For some time now it can be seen that some groups inside of the Catholic Church dislike Pope Francis. Nihil novum sub sole as John L. Allen correctly observes, other popes have experienced the same.

But, in recent days the attacks on Pope Francis just went a step further.

On Feb. 4, posters with the pope’s grumpy face asking “Where’s your mercy?” showed up on Saturday in the streets of Rome. While the posters reference some of Francis’s actions, it can be clearly understood that the background reason for them is doctrinal. Or better to say, ideological.

Authors of the posters most likely come from traditionalist or conservative groups, and they consider Francis’s teaching (at least) close to heresy.

That was followed a week later by a spoof version of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, expressing much the same sentiment.

At the same time, it is interesting to note how many of the pope’s critics seem unaware of an interesting fact. The three great persons in whose name they often attack Francis, accusing him of modernism or heresy, were all in their own time accused of the same — St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Saints or heretics?

St. Thomas Aquinas flirted with teachings of Aristotle acquired through Arabic philosophers, and these teachings were previously banned in the Catholic Universities. Platonism was the philosophy of Christians, and Aristotle was in fact “the philosopher of the enemy,” Islam.

In this climate. Aquinas’s propositions were at one point considered for prohibition.

St. John Paul II, after publishing his most important philosophical work “Osoba i czyn” (later to be translated as “The Acting Person”), was accused of modernism and of syncretism between Thomism and phenomenology. This work later significantly influenced his encyclicals.

Similar things also happened after his book Sources of Renewal. Before the interreligious summit in 1986 in Assisi he initiated, some traditionalist groups denounced the pope and the event as heretical.

Benedict XVI, in his latest book interview with Peter Seewald, admits himself that he was on the so-called “progressive” side during Vatican II, and the accusations of modernism and heresy against their side was abundant. He personally was accused of heresy after his article “New pagans and the Church,” and his bishop, Cardinal Joseph Wendel, wanted to block his appointment as a professor in Bonn for the same reason.

We can also recall that then-Father Joseph Ratzinger’s draft document for Vatican II was depicted by some as Masonic.

Why is this so?

What this suggests is not that we shouldn’t be vigilant about the dangers of different modernisms or heresies in the Church. It’s  important to preserve the faith we were given.

Rather, it suggests that the learned class in the Church oftentimes has trouble discerning between real modernism on one hand, and a deepening of the understanding of truth on the other. Minds who didn’t just repeat formulas, and who’ve tried to deepen the understanding of the faith, historically almost every time have been accused of straying from orthodoxy by fellow thinkers or believers.

This is a problem for three reasons. First, we might uproot the wheat while pulling out the weeds. Second, it makes it harder to recognize the true enemy when he comes. Third, it hurts the body of Christ, the Church.

I would say that there are several reasons why this is happening.

Four ways we go wrong

The first is philosophical and theological: Many educated people don’t understand how to use appropriate methods of inquiry. They’re familiar with quotes, but lack the ability, or the will, to apply and understand those quotes from within their context.

This is most obvious in the use of sound-bites from Aquinas to refute the pope, when Aquinas advised us not to study philosophy to know (and blindly quote, one could add) what the authors have said, but to understand the truth about reality.

Thus, quoting St. Thomas without investigating the things in themselves just doesn’t suffice. And it wouldn’t make St. Thomas happy.

A second reason comes from a flawed understanding of tradition. This is the understanding which John Paul II described, when excommunicating Lefevbre, as an “incomplete and contradictory notion of tradition.”

It’s incomplete, the pope said, because it doesn’t take sufficiently into account the living character of tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, “comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on.”

Third, I would say, people sometimes just aren’t willing to accept that the “Spirit blows wherever it pleases,” and it sometimes produces cognitive dissonance. We try to protect ourselves by instrumentalizing theology or philosophy. This is human, but eventually we have to overcome it.

Christianity is ever new and ever ancient, and in the words of Benedict XVI, “it is always a happening, an encounter, and not primarily a theory or moral system.” Thus, “it’s not that we own the truth, but the truth owns us.”

Finally, there’s a misunderstanding of the hermeneutic of continuity which reduces continuity to the repetition of formal expressions of doctrine. Instead, it should mean staying true to the substance of faith we received and deepening our understanding of it.

Old forms cannot be superior simply because they’re older. To once more quote Benedict from The Spirit of the Liturgy: “Age, simply by itself and as such, cannot be the criterion, and what’s come to being through historical development cannot be automatically categorized as alien and foreign to the original. There can be ultimately vivifying and strong development, in which the seed of the origin matures and brings fruit.”

In the end, the biggest blessing probably is to have Benedict still alive and able to answer us himself. In his latest book-interview, Peter Seewald asks him: “So, you don’t see a rupture with your pontificate [in the pontificate of Francis]?”

Benedict responds: “No. I think that some places can be misinterpreted and… When some places are isolated, taken out, the oppositions can be constructed, but not if we look at the whole. There are maybe new accents, but no ruptures.”

Benedict rejecting accusations of a break under Francis is probably the best sign of continuity, and recognizing this is important. If we understand that Pope Francis is in line with tradition, then we can also understand that many of the ideologues attacking him are not.

Hrvoje Vargić is based in Brussels and has written on the social teachings of the Church, political philosophy and contemporary social debates.