13 November 2014, The Tablet

In the last 50 years a pope has not been criticised so brazenly

Pope FrancisUS 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

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User comments (28)

Comment by: curmudgeonKC
Posted: 23/11/2014 16:37:55

Mr. Hayes? Remember Athanasius? Remember Paul?

Comment by: Northumbrian
Posted: 21/11/2014 20:39:39

What is described here as "a better educated laity" really means a laity indoctrinated by the modern education system and the mass media into the prevailing post 1968 western secular ideology which is fundamentally opposed to Catholicism.

Comment by: pbecke
Posted: 21/11/2014 16:03:10

I believe Benedict was referring to the dangerously slippery slope of relativism in the already highly relativistic spirit of the world in this age n which we live.

Comment by: gina
Posted: 21/11/2014 15:19:40

Pope Francis says the same things other Popes have said in a million ways. However the difference is that Pope Francis is more crude... I accuse myself also of being crude sometimes when I want to say things which could be said nicely and make a more gracious effect.

Look at St John Paul or St John XXIII they have lived out Catholic Faith and witnessed it very graciously. That is the difference.

That is all

Let us pray for our Pope, our Bishops and our Priests that they may be gracious in the very difficult things they have to say each and every day...

Lovingly with Blessings to all

Comment by: pbecke
Posted: 20/11/2014 22:33:38

I wonder if Francis didn't deliberately flush out Dad's Army with those linguistic 'imprecisions! that left the journalists in ecstasies. He seems exceptionally canny in his management of people, especially his critics.

I get the collywobbles sometimes at things he says, but I would be surprised if he didn't agree with Benedict that getting it right is bound to entail dangerous re-assessments. Something like that. And that he will exercise greater prudence than his rabid-seeming critics will ever have been capable of.

Likewise, on the life imprisonment question. Some people are dangerous, incurable psychopaths. But I've just read the headlines.

However, I've seen enough breath-taking wisdom from Papa Francesco to trust his judgment - even if he didn't occupy the chair of Peter.

Comment by: Kiara
Posted: 20/11/2014 19:21:34

Cardinal Burke and those other rebellious ones, remind me of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the law at the time of Jesus. They were more interested in self glorification than glorifying God.

Burke, 66 is creating a smoke and screen situation, since he has been removed form the important post he held in the Vatican, is making his view known looking forward to the next conclave.

Comment by: Al
Posted: 19/11/2014 22:07:50

Finally, Pope Francis will speak about climate change.
What climate change?

Next let's allow religious women to become priests.

Why cannot two of the same sex marry? (I do not judge.)

This pope is uniting the Church? Why do I want to run away?

Francis is a relativist. He raises false hope for those who do not follow the Church's teachings.

He asks forgiveness for an accusation against priests?

Perhaps he should weigh in on the case in the U.S. where a policeman shot a young man?

Francis: a man of rash judgment who speaks about what he know not!

Comment by: Chris McDonnell
Posted: 17/11/2014 20:21:48

It would seem that when Francis acts in a Christ-like manner, offering compassion and forgiveness, looking at the spirit of the law rather than ruthless adherence, seeking to build loving relationships rather than antagonistic positions, he is criticised.

But then so was the Nazarene in whose place he offers guidance. Pity that, but there it is.

Some people will always find a problem with one who leads by example.

Comment by: Chris
Posted: 17/11/2014 16:38:54

Bill, there are indeed people who pose a risk to society and shouldn't be released but this should be assessed either at parole boards for criminal detention, or at mental health review tribunals for mental health detention. I have worked in forensic psychiatry for many years and there are only a handful of people who need to remain incinerated for their whole life and this shouldn't be determined at sentencing but should be continually assessed. Personally I can find no justification for the death penalty and arguments based on retribution or finances just don't cut it with me. I think Pope Francis was suggesting that people should be offered the opportunity to reform and get to a stage where they can show remorse and seek forgiveness rather than be written off by either life behind bars or death.

Comment by: billmurphy
Posted: 17/11/2014 12:03:03

Replying to comments below:

If you find "baloney" disrespectful in describing Pope Francis'
comments, I regret that I am reluctant to use a less mealy mouthed description of his view on capital punishment and life imprisonment. There is a minority of offenders, some of whom are judged insane, who cannot safely be released into society. Given the limitations of current scientific knowledge, we have no alternatives to protecting the innocent other than indefinite imprisonment or execution. You could conceive of future developments which would make imprisonment unnecessary -perhaps a more humane version of the conditioning applied to the brutal gang leader in "A Clockwork Orange". But even such procedures would be open to moral questioning as directly striking at the heart of a person's identity.

Comment by: Martin
Posted: 17/11/2014 11:49:30

I'm afraid I am simply unable to agree with those who claim that this is not an "authoritarian regime" because there is no "ruthless suppression" of dissent. If you want evidence of ruthless suppression under this pope, look to the harshly persecuted Franciscans of the Immaculate. You need look no further.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 17/11/2014 10:38:20

Michael Phelan is correct to say there was less overt criticism from bishops of Pope Benedict, but there was unparalleled and vitriolic hatred from the media, which sadly seemed to find a rather gleeful audience amongst some Catholics.
Those who claim to know the second Vatican Council refer readily to the "spirit" of the Council. Which seems to mean whatever they want it to mean. It is partly Pope Francis role to provide clear teaching on this and not as another commentator says more "baloney".

Comment by: Joan
Posted: 17/11/2014 09:22:26

Let justified criticism begin, and cheap abuse cease.

Comment by: Aussie Mike
Posted: 17/11/2014 02:39:13

One of the charisms of this new Pope is that he has shown a willingness to listen to diverse views and even criticisms. Criticism cannot flourish under authoritarian regimes. It is ruthlessly suppressed - perhaps by the very people who protest so loudly now?
This man has shown himself to be an ideal leader in the modern church, willing to listen to debate and dissent from all sides with an open heart and mind. This will surely take the church forward into the hearts of many, as there is far less rigidity than existed in recent decades.
Hearts and minds are not won for Christ by rigid fundamentalist pronouncements, whether from authoritarian neo-ultramontanists or biblical literalists, or conservatives or liberals.
He shows true Christian humility and openness.
May his leadership flourish in the face of this criticism from hardliners! His very openness assures them of their right to criticise him! What a humbling gift?

Comment by: Peter P
Posted: 16/11/2014 22:53:13

Character assassination is the art of the losing minority. I understand that it might be hard to swallow but I gather that the 'conservative-critics' are finding it difficult having to have a taste of their own medicine!

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 16/11/2014 17:17:36

Constructed criticism is healthy in organisations and communities.

I do remember, however, that St Paul had written about how incompatible it is of us Christians taking our disputes to secular courts. It seems that in the end, resolutions to disputes should be done the Christian way - based on love.

How much love is there in the kind of criticism levelled at the Pope these days?

Comment by: Robinmolieres
Posted: 16/11/2014 11:01:06

God comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. Cardinal Burke looks much less comfy than he used to.

Liberal-progressives have often voiced concern over some Bishops’ of Rome exercise of the Petrine ministry. The surprise nowadays is that overt criticism is coming from the conservative camp whose “Yes Holy Father, No Holy Father, Three bags full Holy Father.” language used to be the norm. Of course, nobody likes to be pushed out of their comfort zone.

That Francis is attracting this kind of dissent, strongly suggests that he is doing something right.

Comment by: Pippa
Posted: 15/11/2014 16:52:26

I agree with Michael Phelan and I think the criticism of the three responses so far illustrates his point?

I have publicly criticised the two previous Popes' interpretation of Church teaching, but I hope I have done so with respect. I think the use of words like "baloney" and "nonsensical" are disrespectful.

If collegiality is restored Catholics will have to relearn how to discuss and disagree respectfully. I don't agree with the Pope's stance so far on women's ordination but I think he is wise. Until lay people grow up and agree to disagree and engage with each other in an adult way, and we renew our Church and collegiality flourishes women will continue to be excluded by rigid, Pharisaical rigidity at every meaningful level.

The Pope has been appointed by Cardinals who knew his history. Let's listen to him, reflect on what he says and grow up as Catholics and join in the discussion he requests...with repect and love.

Pippa Bonner, Catholic Women's Ordination

Comment by: Paul Glynn
Posted: 15/11/2014 13:28:59

It is interesting how, when a Pope proclaims the Christian message so boldly in word and deed, his words are interpreted by BillMurphy as being 'baloney'. If BillMurphy honestly considers Christianity that is lived out in practical action to be 'baloney', why does he bother wasting his time contributing to a Christian newsletter like The Tablet? Why does he waste his time reading about Christianity; which, to him, is 'baloney'?

Comment by: Chris
Posted: 14/11/2014 19:25:32

@BillMurphy, what part of challenging the death penalty and life imprisonment do you think is baloney? Both are incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Islam is also a peaceful faith. Sects such as IS and Boko Haram are not representative of the faith in the same way the Westboro Baptist Church are not representative of Christians. It strikes me that it is people who are not mature and secure in their faith find uncertainty and lack of clarity challenging, whereas the ability to feel comfortable with ambiguity is a sign of a more developed faith as is demonstrated by Pope Francis. It is time for an injection of living faith, incorporating humility, forgiveness and action to balance the more interior focus of the previous papacy. Faith is not enough in itself. It must translate into action.

Comment by: Andy Peters
Posted: 14/11/2014 18:37:43

This good man Pope Francis is a Godsend to us Catholics. He has recognized that the Church magisterium has veered away from the Good News of Jesus Christ and adopted a pharisaic approach in much of its dialogue with its members and the world at large. Pope Francis has much to say to us all sharing his vision for the Church. We may not agree with everything he says and I'm sure he's ok with that because he is humble enough to admit he can sometimes get it wrong. Let us however acknowledge that he is our pastor and leader and as such deserves our loyalty and support.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 14/11/2014 18:13:54

I seem to remember a huge amount of criticism being directed at Pope Benedict, but then that happened just over a year ago. Which may as well be a thousand years in the world of the thirty second attention span.

Comment by: Indulgentiam
Posted: 14/11/2014 16:27:21

Pope Francis' fellow Jesuit, Fr Lombardi has the difficult job of having to explain at press conferences that what the Pope said in public the day before was not what he actually meant. This, he has done with great skill on several occasions, and he is to be highly commended for the way he manages to put the record straight without seeming to undermine the authority of the Pope.

It is not in the slightest bit surprising that Pope Francis is being criticised for speaking out, without first considering the consequences of what he is saying.

Comment by: Carm
Posted: 14/11/2014 15:52:05

'Baloney', BillMurphy?? 'Derision', 'deformed understanding', 'highly debatable advice', 'nonsensical advice', 'lead to the quick disintegration of the Church', YAWN! The latter remark rules out the intervention of the Holy Spirit, if it was necessary. You would have been very careful not to voice these accusations under former Popes.

Comment by: Chris McDonnell
Posted: 14/11/2014 15:47:02

In a Sermon in Rome this last October, Francis said “They did not understand that God is the God of surprises, that God is always new: he never contradicts himself, never says that what he had said was wrong, ever, but he always surprises us. And they did not understand, and closed themselves in this system created with the best of intentions.” And our biggest surprise at the moment is the courage that Pope Francis is showing as bishop of Rome. This, in the days after the passing of Gerry Hughes sj whose God of Surprises gave hope to so many

Comment by: Paul
Posted: 14/11/2014 12:42:56

Perhaps if His Holiness were to speak with sufficient clarity there would be no cause to criticise him, but he sometimes doesn't. How often has the Director of the Holy See's Press Office had to clarify the Pope's comments? Let justified criticism continue.

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 13/11/2014 19:49:06

Criticism of popes, including the use of robust language, by people inside the Church is nothing new Mr Phelan. Remember Robert Mickens?

Comment by: BillMurphy
Posted: 13/11/2014 19:35:01

Possibly the reason that no Pope in the last 50 years has been criticised so brazenly is that no recent Pope has talked so much baloney. There was the Evangelii Gaudium statement (Islam is a religion of peace) which invited derision from both secular authors on all sides of the political spectrum and from one of the Vatican's own Islamic specialists. There was the suggestion in Evangelii Gaudium about allowing bishops' conferences some doctrinal autonomy which drew protests from Cardinal Muller - it would obviously have lead to the quick disintegration of the Church. There was the article by two Italian writers "We do not like this Pope" which pouted out his deformed understanding of essential Catholic teaching, not least on conscience. There was his highly debatable advice to the luckless inhabitants of Lampedusa on refugees (receive them as Christ himself). There is his recent speech on the morality of the death penalty and life imprisonment, with the nonsensical advice that it is the duty of Christians to work for the abolition of both. I could go on, but does Michael Phelan seriously want concerned critics to keep their mouths shut?

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