US bloggers and “culture warriors” – even the now-former Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, Cardinal Burke – have publicly laid into Pope Francis in the media, criticising the calling and content of last month’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family.
In language similar to that of Bernard Fellay’s, the head of traditionalist Society of St Pius X, who said the Synod had opened “the gates of hell”, Cardinal Burke went further and likened the Church under Pope Francis’s leadership to “a ship without a rudder”. Not surprisingly, rumours of Burke’s sideways move to a more ceremonial post have now materialised – thus allowing him to sail into the sunset. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said the concept of having a representative body of the Church voting on doctrinal applications and pastoral solutions “strikes me as being rather Protestant”.
I well remember the Second Vatican Council and over time have read about its debates more carefully. There was factionalism amid curia and diocesan bishops who were participating, and different opinions were expressed as part of episcopal collegiality. But I do not remember any public attacks from bishops on Pope John XXIII. That’s not to say that there was no private criticism.
After John XXIII’s death, Paul VI removed from the Second Vatican Council agenda any discussion on contraception, the ordination of married men, and the ordination of women. He reserved decisions on such matters to himself rather than the Council, even after the committee set up by John XXIII and which Paul VI had extended to look at contraception, voted overwhelmingly in favour of development of church sexual teaching to include responsible parenthood. Nevertheless, Pope Paul issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, banning artificial contraception for Catholics. Although some priests left their ministry under pressure, because of their public criticism of the encyclical, I do not remember any public episcopal criticism of Paul VI over his text.
It is now generally accepted that Humanae Vitae was not “received” by the majority of the laity, and it severely damaged the standing of the Magisterium. Since then, some church leaders have become more concerned with control of the laity and obedience to their rulings rather than the gospel values of Jesus. As well as “creeping infallibility” on the part of successors of Peter, Western post-modernism and a better-educated laity have contributed to more criticisms of church authority and the departure of many young Catholics from the Church.
Then we had the neutering of council-agreed episcopal collegiality by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI – but again no public criticism by bishops of those two Popes. In addition, the bypassing of bishops’ conferences’ authority took place and an arrogant clericalism emerged from our modern seminaries. Some authoritarian priests have allowed parish councils to wither on the vine.
I appreciate that some bishops who are criticising Pope Francis’ leadership passed the litmus test for their appointments under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But I do not think that US culture warriors should publicly criticise Pope Francis, who is not only restoring episcopal collegiality but the scriptural based notion of God’s “infinite love and mercy” rather than just man-made Pharisaic and poorly drafted canon law.
Michael Phelan is a deacon in the diocese of Northampton and a trustee of The Tablet