A Note of Caution: Is the Holy Father Handling the Situation in Africa Admirably?Written by Helen M. Weir
For a moment there, we North Americans watched with a great deal of fascination and much less information as the Holy Father once again wielded his signature weapon of demanding the submission of letters reflecting content he controls, immediately and pending outcomes that could charitably be characterized as draconian. To reiterate, the priests in this diocese have not accepted a bishop appointed by Francis, ostensibly because of tribal tensions, although the priests themselves have contested this portrayal of their motives. But whatever the nature of the conflict itself, the facts which have emerged regarding the way the Holy Father has elected to approach the matter remain both disturbing and undenied. [Note: In response to the situation in Ahiara, which he described as “an attempted taking over of the vineyard of the Lord,” Pope Francis asked “every priest or ecclesiastic incardinated in the Diocese of Ahiara, whether he resides there or works elsewhere, even abroad, write a letter addressed to me in which he asks for forgiveness; all must write individually and personally. We all must share this common sorrow.” Whoever fails to do so within thirty days, the Pope said, “will be ipso facto suspended a divinis and will lose his current office.” MJM]
Certain conservative commentators, uncomfortably critical of Amoris Laetitia and arguably eager to seize upon opportunities to sound supportive of this Holy Father whenever they can be, have commended Pope Francis for acting “decisively” in Ahiara (which is putting it mildly), as is his right. The refusal to accept a bishop is, in fact, a very serious matter regardless of the reasons behind it, compromising the unity of the Body of Christ. Still, in this as in any case, the reality that some kind of intervention is warranted doesn’t automatically mean that every kind of intervention is justified. Praising the way the African situation has been dealt with so far is like contending (as the old saying goes) that any liquid will help put out a fire, including—say—gasoline.
In truth, every Catholic ought to be not only quietly concerned, but even overtly alarmed, by the way this Supreme Pontiff is abusing the office he holds in a pattern that is both escalating and impossible to responsibly ignore. Yes, discipline should sometimes be administered, but never apart from justice. Yes, higher authority is to be recognized, but so is the dignity of the inferior. Yes, action must be taken by the Pope (and by all of us) for the good of the Church, but the personal agenda of any of its members, including that of the servus servorum Dei, may not be slyly substituted for this “good,” nor are the rest of us required to turn a blind eye when such an attempt is made. Pope Francis’ treatment of the clergy in Africa, like his trampling of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, the Knights of Malta, the John Paul II Institute—and the list keeps getting longer—has not been an exercise of authority but of authoritarianism unhinged. Those who have lately proffered their applause would do well to recall what appeasement in the face of such tactics has historically been demonstrated to accomplish.
First of all, the threat of suspending the entire African diocese a divinis is egregious. When an appraiser decides on the value of a property, for example, he looks around at other similar homes in the neighborhood and finds out what they sold for, so that he can determine a price range that might be fair. When we consider the Mexican Standoff in Africa and ask, “How have comparable situations been dealt with?” we find ourselves—like Reepicheep the Narnian mouse in the clutches of the slave traders—reduced to virtual silence by the number of things that need to be said all at the same time. Can you imagine Pope Francis issuing the same kind of ultimatum to, say, Cardinal Marx and what’s left of his diocese instead? Cardinal Kasper? The hierarchy of the troubled island of Malta?
Neither can I.
And neither (more to the point) can they.
Looking at the African situation in context, in other words, makes the suspension threat very difficult to support. If Pope Francis was simply a tough-guy overall, but an evenhanded one, our evaluation could be different. “Cowboy up; this is how he treats everybody, and we’ll all be better off because of it in the end,” would be one thing. “Why is he going after these people now, when the ones who really deserve it are still being left alone?” is quite another. When Jorge Bergoglio personally barges into the office of Father James Martin, S.J., demanding a signature within the hour of a prewritten missive in which Father agrees to pull his Bridges bestseller straight off of the shelves and repent for having harmed the unity of the Body of Christ or lose his good standing as a Catholic priest, I’ll be impressed by the treatment meted out to the clergy in Ahiara—but not before.
Secondly, the emphasis on making the African priests apologize to the Holy Father himself, personally and all but exclusively, is deeply problematic. Let’s say an adolescent too young for a driver’s license steals his father’s car keys, and obtains and consumes an excessive amount of alcohol while cruising around town. He predictably loses control of the vehicle, knocking down a teenager who was biking on the sidewalk, and then careens across the park and into the playground, hospitalizing three toddlers before dead-ending into a tree. What kind of a father would, upon being made aware of the situation, seek out his son, shake him by the shoulders, and shout, “You apologize to me this instant, young man! This instant; do you hear? And if you think for one moment you’re going to get away without paying for the damage to the Mercedes, you’ve got another thing coming. Do you realize what you’ve done to the rest of the family that has to drive it—like, for example, me? Well, do you?”
The father in this scenario is well within his rights to count himself as first among to whom his son owes an apology. Still, he is far from the only one. It would say something distressing about the man’s personal perspective and priorities if being apologized to constituted, at this stage in the game, his sole or even his main concern. Yet that is precisely how Pope Francis is behaving.
What about demanding that the African clergy apologize to the rejected bishop, if mere tribal affiliation is truly the basis for the painful ostracization? How about requiring those priests to say they’re sorry to the members of their flocks, traumatized and possibly even scandalized by the spectacle taking place before their very eyes? And would it be asking too much for the Holy Father to take into account even the welfare of the allegedly recalcitrant clerics themselves? The father whose son went out and wrecked the car would hopefully want to know not only how the teenager and the toddlers are doing, but also that the boy himself is still safe and sound, which are separate concerns entirely from justified condemnation of the child’s clear guilt. Pope Francis’ entire modus operandi, from his passive-aggressive refusal to so much as acknowledge the existence of concerns which are not his own to the now-legendary meltdowns constituting the flipside of the same coin, indicate clearly that there exists only one person whom he truly wishes to shield from being offended or even harmed. And I will give you a hint: that person, according to him, is no one else on earth, and no one in Heaven, either.
But wait—weren’t we treated to another trademark Scriptural garbling contesting this very characterization? Yes, the Holy Father did invoke the parable of the workers in the Vineyard as his motive for acting as he has in Ahiara, lending the papal high dudgeon a truly holy tinge. Pope Francis’ point, if not that of the inspired author, comes down to this: he gets to suspend whomever he wants to suspend, whenever he wants to suspend them, because (as he cordially pointed out to Cardinal Müller on the occasion of having dismissed some clerical personnel from the CDF without cause), he is the Pope! Which is why, truth to tell, the “caring for the Vineyard” thing ended up ringing a bit hollow at best.
Guarding and advancing the good of the Bride of Christ is to be accomplished selflessly, primarily, entirely, and without prejudice, not only by members of the hierarchy but by all of the baptized, according to their own stations and measures. This means that a man who becomes our Holy Father incurs greater accountability, not less. The bishop and clergy of a given diocese have a certain portion of the Church entrusted to their care, but the Pope has the whole thing. If Francis the First was actually the fearless guardian of the Vineyard which he styles himself, he would be observed behaving personally and officially according to the same standard he is imposing upon his Ahiara underlings, and then some. But is he?
A Supreme Pontiff like the one Pope Francis is implicitly claiming to be would—to pull a wild example out of nowhere—answer crucial questions put to him about encroachments upon the Church’s timeless Eucharistic discipline in a prompt and forthright fashion (not to mention, correctly). Such a Pope would, at the very least, give first place in his calendar to any Cardinals requesting an audience intended to address their grave reservations in this regard. Are we seeing any such thing? No, we are not. And it is a safe bet that we will see Father Martin turn in his required letter of apology for his “gay-friendly” apologetics first.
That is why the Bergoglian “L’eglise, c’est moi!” must not to be given any quarter in our hearts, minds, theological reflections, or public comments—the perceived need to be supportive of this particular occupant of the See of Peter whenever possible notwithstanding. If once Pope Francis is allowed to establish the principle (or, in any case, the credible impression) not that he himself, just like everybody else, has to obey Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, so that Our Lord may be obeyed in truth by all through ordered membership in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church which He established, but rather that submitting to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is crudely and unqualifiedly the same thing as submitting to Pope Francis personally, and to whatever Christian or unChristian thing he chooses to say or do, then there is no question where this pontificate will end up taking us. Anyone who fails to recognize this reality will not be able to use the exercise of “charity,” or of “finding the good in everything,” or of seeking a “balance between right and left” as their shield in the end, either, because any remaining ignorance about the shell game Jorge Bergoglio is playing is far, far from invincible at this stage. All roads lead to Amoris; how far are we going to allow ourselves to led us down this garden path?
After all, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that we Catholics are being desensitized in either direction. When Pope Francis does something illegitimate—like, say, trying to allow for the admission of unrepentant public adulterers to Holy Communion—he does it with elaborately legitimate orchestration. After all, before the promulgation of the objectionable Apostolic Exhortation, surveys were distributed throughout the entire world, endless interviews were granted, and not one but two Family Synods were eventually hosted. That way, any Catholic critical of the absolutely unacceptable end Team Bergoglio was trying to achieve could be neutralized by citing the complete ecclesial correctness of the means that were so painstakingly employed in achieving it. But when Pope Francis does something legitimate—like, say, trying to get the Diocese of Ahiara to recognize a bishop authoritatively appointed—he does it in maximally illegitimate ways. Any Catholic critical of his capricious cruelty towards these particular clerics just has to eat it, because it is the right of the Church hierarchy to retain control over the appointment of its own bishops (just like this same Holy Father has been so careful to do in China—right?). We are gradually being bludgeoned into accepting the idea that being the Pope means, on the one hand, that Francis the First gets to do whatever he wants to and, on the other, that he can do it any way he pleases. Is this really a progression which deserves even the most restrained conservative applause?
What Papa Bergoglio means by the peculiar warping of the concept of Catholic “total obedience” he continues to invoke ever more shamelessly on his own behalf, in other words, and what well-formed but not-entirely-clued-in Catholic commentators naturally assume he means, may be two very different things. Does anyone doubt that the day may not be far away on which letters of assent to Amoris Laetitia and its rank heterodoxies will be demanded from any and all—and on pain, no less, of every sanction that the very highest office of the Church has at its command? And what will there be left to say in support of The One Who Must At All Costs Be Supported, when it dawns?
Helen M. Weir is a freelance writer who holds a Master's Degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She belongs to the Militia Immaculatae movement of Total Marian Consecration founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Hero of Auschwitz.