At The Federalist, my friend Maureen Mullarkey writes passionately against the encyclical. She’s eloquent. A devout Catholic who loves the Church, she has earned some fame, and notoriety, for her criticism of Pope Francis. She has been criticized in turn. After a sharply worded blog post that evidently drew the ire of many First Things readers, she was asked by the editor not to write about the pope again in that space.
Catholics disagree among themselves over whether it is right to criticize the Holy Father in public. Loyalty to the pope is a traditional Catholic virtue. Those who criticize critics of the pope often argue that of course we can disagree with him but that we must do so always with civility, respect, and delicacy. That’s hard to square with Francis’s call for the faithful to make a mess and practice parrhesia, or frank talk. And his symbolic gestures toward humility — the Ford Focus, the decision not to live in the Apostolic Palace, etc. — suggest that he does not want us to kneel and kiss his ring.
I could count on the fingers of one hand the people I have known well whom I never heard say anything cutting or sarcastic about another person, including public figures they didn’t know personally. Those noble few who watch their tongues and never slip up could chide Maureen for breach of tact and at least be consistent. They would be upholding a principle. None of her critics that I know of is like that.
A tacit rule among some conservative Catholic writers is to knock Pope Francis by going after prelates who are seen to be specially aligned with him — Cardinals Marx, Kasper, Rodríguez Maradiaga, et al. It is thought that to speak about the bishop of Rome with the same bluntness would be impolitic. And it would be. The price of being politic in this case, however, is double-mindedness.
You already know this argument by heart: The Francis of progressive platitudes is a media construct, and if you attend carefully to the whole of his spoken and written messages you will see that he is a powerfully orthodox and traditional Catholic. I tried to believe it. I sympathize to some extent with those who persist in that effort, but increasingly it comes off as special pleading.
We are reminded by Francis’s conservative apologists that doctrine hasn’t changed, but the popular perception of it has. It’s now believed to be not just open to development but outright mutable and in the process of changing in ways congenial to the spirit of the age. About a year ago I overheard two friends, neither attached to nor hostile to the Church, agree, as a purely political observation, that Pope Francis was “boiling the frog slowly.” If that perception, which is widespread, is wrong, would someone please tell the Holy Father and ask him to correct it? It would not be difficult. He hasn’t done it. Conclude what you will. Meanwhile, the frog is getting jumpy.