As most everyone knows, Pope Francis has both fans and critics within the Catholic fold. For those with long memories, that insight rates up there with “water is wet” and “the sun came up this morning” in terms of news value, since every pontiff in the long history of the Church has faced much the same situation.
Fans of Francis, however, often insist that the dynamic under this pope is different than the previous two, St. Pope John Paul II and emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, because today papal critics generally are not being accused of dissent, and thus are not being threatened with possible ecclesiastical sanctions.
For now, let’s set aside the fact that this assertion isn’t even true anymore, since here at Crux our own Austen Ivereigh recently leveled precisely the charge of dissent against at least some critics of Francis’s document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, though certainly without any call for sanctions.
Let’s also set aside the truth that the number of people subject to formal censures, gag orders, publishing bans and the like during the John Paul and Benedict years was remarkably low – zero, in fact, under Pope Benedict – and the idea of papal “thought control” was mostly a fiction.
There were occasional hints of tighter discipline, such as the requirement for a mandate for Catholic theologians in John Paul’s 1990 document Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but for the most part those decrees, in time-honored Catholic fashion, were implemented with great latitude and patience, and very few heads actually rolled.
The main point is this: It’s true, so far as it goes, that at this point most defenders of Pope Francis haven’t accused critics of being dissenters, nor have they suggested that people who uphold contrary positions on the substantive positions associated with the pontiff, such as opening Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, are thereby committing heresy.
The implication seems to be that fans of the pope are more generous, less vicious, and less inclined to question people’s bona fides as Catholics. There is, in other words, often a presumption of moral superiority in the observation that “we don’t talk that way.”
Simply as a descriptive matter, that proposition seems a bit disingenuous. Many in the pro-Francis camp don’t invoke concepts such as “heresy” and “dissent,” because frankly, it’s not the worst insult they can think of with which to slur an opponent.
Instead, they use terms that Francis himself also regards as abhorrent, such as “rigid,” “inflexible,” “legalistic,” “clerical,” and, of course, worst of all, “anti-Vatican II.”
In effect, what’s on display here is one of the defining differences between the Catholic left and the Catholic right over the last fifty years.
For the right, “heresy” and “dissent” are about the worst things imaginable, so when they want to say “x is terrible,” that’s the language that comes naturally. For the left, the equivalent horror is “rolling back the clock” on the Second Vatican Council, so when they want to call something or someone awful, that tends to be the verbal packaging in which the complaint comes wrapped.
Someone trying to remain objective about today’s debates would probably have a hard time concluding that either side has a claim on the moral high ground, since both are charging the other with virtually the vilest crime in their respective vocabularies.
To be clear, this tit-for-tat isn’t especially widespread among the Catholic rank and file. Walk into most ordinary parishes and ask what people make of the debate over Amoris Laetitia, and probably, people would stare back with uncomprehending expressions.
That said, there is nevertheless an increasingly nasty cycle of finger-pointing in print, online, in social media, and sometimes even face-to-face, and if there’s to be an end to it, perhaps what we need is the equivalent of a verbal truce.
If conservatives troubled by some aspects of Amoris Laetitia and other aspects of the present papacy could at least concede that, in the main, those on the other side are not enemies of the faith, and that their positions are not a blatant rupture with Catholic tradition, that might be a powerful confidence-building measure.
Likewise, if supporters of Amoris Laetitia could stop insisting that everyone who raises legitimate questions, either about its content or its binding force, are therefore obstructionists suffering from assorted forms of psychological dysfunction, that would help too — as would acknowledging that there are various readings of Vatican II, and that not everyone who doesn’t quite share theirs is necessarily “rejecting the council.”
It would also likely be a balm if both sides could abandon their pretense of not only being right on the issues, but having the more virtuous motives.
Granted, this cycle of charge and counter-charge has become so habitual over the last five decades that abandoning it now may be little more than a pipe dream. Granted, too, the fact that these terms are wildly over-used doesn’t mean there no longer really is such a thing as dissent, or openly rejecting the teaching of a council.
To reverse Thomas Aquinas’s famous dictum, however, the fact that a thing may be legitimately used does not negate the very real possibility of abuse.
In the end, there are serious questions raised by Amoris Laetitia regarding the Church’s pastoral care of divorced and civilly remarried persons, and just in terms of betting odds, it’s a long-shot that one camp possesses all the right answers and the other absolutely none.
For the pro-Amoris Laetitia side, there are important values at stake, including the authority of the synodal process that led to the document as well as that of the pope who issued it. For the camp with doubts, it’s the broader tradition of the Church with regard to marriage and divorce.
I don’t know what common ground between the two might look like, but I suspect it begins by accepting all of the above as valid, as well as a “cease and desist” order on impugning people’s integrity.
Over time, the Church will almost certainly evolve towards one of its classic “both/and” solutions to what were initially seen as “either/or” problems. How long it takes to get there, however, may in part be determined by whether in the here-and-now, the rhetorical heat can at least be turned down.