Is Pope Francis Really a ‘Man of Tradition’?

Pope Francis is seen outside the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in the southern Italian coastal city of Bari, Italy February 23, 2020. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)
There is plenty of reasonable debate to be had about the present pontiff. But to call him a ‘man of the Right’ is to misapprehend his own words and actions.

In Declan Leary’s analysis of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia, he seeks to defend the proposition that the document reveals Francis to be “a man of Tradition, maybe even a man of the Right.” The apostolic exhortation, which comes in the wake of clerical flirtations with paganism at the Amazon synod, does not abolish or otherwise dilute the discipline of priestly celibacy, nor does it propose the institution of a heretofore unthinkable “female diaconate,” as suggested by the synod’s Final Document.

It is to Francis’s credit that he resisted the radical agenda pushed at the synod by the German bishops, two-thirds of whom, according to their news agency’s head, Ludwig Ring-Eifel, support ordaining married men to the priesthood and admitting women to the diaconate. So I am less interested in quibbling with Leary’s assessment of Querida Amazonia — a document that contains, for all of its strange verbiage and rhetorical imprecision, an edifying defense of the Amazonian region against rapacious business interests — than I am in challenging his claim that Francis is “a man of Tradition, maybe even a man of the Right.”

Leary asserts that Francis’s failures — of which he admits there are a few — are due to the pontiff’s “inferior political ability” and relative limitations of “mind,” not to what he dismisses as an “imagined, covert plot” by the pontiff “to institute a ‘New Christianity.’” This suggestion — that Francis is a “man of Tradition” whose failures are due to incompetence rather than a deliberate agenda — is belied by the Pope’s repeated heterodoxy and imprecision, particularly as concerns matters in which the Petrine heir most owes the Catholic faithful clarity and fidelity to the Magisterium.

It is difficult to square the suggestion that Pope Francis is “a man of Tradition” with his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. While some assert that Pope Benedict XVI was primarily responsible for the document, nearly every inside source we have confirms that Gaudium is much more of a ‘Francis document’” than a Benedictine one, and it “regularly emphasizes the distinctive thought and themes of” the current Pope.

Indeed, Gaudium is full of Francis’s trademark calls for innovation — it asks the Church to embrace “new narratives and paradigms,” “new forms of cultural synthesis,” and, “new signs and new symbols” to better commune with “today’s world.” None of these vague “novelties” can be classified as right-wing or deferential to the Church’s patrimony. Francis calls the very power structure of the Church into question when he suggests, in Gaudium, that the Church “examine” the possibility of imputing “genuine doctrinal authority” to “episcopal conferences,” a divestiture of papal authority that would grant bishops’ conferences the power to enact new doctrines under the guise of “synodality” and the fleeting dictates of the popular will.

This exhortation is awash in the pluralistic ecumenism that has dominated post-conciliar thinking. Elsewhere in Gaudium, Francis goes out of his way to heap abundant praise upon non-Christian religions, assuring readers that “authentic” practitioners of Islam “are opposed to every form of violence” and instructing Christians to heed the “practical wisdom” contained in other faiths. Apprehending these bits of “practical wisdom” will, he writes, allow Christians to better “accept” the “different ways of living, thinking and speaking” among those schismatics and dissenters who would, in a faraway time of moral clarity, have been prompted to “return to the one true Church of Christ” for the sake of their eternal souls.

The document’s ebullient praise for dissidents and “acceptance” of divergent “ways of . . . thinking,” however, is mysteriously denied to some Catholic believers, whom the Pope deems to possess “an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine, and for the Church’s prestige” and “a nostalgia for structures and customs which are no longer life-giving in today’s world.” Never mind the consolation offered by the unchanging majesty of those “structures and customs” to the poor and dispossessed; while some of those “customs may be beautiful,” Francis writes, they must be abandoned for improperly “communicating the Gospel” to the spiritual paupers of modernity.

It is stupefying that in the midst of an unprecedented collapse of the Church’s liturgical practice, a decline in priestly vocations and entrants into religious life, and the mass apostasy of the West from the Christian faith, the Pope saw fit to warn Catholics about “nostalgia” for their own religious inheritance — or at least those parts of it that run afoul of papal taste and the pontiff’s assessment of what is “life-giving” to secular, modern men — while at the same time enjoining Christians to learn from the “treasures built up over many centuries” by other faiths. In kowtowing to the deracinated pluralism of “today’s world,” Francis tethers a Church that has conceived of itself as an institution standing athwart modern thinking to the very pulse of modernity.

To be sure, one might reasonably say that Francis is not the only post-conciliar Pope with ecumenical zeal — John Paul II and Benedict XVI were both exponents of aimless “interreligious dialogue,” after all. But it nevertheless seems unthinkable that these priorities might be said to obtain to a “man of Tradition” or a “man of the Right.”

Leary proceeds to claim that Querida Amazonia contains “criticism of anti-traditionalism . . . stronger than anything to be found in the writings of Benedict.” I find this assertion thoroughly confounding. Not only does it denigrate Benedict’s commitment to the Church’s liturgical patrimony — as Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict called the new liturgy “a fabrication, a banal product of the moment,” and proclaimed that “a community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession [the Tridentine Mass] is strictly forbidden” — but it ignores the unceasing drumbeat of anti-traditionalist sentiment that has flowed from Francis’s mouth, to the delight of the secular press, from the moment he assumed the Petrine office.

For instance, at the conclusion of a general episcopal assembly during the Synod on the Family, Francis decried the tendency of “traditionalists” to close themselves off to “the God of surprises.” By his own account, the putative “man of Tradition” once “rebuked a woman” in Manila “who was pregnant eight times,” deriding her supposed irresponsibility and the behavior of those who breed “like rabbits.” He has claimed that traditionalist Catholics “stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists — they have a static and inward-directed view of things.” And he has focused his scorn on young people attracted to the Latin liturgy, whom he deems morally defective:

I always try to understand what’s behind the people who are too young to have lived the pre-conciliar liturgy but who want it. Sometimes I’ve found myself in front of people who are too strict, who have a rigid attitude. And I wonder: How come such a rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something: insecurity, sometimes even more. . . . Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.

It has been clear from the first days of his pontificate that Francis holds a manifest disdain for those within the Church who take solace in its liturgical patrimony. But none of the incidents above pose a greater challenge to the portrait of Francis as a “man of Tradition” than the eighth chapter of his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, and the subsequent affirmation of the chapter’s radical implications in Acta apostolicae sedis (AAS).

Released in the aftermath of the Synods on the Family from 2014 and 2015, Amoris Laetitia was a collection of Pope Francis’s thoughts on marriage and the family, particularly vis-à-vis divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Because of Christ’s multiple injunctions against the dissolving of a validly entered marriage — as well as the adultery inherent in the conjugal unions indulged by the “remarriages” of absconding partners — it had to this point been the millennial practice of the Church to deny those living in public adultery admission to confession and the Eucharist without a commitment to either, as dictated by their situation, live in continence with their second spouse for the sake of children arising from the union or to leave the union altogether. Francis seemed to obviate that unchanging teaching, passed down in unbroken succession from the apostolic age, in Amoris:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin — which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such — a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.

As Catholic author Chris Ferrara noted at length, the relevant footnote appended to this passage, which avails those in second marriages of recourse to the sacraments without exacting a commitment to abstain from conjugal relations in said marriages, threatens to upend an unchanging (indeed, unchangeable) teaching of the Church, and the coherence of Catholic dogma itself:

Consider the moral catastrophe Francis has just unleashed: A public adulterer in a second “marriage” is admitted to Holy Communion as part of a process of “discernment” that allows “integration” while he “gradually” moves toward an acceptance of Church teaching that may never come. Yet once he is made aware by the priest conducting this “discernment” that the Church teaches that his condition constitutes adultery — as if he didn’t know this before! — how can he continue to claim inculpable ignorance of the moral law? Of course he cannot. But, as we saw above, Francis has the answer: even those who know the law are now to be excused from compliance by way of pastoral “discernment” because they find it “very difficult to act differently (302)” on account of “mitigating factors (301-302).”

This logic obviously leads to the de facto elimination of mortal sin as an impediment to Holy Communion on the part of any and all habitual sinners who find it “very difficult” to change their behavior. In which case, as Fr. Schall wonders, why would anyone need to go to Confession at all? “If this conclusion is correct,” he writes, “we really have no need for mercy, which has no meaning apart from actual sin and its free recognition. . . . Therefore, there is no pressing need to concern oneself too much with these situations.”

Lest this interpretation be thought the aberrant ramblings of a traditionalist, Francis himself confirmed in the AAS to the Buenos Aires bishops that his proposal opens the sacraments to those who persist in a second union without living in continence. The Buenos Aires bishops sent their interpretation of Amoris’s eighth chapter to Rome, which read as follows:

If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union [by refusing to live in continence], Amoris laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351).

In the AAS, Francis replied that “the document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.” (Emphasis added.)

The entire affair, from start to finish, was emblematic of the bait-and-switch technique deployed by defenders of the Francis pontificate. When critics noted ambiguities or plain heterodoxy in the papal decree, their stated concerns were derided as the result of “paranoia” and an uncharitable reading of the text motivated by a distaste for the Pope’s “merciful” and “charitable” modus operandi. Such critics were called “Pharisaical,” “insubordinate,” “legalistic,” and — a papal favorite — “rigid.” When the manifest ambiguities in the exhortation were deployed in precisely the subversive manner that the dissenters feared — as Francis’s exponents had assured was “not intended” by the text or would “never happen” — traditionalist objections were taken as further evidence of insubordination to the “People’s Pope.”

In short, at every turn, Francis and his defenders have chided and cast aspersions upon those inclined to Tradition and the faith of their fathers, even as the human element of the Church collapses atop the shifting sands of modernity and the clarity of its bimillennial dictates is obscured by both the moral relativism of the prelature and its institutional complicity in the sexual-abuse crisis. There is plenty of reasonable debate to be had about the Francis pontificate, and the impact the Jesuit has thus far had on the Petrine office. But to call the Pope who heralds the “God of surprises” a “man of Tradition” and a “man of the Right” is to tragically misapprehend his own words and actions.


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