The Crisis of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis

Pope Francis leads his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican November 19, 2014. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)
In this time of turmoil, the editors of National Review asked five Catholic writers to weigh in.

In the most recent issue of National Review (“The Case against Pope Francis,” October 29, 2018), NR senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote, “The Francis pontificate was to be an era of mercy for sinners at the peripheries and accountability for malefactors at the Vatican. Instead, almost the opposite has taken place.” According to Dougherty, the Roman Catholic Church’s “twin scandals” — the calamitous handling and coverup of clerical sexual abuse, and the the pope’s efforts to foment a “Theological Revolution” on sex, marriage, and the sacraments — have exposed deep divisions within the Church. In this time of turmoil, the editors of National Review asked five eminent thinkers to weigh in.

C. C. Pecknold
Conservatives have usually viewed the pope as a moral makeweight against the constant threat of social and political disorder. The papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought to reassure the world that the Church was indeed a bulwark against “the dictatorship of relativism.” Even as Michael Brendan Dougherty provocatively makes “The Case against Pope Francis,” his working assumption is simply that this is not how things are supposed to go: Popes are not supposed to resign, nor are bishops supposed to “make a mess.” Dougherty’s claim that the Holy Father promotes men who are “morally compromised and doctrinally suspect” is a lament that the Church is suffering because of a fundamental weakness in its hierarchy that runs from top to bottom. After the “summer of shame” the case for its being morally compromised hardly needs to be made. About those men trained as priests in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (those darkest of decades), it’s tempting to say the whole generation is compromised. But what if that’s true yet also misleads us about the state of the Church or the papacy? The hierarchy could be worse now than it was during the Arian crisis, the papacy more compromised than it was at Avignon. I’m just not sure.

If we add up all the failures that Dougherty rightly names as such, are we seeing the whole, or merely the earthly parts of the Church which have always been in desperate need of purification? The failures of the hierarchy have become much more visible under Pope Francis. But if the corruption of the best is the worst, what do we say about the corruption of the mediocre? Isn’t it on the whole a good thing that the corruption before us is inextricably bound up with the failed strategy of accommodation to progressive ideals — a strategy that will forever be understood as an accommodation of sin rather than resistance to it? Aren’t we seeing the apotheosis of the so-called “hermeneutic of rupture” manifested in precisely the moral relativism and doctrinal confusion that Dougherty laments? No papacy has been without providential purpose. Not one pope has been so bad that saints have not been made by God during his reign. And I’ll hazard a guess that the Catholic Church is no weaker now than it was when the Lord slept in the storm-tossed boat as his disciples fretted. The bulwark remains, but it’s never been the hierarchy, or the earthly parts of the Church. The bulwark is the Lord who is in the boat.

— C. C. Pecknold is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. 

Daniel J. Mahoney
Kudos to Michael Brendan Dougherty for writing such a frank diagnosis of the pathologies at the heart of the pontificate of Pope Francis. He has hit the nail on the head. Dougherty is undoubtedly correct: There is “a type of churchman that Francis seems to favor: the morally compromised and the doctrinally suspect.” It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that all of Francis’s major episcopal appointments in the United States (and now candidates for the College of Cardinals) are protégés of the disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. These appointees, like the pope, want to “change” the Church, erase a sense of sin, and reduce Christianity to a humanitarian and leftist simulacra of its true self. They are, at best, half-Catholics, or no Catholics at all. They dismiss age-old doctrine and the natural moral law breezily in the name of a vague historicism, a “kneeling before the world,” as Jacques Maritain so aptly put it in the heady days of the Second Vatican Council. The Holy Spirit, whom they routinely ritualistically invoke, somehow always seems to be on “the right side of History.” As Dougherty brilliantly demonstrates, these men reduce the gospel to a barely attainable “objective ideal,” one that won’t get in the way of accommodating democratic relativism or a corrupt notion of mercy that never asks imperfect human beings to repent or turn to the light of God. In so doing, they make a mockery of the apostolic teaching the Church is charged to protect and sustain.

Pope Benedict XVI insisted in his magisterial Regensburg address in 2006 that Christianity is never reducible to a “humanitarian moral message.” But that reduction is precisely what Francis and his acolytes insist upon, systematically accommodating late modernity with fevered abandon. They indulge leftist tyrannies in Cuba and Venezuela that are deeply hostile to the Christian faith. The head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, a Mexican bishop with liberationist sympathies, recently went so far as to praise Communist China as the country that best instantiates Catholic social teaching. One had thought, mistakenly it seems, that such teaching had something to do with respect for political and religious liberty, and with the safeguarding of the liberties and prerogatives of the Church. But apparently not. The Church they announce is the left-wing party at prayer, one that believes, as Dougherty so strikingly puts it, that “believing in sin is now worse than sin itself.” There is nothing holy or heroic, nothing even solid or decent, about such an undemanding vision.

One must add that Pope Francis himself is increasingly autocratic and bereft of sympathy for those who remain faithful to traditional Church teachings: They are, in his view, “rigid,” doctrinaire, and heartless and must be driven from a transformed Church. His inner circle shamelessly castigates a truth-teller such as Archbishop Viganò. Francis acts more like an oriental potentate, an agent of revolutionary change, than a guardian of Christ’s teaching. He will leave behind a Church that is hopelessly politicized, morally lax, and at odds with any traditionally Christian understanding of sin and repentance — a Church that has no place for the grace and mercy that lie at the heart of God’s demanding love. At least the Borgia and Medici popes, however personally corrupt they may have been, deferred to Catholic doctrine. Francis’s “humanitarian” substitute for a recognizably Catholic dispensation will speed up the decline of the Church and the dechristianization of the West.

This is a time to pray for the protection and intervention of a providential God. The Church speaks to men’s souls when it resists the allure of the zeitgeist and courageously speaks what Pope John Paul II liked to call “the truth about man.” This is a time for courage and truth.

— Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. His book, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity, will be published by Encounter Books this fall. 

Nicholas Frankovich
Lex orandi, lex credendi: Theology is downstream from liturgy. Conservative critics of Pope Francis look at his pontificate so far and see a man on an unholy mission to insinuate changes into Catholic teaching so that it conforms more closely to mainstream mores in contemporary, secularized societies. And yet many who are alarmed at what they regard as his effort to water down ancient doctrine accept the sweeping liturgical reforms of half a century ago, when the Church’s public prayer was made to conform more closely to the idioms and tastes of . . . contemporary, secularized societies. The new missal deemphasized the understanding of Mass as a ritual sacrifice. The complementary fashion in new church architecture was to remove the tabernacle from its central position corresponding to that of the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. The practice of taking communion in the hand then diminished a little further the awe that the real presence of Christ should inspire in the faithful, for whom the sacrilege of receiving the Eucharist without having confessed their mortal sins first in the companion sacrament of reconciliation had lost much of its sting. “Even in the field of the thought and life of the church certain trends inevitably favor the decline of the sense of sin,” John Paul II remarked in his letter Reconciliation and Penance (1984).

The impoverishment of liturgy in the life of the Church since the middle of the last century has resulted in more spiritual deprivation than would a makeover of Catholic doctrine along the lines of, say, the Anglican communion, which tolerates substantial diversity in sexual ethics. No Catholic would have to lower his standard of chastity just because Rome relaxed its teaching against artificial contraception or premarital sex. The Mass we pray, however, is only whatever we find on offer at our parish or at a church or chapel within driving distance. The Catholic faith still offers abundant graces. Claim them if you want to cultivate your interior life and deepen your relationship with God, but understand that the support you will find from the present-day institutional Church is limited.

As we pray, so we believe, or will come to believe. It may take a couple of generations. If Pope Francis aims to give the Church a moral theology worthy of its liturgy, consider its liturgy.

— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of  National Review.

Anne Hendershott
Described as “Lenin’s pope” by radio talk-show host Michael Savage, Pope Francis wrote on his Twitter account in 2014 that “inequality is the root of all evil.” Dismissing traditional Catholic teaching that Satan’s envy of God’s superiority is the root of all evil, Pope Francis has often denigrated capitalism as “trickle-down economics.” Early in his pontificate, when leftist Bolivian president Evo Morales presented Pope Francis with a “Communist crucifix” — a carving of Christ crucified on the cross of a hammer and sickle — the pope graciously accepted it and later told the Italian press that “I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” Ignoring the murderous history symbolized by the hammer and sickle, Pope Francis told reporters on the plane ride back to Rome from Bolivia that “I understand this work . . . and for me, it wasn’t an offense.”

Raised in socialist Argentina, Pope Francis has fondly recalled learning about Communism through readings provided to him by his mentor, Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, a woman he has described as a “fervent Communist . . . a courageous person.” This commitment to socialism continued throughout Pope Francis’s years as a Jesuit, a religious order of priests that since 1965, with the election of Pedro de Arrupe y Gondra as the 27th father general of the Jesuits, has been committed to redefining the very purpose of the Catholic Church — from one of spiritual otherworldliness with a concern for eternal salvation to that of a Church involved in the here and now and the struggle to create a new sociopolitical system by helping to redistribute the earth’s resources and goods.

Toward that goal, Pope Francis has promoted a doctrinal vision that is “born of the people” in prioritizing the lived experiences and insights of ordinary Catholics over the authoritative teachings of the Church. Calling it a “creative fidelity,” the pope has defied his predecessors Pope Emeritus Benedict and Saint Pope John Paul II, who warned of the dangers of embracing this form of “popular Catholicism.” The result has been a disaster for the Church, as leftist clergy are elevated while faithful and beloved conservative theologians such as Cardinal Raymond Burke and Cardinal Robert Sarah have been publicly humiliated or removed from their positions.

These are perilous times for Catholics, as the “people’s Church” continues to gain ascendancy in attempting to usher in a new socialist society — a Marxist heaven on earth — and the salvific mission of the Church is lost.

— Anne Hendershott is a professor of sociology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where she also serves as the director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life.

Kathryn Jean Lopez
The most striking image of this pontificate was the day, just months in, when Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI appeared together in the Vatican Gardens and consecrated the whole place to Saint Michael and Saint Joseph. Saint Michael is the archangel we implore for help in battling Satan. Saint Joseph is, of course, the foster father of Jesus, an intercessor for fatherhood and purity. Had there been any doubt what kind of challenges the popes have been facing and what the Church is battling — within and in its engagement with the world — there it was on clear display: Satan wants to wreck our faith and our families and our very identities.

The best of Francis has been some of the best of the Jesuits, specifically their founder, Saint Ignatius Loyola, and his insistence on rigorous examination of conscience and his Spiritual Exercises and his rules for discerning when the Spirit of God is at work in you — and for distinguishing the difference between that and the spirit of Satan. In his homilies, time and again, Pope Francis seems a spiritual director to the world in this tradition, using Scripture as a guide to prod the conscience and help with real encounter with Christ so that those of us who profess to be Christian are living lives more conformed to the cross.

The color red — the color of martyrdom and the color of Christ’s blood shed for mankind — is what jumped out at me while I was reading Michael Brendan Dougherty’s case against Francis. I don’t know if Pope Francis is a man of heroic virtue, but I know he’s made me beg for that miracle in my own life. As I write, it’s the memorial of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, ordained a bishop by Saint Peter himself, who desired martyrdom. I don’t know if Pope Francis desires to be a martyr, but I wonder if he isn’t, at times, modeling a kind of martyrdom. When he does those interviews with Eugenio Scalfari, is he modeling the understanding that even hardened atheists in the final season of life are not beyond a possible encounter with Divine Mercy? I don’t know. But I know that after my initial frustration with his giving interviews to someone who doesn’t take notes, he’s made me take a look at people differently.

There is a mess before us, needless to say, in the Church. And it makes me think of the Chesterton quote about what’s wrong with the world. It’s me. Each one of us who profess to be Christian needs to be more radically converted. Pope Francis didn’t start the fires that divide the Catholic Church. Under Francis, they are out in the open more, at the highest levels. There is certainly sunlight that is being shone on things that have been previously in the dark. And in my time watching him and praying with him, I can’t help but wonder if he may just trust the Holy Spirit more than the rest of us to sort it out.

I don’t know if he does, but he’s certainly gotten me to try.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor at large of National Review.

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