even reported to have gently mocked the faithful who presented him with a spiritual bouquet of counted Rosaries. It is difficult to reconcile these remarks with the sentiment “Who am I to judge?”  But then papal spontaneity of this sort is fraught with the potential for self-contradiction, misunderstanding, confusion and division in the Church, as we can see from the ad intra effects of the Pope’s surprising pronouncements.  (Here I must note that the absence of any “gay culture” among the “Pelagian” “restorationists” with their “triumphalist” liturgy.)

Ad extra, the media jackals are snapping up the Pope’s off-the-cuff tidbits and running amok with them.  The effect has been devastating. The Huffington Post online video page, for example, hailed the “punking” of the papacy by Francis, while denouncing Pope Benedict as a sad example of the hidebound papacy Francis is supposedly leaving behind. “Pope Francis the Awesome,” said the Huffington Post commentator, “has totally shifted the focus of the Catholic Church from fringe issues like gay marriage… focusing instead on poverty, the environment and, as he said, cleaning your plate.”  Compare Francis to Pope Benedict, the unbearably smug commentator continued: “the dude used his Christmas speech to remind gays they can’t get married.” But “Francis the Awesome… doesn’t waste time trying to convince people that the greatest issue facing the world is this loving couple,” the commentator exulted as he displayed a photograph of two homosexuals kissing their adopted child. “He [Francis] says even atheists will be saved by doing good and sticks by it even after the Vatican gives him hell…. In short, Pope Francis is punking the Vatican.  Well, you’re on a roll Pope, and the Catholic Church is a lot better for it.”

The net result of the Pope’s insistence on spontaneity has been a growing public relations disaster. And it shows no signs of abating.  Only days ago, the Pope sent a letter to the co-founder and former editor of La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, addressing questions to the Pope which Scalfari had posed on the pages of that newspaper in July and August. The Pope’s 2500 words, published in full by La Repubblica on September 11, unleashed a new storm of media exultation over another purported loosening of the Church’s teaching respecting the spiritual condition of atheists. The following passage is pertinent (the translation is mine, as the published translations are imprecise and incomplete):

As for the three questions you asked me in the article of August 7th.  It would seem to me that of the first two, the one that is dear to your heart is understanding the Church’s attitude towards those who do not share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.  Given that—and this is fundamental—God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. Even for one who does not have faith, there is sin when one goes against conscience. In fact, listening to and obeying it means making a decision in the face of what is perceived to be good or evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.

First of all, the italicized sentence seems unintelligible: The question concerns whether God will forgive one who does not believe in Him and does not seek faith in Him. The Pope’s answer, however, confusingly refers to the mercy of God toward one who “asks for mercy… in contrition and with a sincere heart” only to change the subject within the same sentence to God’s view of those “who do not believe in God” for whom the issue is “obeying their own conscience.” As it is obvious that one who does not believe in God or seek faith in God cannot be asking Him “for mercy… in contrition and with a sincere heart,” the reference to God’s limitless mercy would seem pointless in this context.

Secondly, the Pope’s response to Scalfari omits the revealed truth that “Without faith it is impossible to please God. For he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and is a rewarder to them that seek him.” (Heb. 11:6).  That is, it is impossible for an atheist to come to God because he does not believe in God, and thus it is impossible for an atheist to be saved if he dies an atheist.

The Pope’s letter appears to conflate the ultimate salvation of atheists with the question whether they are guilty of personal sin if they follow the dictates of conscience in the wayfaring state. But here the Pope’s letter suffers from another omission: the problem of the malformed conscience as a guide to action. When the conscience is deformed through habitual sin its promptings no longer excuse from culpability. On this point we have an excellent commentary by Francis’s predecessor, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger.  With admirable clarity, Cardinal Ratzinger’s
1991 address on “Conscience and Truth” refutes the idea that one is ipso facto inculpable if he follows his conscience:

It is of course undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of conscience or what one takes to be such, is always right, indeed whether it is infallible, is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth—at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas which constitute the very pillars of our existence. For judgments of conscience can contradict each other. Thus there could be at best the subject’s own truth, which would be reduced to the subject’s sincerity.

Thus, even if one is “sincerely” convinced that his immoral actions are moral, “it can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the first place, by having stifled the protest of the anamnesis of being”—by which Cardinal Ratzinger means the law that God has inscribed in our nature.  In the case of an errant conscience, malformed by sin, “[t]he guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper—not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience but in the neglect of my being which made me deaf to the internal promptings of truth.”

The error that the “sincere” sinner is ipso facto subjectively innocent leads to absurd and destructive results. Cardinal Ratzinger sums up the problem:

In the course of a dispute, a senior colleague, who was keenly aware of the plight to being Christian in our times, expressed the opinion that one should actually be grateful to God that He allows there to be so many unbelievers in good conscience. For if their eyes were opened and they became believers, they would not be capable, in this world of ours, of bearing the burden of faith with all its moral obligations. But as it is, since they can go another way in good conscience, they can reach salvation.

What shocked me about this assertion was not in the first place the idea of an erroneous conscience given by God Himself in order to save men by means of such artfulness—the idea, so to speak, of a blindness sent by God for the salvation of those in question. What disturbed me was the notion that it harbored, that faith is a burden which can hardly be borne and which no doubt was intended only for stronger natures—faith almost as a kind of punishment, in any case, an imposition not easily coped with. 

According to this view, faith would not make salvation easier but harder. Being happy would mean not being burdened with having to believe or having to submit to the moral yoke of the faith of the Catholic Church. The erroneous conscience, which makes life easier and marks a more human course, would then be a real grace, the normal way to salvation…. Man would be more at home in the dark than in the light. Faith would not be the good gift of the good God but instead an affliction. [emphasis and paragraph breaks added]

As the future Pope Benedict concludes: “In the last few decades, notions of this sort have discernibly crippled the disposition to evangelize.” They certainly have! And those who espouse such notions, writes Cardinal Ratzinger, are afflicted by—mark well these words—an “almost traumatic aversion many have to what they hold to be ‘pre-conciliar’ Catholicism…”

It is only reasonable to infer that Pope Francis’s rather contemptuous public remarks regarding Pelagianism, restorationism, triumphalism and triumphalist liturgy suggest an aversion to “pre-conciliar Catholicism.” But nothing I have written here should be construed as a suggestion that the Pope has “preached heresy” from the throne of Peter—a throne he has pointedly abandoned in favor of a simple chair.  Heresy is “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.” (CIC, §751) The Pope’s remarks evince neither the denial of an article of faith nor the obstinacy of a heretic, which we would be in no position to judge in any event. Rather, the Pope’s penchant for improvised “pastoral simplicity” demonstrates what John Allen has called  “the perils of an improv pope.”

In my view, the Pope should discontinue his Twitter account, refrain from extemporaneous homilies (or at least impromptu remarks during his homilies), avoid any further Q & A sessions with an intrinsically hostile press, and in general confine his public pronouncements to the service of the Petrine office as the principle of unity in the Church, not sensationalism and confusion. In short, we need less of Francis the Awesome, hailed by the world, and more of the Vicar of Christ, whose standing in the world was prophetically described by Our Lord himself: “I
f the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you. If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.”  (John 15:16-21).

If we are going to make comparisons between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, we ought to do so from the otherworldly perspective provided by the very Founder of the Catholic Church. We ought, therefore, to ask ourselves: Which of the two Popes is hated by the world and which is loved, and what does this mean for the current course of Francis’s pontificate? The question, unfortunately, answers itself.  We can only pray that the answer changes radically for the better in the days to come, that the world’s love affair with Francis the Awesome will come to an end.



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