On Monday night I was in the diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, to give the annual Bishop Raymond Lucker lecture. Lucker served as the bishop there for a quarter-century, from 1976 to 2000, and is remembered in New Ulm primarily as a caring pastor who loved his people and his place.
Nationally, however, Lucker is also remembered as a progressive who sometimes broke ranks with Pope John Paul II during the 1980s and 1990s, including over birth control and the ordination of women. He also criticized John Paul II’s decision to publish a universal catechism, seeing it as unnecessary and overly centralizing.
That legacy comes to mind in light of one of the most persistent narratives about Pope Francis, which is likely to get a new lease on life this week as we approach the third anniversary of his election on Sunday.
In a word, that narrative is “blowback.”
Because Francis is popularly seen as a progressive-minded maverick, there’s a deeply ingrained belief that he must be making conservative bishops angry, both in the Vatican and around the world, and that some of those perceived enemies must be maneuvering to undercut him.
That narrative was reinforced this week with news that an official Catholic newspaper linked to Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City has taken the pope to the woodshed, suggesting in an editorial last Sunday that the pontiff’s criticism of Mexican bishops during his recent trip to the country for sometimes acting like “princes” was unwarranted, and that the pope was the victim of “bad advice.”
To this day, one of the two or three most popular questions I get, both on the lecture circuit and in media interviews about the pope, concerns which bishops are for him and which are against him. Now, Rivera Carrera definitely has made the cut as someone who’ll be seen as part of the latter camp.
Before getting carried away in speculation about internal power struggles, however, there are three points that ought to be made.
1. Same old, same old.
There is absolutely nothing new about the idea that not every bishop sings “Alleluia!” at whatever the pope says or does.
In truth, there was tremendous internal resistance over almost three decades to St. John Paul II, as the Lucker story illustrates. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, it was widely understood that an axis of moderate-to-progressive prelates in important places, including Cardinals Joseph Bernardin in the United States, Basil Hume in the United Kingdom, and Carlo Maria Martini in Italy, constituted more or less a “loyal opposition” to important parts of John Paul’s agenda.
If anything, the internal blowback to Pope Benedict XVI was actually far more vicious than anything Francis has faced. At one stage, two respected Italian journalists published a book called “Attack on Ratzinger” documenting the ways that various forces in the Church, including some Vatican officials and bishops around the world, had not only criticized Benedict, but actively subverted his agenda.
Reaching further back in time, it’s well-known that many conservative bishops in the early 1960s weren’t exactly thrilled with Pope John XXIII’s decision to call an ecumenical council. Later on, scores of bishops either quietly or noisily complained about much of Pope Paul VI’s agenda — liberals especially with his reaffirmation of the ban on birth control, and conservatives with his liturgical reforms.
Indeed, the “pope v. bishops” narrative goes all the way back to the beginning, with clashes described in the New Testament between Peter and Paul.
The truth of the matter is that today there are more than 5,000 Catholic bishops in the world, and the idea that all those alpha males are going to be in lockstep all the time is simply a fantasy. The difference between Catholicism and the Borg is that resistance may not be futile, but it is absolutely inevitable.
Yet there’s no real indication that the blowback experienced by Francis is any greater than that of his immediate predecessors, or that it’s had much impact in terms of getting in his way. The only novelty today is that in a media-saturated world, grumbling that once would have remained confined to insider circles now becomes an instant global cause célèbre.
2. What goes around, comes around.
There’s often a degree of hypocrisy in how people react to bishops who criticize a given decision or statement by Pope Francis.
For decades, media outlets and liberal Catholic reformers would lionize prelates who publicly defied John Paul II or Benedict XVI, styling them as prophets and true pastors. Today, many of those same people will paint bishops who strike dissenting notes under Francis as disloyal and saboteurs.
An equal-and-opposite conservative form of hypocrisy can be found among those who not long ago screamed for bishops who questioned the pope or the Vatican to be drawn and quartered, but who now line up around the block to get books signed or to snap selfies with prelates who challenge Francis.
In other words, whether “blowback” is perceived as an act of courage, or of scandal, often depends less on the fact of it and more on the content.
3. Sometimes, an opinion is just an opinion.
Third, the mere fact of registering a contrary opinion does not in itself constitute “resistance.”
In fact, Francis has called openly for robust debate on issues in the Church. During his two synods, he demanded that bishops “speak boldly and listen humbly.” When a bishop does speak out on an issue, therefore, he may well understand himself not to be defying the pope, but serving him.
So far, I’ve cast this discussion in terms of basic political science. There’s also the spiritual point that whatever else you think of them, most bishops are true believers who make a good-faith effort to practice the “religious submission of intellect and will” with regard to the pope of which canon law speaks.
Of course, some bishops will do so with greater enthusiasm than others, but that’s mostly human nature rather than dissent.
Perhaps as an anniversary present to Francis, we can get past the titillation over seeing bishops criticize the pope, which has been a feature of Catholic life since time immemorial, and drill down to the real question: In any given case, what exactly is the objection being expressed, and is there any merit to it?
That, I suspect, is a conversation Pope Francis himself would be the first to welcome.