The pontiff’s erroneous path
In the first year or two of Pope Francis’s pontificate, conservative-minded Catholics made heroic efforts to place the perplexing ways of the new pope in continuity with the thought and deeds of his immediate predecessors. It was said that he had been a forceful critic of liberation theology, at least in its Marxist expressions, that he was a man of traditional piety, that he spoke about the machinations of the Evil One with surprising regularity, and that his style — brash, critical of established ways, anxious for dialogue with the modern world — was a refreshing way of bringing Christian orthodoxy to bear on the modern world. But there were early signs that challenged this reassuring consensus. Francis seemed suspicious of the most faithful Catholics — they were, in his estimation, rigid, obsessed with the evils of abortion and sexual sins, closed to the need for a Church open to humanitarian activism and a de-emphasis on dogma and even truth.
As the estimable Father Raymond J. de Souza pointed out in the November 28, 2019, issue of the Catholic Herald, Pope Francis has a soft spot for leftist leaders who oppress civil society in the name of social justice and solidarity with the poor. The recently deposed Bolivian leader Evo Morales was, de Souza writes, “the Holy Father’s favorite leader in the Americas,” which “was passing strange, as [Morales] was a tyrant.” Francis met with the demagogic Morales six times in six years and considered the man to be his friend. In an act never adequately explained by the Vatican, de Souza notes, when the Argentine pope visited Bolivia in 2015 he accepted from Morales a crucifix adorned with a hammer and sickle.
All of this, alas, fits into a much broader pattern. Francis genuinely esteemed Fidel Castro and told reporters after his visit to Cuba in 2015 that he saw in Castro a strongly committed ecologist. He remained silent publicly and privately about the sufferings and persecution of his coreligionists in Cuba under Communism. Castro’s hideous despotism and draconian restrictions on the Roman Catholic Church did not influence the pope’s judgment of the man or the regime. In Venezuela, the bishops repeatedly pleaded with the Latin American pope to speak out against the emerging anti-Christian leftist despotism in Caracas; the best the pope could do was call for “dialogue” between an oppressed and mutilated civil society and a regime whose “socialism” he still seemed to esteem.
At the annual meeting of the American bishops in Baltimore this past November, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, chastised the American bishops for not being on board with the “magisterium of Pope Francis.” But this is not the way faithful Catholics talk. This is evidence of a misplaced ultramontanism, allowing a single pope to alter enduring Church teaching in the name of “change” or accommodation to the zeitgeist and in obvious disregard of what is permanent in the natural moral law. As Bishop Schneider suggests, there is something unilateral about Pope Francis’s thinking on crime and punishment and the allegedly immoral and illicit character of the death penalty. Francis almost carelessly partakes of what C. S. Lewis called a “humanitarian theory of punishment” that, as Schneider says, “in principle implicitly or explicitly absolutize[s] the corporal and temporal life of man.” There is a blindness to the power of evil, and to original sin, that informs this humanitarianism from beginning to end. There is little or no talk about the need for penance and expiation for serious sins and crimes, or even a recognition that “monstrous crimes” must be punished by decent political communities that wish to safeguard the common good.
As Bishop Schneider is right to note, temporal punishment has sometimes given rise to repentance and a radical transformation of souls: Witness the “good thief” with Jesus at Golgotha who found expiation — and eternal life — on the verge of his execution. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux did not attend protest rallies demanding that the death penalty be abolished. Rather, she prayed that hardened criminals, on the verge of execution, would respond to the gift of grace and repent before a merciful God who is our father and friend. This understanding of sin, crime, repentance, and responsibility is alien to this papacy and the “progressive” wing of the Catholic Church, which indulges in a humanitarian sentimentality that today too often passes for Christianity.
On matters of war and peace, and immigration and the integrity of borders, Francis has been guided by the same humanitarian moralism that has informed his “frenzied activism” on other fronts. In a 2018 book of interviews with the left-wing French sociologist Dominique Wolton, Francis lightly dismisses the rich Catholic tradition of ethical and prudential reflection on matters of war and peace. In the tone of a person with no political responsibilities, and no sense of what they might be, he declares that there is no such thing as a just war. If he means that no war is simply or absolutely just, he is reiterating age-old Christian wisdom about the impact of original sin even on decent political communities attempting to defend the civilized patrimony of humankind. But this pope, abandoning equitable or balanced judgment, declares that only with peace do you “win everything.” He overlooks the fact that “peace” can also be a vehicle of mendacity, oppression, injustice, violence, and genocide, as that proffered by totalitarian regimes. As Vladimir Solovyov argued in his “Short Tale of the Anti-Christ” (1900), there can be such a thing as an “evil peace” and a good or legitimate war (and vice versa, of course). Francis’s conception in no way resembles the “tranquility of order” so richly articulated in Book 19 of St. Augustine’s City of God. If only he would display more deference to the rich theological and philosophical wisdom of the past.
The silence of most of the bishops in the Catholic Church on this embarrassing but destructive mixture of progressivism, reflexive activism, and casual dismissal of the deepest wisdom of the Church is disconcerting. There are exceptions. As Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has repeatedly pointed out, the Church must recover the clarity of true theology and the natural moral law. “Spiritual and moral renewal in Christ and not the de-Christianization of the Church or her transformation into an NGO” will point the way forward. If the Church is nothing but a humanitarian NGO, she is nothing holy or enduring and will be blown to and fro by various ideological winds. In his pre-Christmas address at the end of 2019, Francis railed against “rigid” traditionalists who will not accept “change.” He also quoted the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, who claimed shortly before his death in 2012 that the Catholic Church was “200 years behind the times.” One must ask: When did the morally and intellectually empty ideological standard of progress and reaction replace the enduring distinctions between truth and falsehood and good and evil? Doesn’t the Church aim to see and uphold the “timeless in time,” as T. S. Eliot so eloquently put it?
Legitimate change presupposes a much deeper fidelity to enduring truth. But Catholic progressives and humanitarians have historicized the faith. They succumb to what the French Catholic political philosopher Pierre Manent calls “the authority of the present moment.” Truth itself evolves in this sad emasculation of the faith of our fathers. Love and charity take on a wholly horizontal dimension, and old and enduring verities give way to “the spirit of the age.” The good is historicized, becoming a new thing in every epoch, if not every generation. Progressive Christians of the type that dominate the Roman Curia have become fixated on an imminent transformation of human nature and the world. We are faced with an existential choice of the first order: a choice between what Eliot called the “Permanent Things” and a facile, ideological appeal to “what is happening.” One hopes and prays that the Holy Father comes to see just what is at stake when one aims to “change” the Church so quickly and precipitously.
When the head of the Jesuit order, the progressive Arturo Sosa, S.J., tells an interviewer that no one had a tape recorder when Jesus Christ set forth his demanding teachings on divorce and remarriage, we are dealing with open contempt for enduring truth and the divinely revealed Word of God. None of this has anything to do with pastoral discernment, properly understood, or Saint John Henry Newman’s “development of doctrine.” Doctrine develops but it does not decisively change. The Trinitarian character of the Godhead is amply present in the New Testament and was even prefigured in the Old. But the doctrine reached its fullest and most complete articulation at the Council of Nicaea in a.d. 325. The development of doctrine owes nothing to a historicist denial of unchanging truth. That is a distortion of the Catholic faith and the meaning of Newman’s famous concept.