Pope Francis puts his enemies not on the rack, but the couch

Pope Francis puts his enemies not on the rack, but the couch

Pope Francis puts his enemies not on the rack, but the couch

Pope Francis greets faithful at the end of a mass for pilgrims from the Netherlands in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)

Faced with criticism of one of his initiatives or decisions, the pontiff often responds by attempting to diagnose the psychology that leads people to express those negative opinions. The latest example of that approach came on Friday in a new interview with the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire.

By the very nature of things, a pope is a leader, and no matter what leaders do, somebody’s going to be unhappy. Popes attract critics the way Justin Bieber draws teenage girls, and so it’s utterly unsurprising that Pope Francis has his fair share.

To take the most celebrated recent example, four cardinals, including American Cardinal Raymond Burke, have demanded that Francis clear up what they described as confusion created by his document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, and its provision suggesting that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics may be permitted to return to Communion under certain circumstances.

Having failed to obtain the papal response they wanted, Burke has now floated the idea of a formal act of correction of the pope.

One way for a pope to engage that sort of criticism, of course, would be to respond to it on the level of substance.

Francis could once again issue a defense of his decision, arguing that allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion doesn’t impinge on the Church’s teaching on marriage, that Catholicism has always recognized a distinction between doctrine and pastoral practice, and that discernment of individual cases is actually a key component of traditional moral theology.

(In reality, he may feel he has plenty of people to do that sort of thing for him, and he doesn’t have to do it himself.)

Or, the pope could respond to the criticism with disciplinary measures: Formal sanctions, firing people, gag orders to prevent them from speaking on certain topics, and so on. Canon law stipulates that a pope possesses “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary jurisdiction” in the Church, so if he felt like cracking a few heads, it’s certainly within his power to do so.

Francis, however, appears to have chosen a different strategy: Rather than putting his enemies on the rack, he seems to prefer to put them on the couch.

Faced with criticism of one of his initiatives or decisions, the pontiff often responds by attempting to diagnose the psychology that leads people to express those negative opinions. The latest example of that approach came on Friday in a new interview with the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire, in which Francis discusses criticism of Amoris, his ecumenical journeys, and more.

As Inés San Martín reports today, Francis says in the interview that some criticisms of Amoris reflect “a certain legalism,” and a lack of understanding that discernment must come in the flux of life.

Later, in talking about accusations that his ecumenical initiatives risk “selling out” Catholic doctrine, Francis thoroughly unleashes his inner Sigmund Freud.

“As far as opinions, you always have to distinguish the spirit with which they’re voiced,” he said. “Where there’s not a nasty spirit, they can help you on the path. Other times, you see quickly that criticisms taken here and there to justify pre-existing positions aren’t honest, they’re formed with a nasty spirit in order to sow division.”

“You also see quickly that certain rigorisms are born from something missing, from trying to hide one’s own sad dissatisfaction behind a kind of armor,” the pope said.

Still later, Francis warns that the “cancer of the Church” is a pursuit of glory rooted in “the logic of ambition and power.”

In effect, what Francis appears to want to do is to suggest that at least some of the criticism he faces is rooted in psychological and spiritual dysfunction rather than in a real, honest-to-God set of theological or pastoral convictions.

Of course, this sort of rhetoric is not new from Francis, for whom “rigorism,” “legalism,” and “clericalism” have always been personal bêtes noire. What makes this expression of those ideas striking, however, is that they come at a time when objections to aspects of the pope’s agenda are especially vocal, and attached to a small group of some of the most senior figures in the Church.

In the abstract, one might legitimately wonder if the psychoanalytic approach to dealing with critics is likely to work, at least in terms of changing those critics’ minds. After all, nobody likes to be told they’ve got emotional problems, and he also leaves himself open to the charge of skirting the merits of the debate.

On the other hand, Francis is a savvy political figure, and perhaps the endgame here is this conviction: Framing discussion about Amoris or anything else, in the first instance, in terms of the policy details is putting the cart before the horse. First you have to identify what spiritual or human value you’re trying to serve, and then you can figure out how that translates into specific policy choices.

By answering his critics not with argument but with a diagnosis, in other words, perhaps Francis is not-so-subtly inviting people to pray before they pop off.

It remains to be seen if that will move the needle, of course – and, in any event, in the same interview Francis said he’s not “losing sleep” over criticism, so maybe it doesn’t matter all that much. Yet it’s at least an interesting laboratory experiment on whether psychology and spiritual direction can succeed where logic and argument sometimes come up short.

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