Before I proceed I want to be clear about a few things. I do not think, as some radical traditionalists claim, that Pope Francis is a heretic. Nor do I think he is a false pope. I think Archbishop Vigano and his minions are full of it and I want nothing to do with him or his many promoters in the clickbait domain of self-aggrandizing, internet crackpots. I am a traditionalist in the ressourcement school of thought, which means I support Vatican II and the teachings of all of the post-conciliar popes, especially the teachings of Saint Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI. I am not a huge fan of the Novus Ordo and I think the reform of the liturgy was botched and in grave need of a wholesale overview and reform. Nevertheless, I support Mass in the vernacular and do not view the Novus Ordo with the depth of animosity and hostility one sees among some of the more visible promoters of the TLM. I like the TLM, but do not think it should ever again be the ordinary form of the Church’s liturgy. In short, I am no Pope Francis fan boy, but I also do not buy into the restorationist nonsense of his rad trad critics. Pope Francis has his fervent adherents and his fevered opponents. I am neither.
All that said, there is no doubt that at the very least the Francis papacy has been an enigma. On the one hand he has not granted to the liberal wing of the Church any of their deepest desires: Women priests, married priests, women deacons, a change in the teaching on contraception and homosexuality, intercommunion with Protestants, and a wholesale endorsement of divorce and remarriage, despite the famous footnote in Amoris. Furthermore, he has voiced deep concerns about the German synodal way and had the CDF issue a document warning the Germans that they cannot just plow ahead on their own path as if the broader Church does not exist. He also speaks of Satan quite a bit, and the Virgin Mary, and often displays a thoroughly traditional form of piety. On the other hand, he seems genuinely to loathe traditional Catholics as evidenced by the ideologically driven and pastorally tone deaf Traditionis Custodes. He speaks of a Church of grassroots dialogue and of pastoral accompaniment, and yet seems to want the traditional wing of the Church to just shut up and obey, or worse, to wither and die. His off the cuff remarks to journalists are often cringe-worthy to traditionalists and his penchant for passive-aggressive insults towards traditional prelates like Cardinal Burke (the “poor man” who was a vax denier got Covid, wink, wink, smile) bespeak a fundamental hostility toward the conservative wing of the Church, not to mention a certain level of just sheer pettiness. And then, of course, there are the constant insults and caricatures directed at seminarians and young priests who are more traditional who he frequently mentions as in the grips of some kind of emotional and psychological immaturity.
Therefore, I have for the most part stopped paying attention to what he says and instead pay attention to what he does. His words are all over the map and inconsistent to the point of incoherence. What he says on one day is contradicted on the next and so pinning your analysis of his papacy on his words is like standing on a sand dune in a hurricane. But his actions have a sharper clarity since they seem to trend in a single direction: the re-empowerment of a form of post Vatican II progressivism. In a previous blog I described Pope Francis as follows:
“Pope Francis seems to sympathize with the progressive wing of the Church but does not have, in my view, a deep enough understanding of what their project really entails. He seems to have the mistaken view that Catholic liberals in 2020 are the same as liberals in 1958, and seems genuinely disappointed when they behave more like secular critical theory provocateurs rather than Yves Congar. His whole thought-world seems to be that of a man who thinks the Church is still this insulated, neo-scholastic “fortress” whose walls need to be battered down, even as he stands astride their rubble. He is fighting yesterday’s battles which underscores my point that we are most definitely not in a “third phase” of conciliar reception, but have instead been teleported by this papacy back to 1965 forcing those of us in the ressourcement camp to relitigate a case that was decided, with magisterial authority, by the previous two popes. Perhaps this has been his end game all along. Perhaps he is not as naïve as I think. Perhaps he wants to reopen that case precisely because he wants it adjudicated differently but does not want to be the presiding judge, allowing “drift” to accomplish what papal fiat cannot. He is, after all, a Jesuit.”
That was written last year and events since then have only deepened my conviction that Pope Francis is an unreconstructed post Vatican II liberal. If you look at his episcopal and curial appointments, as well as those in the curia whom he has sacked, what emerges is a clear pattern of favoring the progressive wing of the Church. What I said above about Pope Francis wanting to change the Church via a kind of “drift” is, in my opinion, the best interpretation of his actions. What he wants to do is to change the Church most radically but to do so in a manner that avoids schism. His beef, therefore, with the German synodal way is, in my view, more about his desire to avoid such a schism (because he knows to enact abruptly what the Germans want would create such a schism most certainly) rather than about a deep disagreement with the Germans on the topics at hand, although I do think he disagrees with some of their proposals. This is precisely why he does not simply put the kibosh on the whole affair and nip the insanity in the bud. As Traditionis Custodesdemonstrated, Pope Francis is not above disciplining movements within the Church with which he clearly disapproves. But there stand the Germans, unencumbered by any such papal sanctions, and ready to ordain “monogamous” (sic) married lesbians and to hand out the Eucharist to Protestants like schnitzel at a Munich Oktoberfest. To be fair, Pope Francis did strengthen the sanctions in canon law for anyone who dares to ordain a woman (excommunication) which strikes me as a shot across the bow of the German synodal tug boat. Nevertheless, one gets the definite sense that for Pope Francis there are no enemies to the Left of him, only well-meaning folks who may be just a bit too exuberant. But on the Catholic Right he sees nothing but dangerous and immature “fundamentalists” who oppose him and who need to be put in the ecclesial cry room along with all of the other colicky conservatives.
So is the Pope being deceptive when he makes statements that sound very orthodox and conservative? Is he lying then when he says he endorses Humanae Vitae’s condemnation of contraception, and that he thinks the modern sexual revolution is a form of ideological colonization that has its origins in Satan? Is he crossing his fingers and smiling to himself when he says he adheres to the Church’s traditional teaching on the indissolubility of marriage? Is he just being clever in a devious way when he says that we cannot give the Eucharist to Protestants even if they are married to Catholics? In a word: no. He is being honest when he says that he holds to those things as proper moral and spiritual ideals. And therein is precisely the problem. The Pope’s concerns are not focused on theological precision, but on pastoral application. And in the service of the latter he sacrifices the former, reducing the teachings of the Church, especially on moral matters, to mere “ideals” that do indeed act as proper teleological goals but not as binding moral commandments requiring confession, conversion and true repentance when we fail them. This is why Pope Francis routinely, and wrongly, pits doctrine against mercy, truth against compassion, and treats the commandments as “rules” that are pharisaical when applied with anything approaching a robust rigor. The “field hospital” metaphor for the Church is a good one, and I endorse it most heartily, but field hospitals are extensions of real hospitals and their goal is to heal and to restore to health. And a hospital that treats health as a mere “ideal” that is impossible to achieve for most “ordinary people,” and leaves them as they are, is no real hospital at all but a hospice.
What Pope Francis is guilty of, as we see clearly in Amoris Laetitia, is a deep ambiguity with regard to what is called the law of moral gradualism. There are two kinds of gradualism, one legitimate, and one clearly condemned by Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. The first kind, endorsed by John Paul, is the simple recognition that we all approach our conformity to Christ from different starting points and with different levels of success. A good pastor of souls thus accompanies the seeker on this path, softly, softly, so as not to crush the bruised reed, and is fully aware of the weaknesses presented. A good pastor knows when to apply pressure to the wound but also knows when a strong intervention might, in the short run, do more damage than that caused by the moral illness in question. It is more art than science and requires compassion, mercy, patience, and endless forgiveness. But in the end, the pastor also knows that God’s moral law has been revealed to us for our benefit, not our woe, and that it is ultimately liberative and healing. The good pastor thus knows that no compromise with sin can or should be made since to do so is a false mercy and the pseudo compassion of a condescending attitude that views the sinner as incapable of transformation. May God bless such pastors.
The second kind of gradualism, often referred to as the gradualism of law, is explicitly condemned by Pope John Paul II, also in Veritatis. This form of gradualism is in reality a kind of situation ethics where a person’s individual circumstances are so mitigating that it renders the person morally inculpable for their actions. Indeed, not only are they inculpable, but since this is “the best that they can do” in the given circumstances, it is also what God wills for them at that moment. In other words, the actions in question may not only be non-culpable, but are actually now transformed by the circumstances into positively good moral actions. The moral law itself is thus intrinsically and constitutively “graduated” into degrees of perfection rather than as prohibitions against certain actions as objectively intrinsically evil. This is the path advocated by so many post Vatican II moral theologians and which was strongly rejected by Pope John Paul II, and was countered as well by certain heroic moral theologians such as Germain Grisez and Janet Smith. Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia says that he too rejects this kind of gradualism, but it is hard to see how he can avoid the charge that this is indeed what he is arguing for given certain comments he makes in the text.
In an excellent essay in Catholic World Report (which you can access here,) theologian Eduardo Echeverria makes this same point about Amoris and does so forcefully and with precision. What he says is worthy of a full and lengthy citation since he says here exactly what I am trying to convey:
“And yet in AL 303 and 305, he suggests that a person not only may be doing the best that he can, but also that such acts therefore are not sinful and hence are right for that person, because the person, in his mitigating circumstances, fulfills the ideal as applied by that individual in those limiting circumstances. This way of thinking was unavoidable because throughout AL Francis apparently emphasizes the “ideal” nature of the normative order of marriage and family life.
But how can God be asking one to do X when X is contrary to his will? The pope must think that X is not contrary to the will of God in that specific circumstance, but only contrary to God’s ideal will which the person is inculpable for not attaining.
So, with all due respect to Francis, I think that he does imply support for the “gradualness of the law” and hence by implication opens the door to a “situation ethics.” He says, “Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (AL 303). Now, is the pope actually saying that such acts are right for such an individual? Indeed, that is precisely what he says, namely, that the person in those mitigating circumstances may be doing the will of God. That’s not an inference on my part; that’s what the pope actually says above. If you missed it, here it is again: a person can “come to see with a certain moral security that it [his choice] is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.” It is hard to see why a person needs the grace of the sacrament of confession, and hence the Lord’s mercy, if, as Francis suggests here, that person is doing the will of God.”
My complaint with regard to Pope Francis, in other words, is far more radical than a simple lament over Traditionis and the TLM, or the still unanswered dubia concerning divorce and remarriage in footnote 351 of Amoris, or civil unions for gays, or his Abu Dhabi flirtations with religious relativism. I do not think, as I said in the beginning, that he is a heretic. In fact, I find him thoroughly orthodox in his basic affirmations. But I almost wish he really were just a garden variety heretic because then you could point to something concrete and identifiable, something which his Cardinals, or somebody close to him, could attempt to correct in him. Indeed, this is kind of what happened after the aforementioned Abu Dhabi statement came out, whereupon the Vatican immediately clarified that the Pope did not say what the Pope actually did say, or that if he said it, that it did not mean what the words actually mean, but something else, and that something else is thoroughly orthodox. Or something like that… This incident does not “prove” that Francis is a formal heretic, as some claim, precisely because he did take it back, like a kid who immediately regrets calling his neighbor-lady, with a Flannery O’Connor flair, an old warthog. And so long as he does not attempt to teach the heresy infallibly, it can always be corrected by the next Pope anyway.
In my view, heresy has gotten really boring these days, common as it is even among traditionalists, and swims in the shallow and warm end of the pool. Heresy, in other words, has become something domesticated and tame, the mirror image of a faith gone equally tepid, and they all, both the putatively orthodox and the heretics, need flotational arm-swimmies if they want to venture into the deep end. At best modern heresy is usually just the tired and predictable repetition of some ancient error that way back when cost some saint his tongue at the hands of Imperial thugs. But these days it is a parlor game for sissies and has the seriousness of a Mahjong tournament at a nursing home, where the stakes are extra cupcakes after dinner. Please do not misunderstand me here. I am not saying that heresy is trivial and unimportant. What I am saying is that today’s heresies are merely tired and shopworn repetitions of old ideas that have already been dealt with by the Church in definitive ways. Furthermore, no amount of repeated anathemas shot from ecclesial fire hoses will put out the various fires. There are smoldering embers deep down in the overgrown brush of the Church’s forested plateaus and those embers are not the hot coals of explicit theological heresies, but are rather the flickering combustibles of modernity’s denial of the efficacy of the supernatural.
And this is what troubles me about Pope Francis. I really do not care much about his shoot-from-the-hip comments on airplanes or his gyrating disciplinary decisions. What I care about is that he seems to be dousing those flickering combustibles with kerosene and tossing in a lit match. What is at stake here is whether or not the supernatural regime of grace instituted by Christ’s Incarnation is truly and really efficacious in the here and now. What is further at stake is the true scope of the Church’s pastoral mission to call people to participate fully in the journey of transformation that this grace evokes. To speak of Christ’s commandments as “ideals” makes it seem as if only a heroic holiness can approximate them, a fact which one of the Pope’s favored theologians and his point man at the Synod on the Family, Cardinal Walter Kasper, made clear when he stated that when it came to living out the Church’s teachings on marriage that one cannot expect such heroism from “ordinary Christians.” Pope Francis affirms in the first part of Amoris all of the Church’s teachings regarding marriage, and does so beautifully. But in the second part of the text it becomes clear that all of that beauty is merely an “ideal” and his invocation of a false view of gradualism creeps in. This is the shell game that is being played: affirm all Church teaching thereby assuring orthodoxy, but then pull the rug out from underneath the entire edifice by marginalizing all of it as just so much theological hair-splitting having little purchase on “real” people in their “real” and “complex” circumstances. By contrast, here is what Pope John Paul II said in Veritatis Splendor on the topic (And again, thanks to Eduardo Echiverria for highlighting these sections):
“Only in the mystery of Christ’s Redemption do we discover the “concrete” possibilities of man. “It would be a very serious error to conclude… that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a “balancing of the goods in question.” But what are the “concrete possibilities of man”? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In this context, appropriate allowance is made both for God’s mercy towards the sinner who converts and for the understanding of human weakness. Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances. It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values.” (VS, 103-104)
All of the foregoing is just one, long, preamble to the main topic of this blog post. Namely, the destruction of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome. And make no mistake about it, the Institute has been destroyed due to a series of moves by Pope Francis to eliminate the former leadership of the Institute as well as several noteworthy faculty of high caliber who were summarily sacked without proper due academic process. And they have all been replaced by people who subscribe to some version of the gradualism of law noted above. In a motu proprio Pope Francis changed the name of the Institute to the, “Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences,” signaling a desire to change the focus to include greater attention to the contributions of the social sciences. But this is puzzling in the extreme since there was no lack of such social analysis in the previous curriculum. One can only surmise, therefore, that it was decided at the highest levels that it was the “wrong kind” of social analysis since it was being used to buttress the concept of inviolable moral truths rooted in the Divine “givenness” of the teleology of our created nature. Apparently, this had to be eliminated and replaced with social analysis that emphasizes the fluidity and fungibility of our nature in order to further the notion that no moral norms are permanently etched in stone. As such, it represents a nod in the direction of modern secularity that is deeply problematic. The new faculty and President are on record saying that the natural law must always be “rethought” anew in the light of changing circumstances, and have used this “rethinking” to openly call into question the Church’s traditional teaching on contraception and homosexual unions. I do not wish to go into all of the details since many before me have done so admirably. Suffice it to say that I am not exaggerating and I am not attacking a straw man. What I have described is what has happened. For an excellent overview see the recent article by the journalist Edward Pentin which you can access here.
Several former faculty members have gone on record to say that the Institute has indeed been radically altered to the point where it no longer reflects the vision of its namesake and have asked that his name be removed from the title of the Institute, but to no avail. Apparently, it is important to the new leadership that its changed orientation be masked over by the patina of the former pontiff in order to give off the illusion of continuity. The new Institute should actually be renamed the “Amoris Laetitia Institute” since that is the real vision it now seeks to promote rather than the vision of Veritatis Splendor. But deceptive marketing takes precedence as enrollments continue to plummet. It will probably be only a matter of time before the entire enterprise sinks under the waves of the tempest created by the changes, but that may have been the goal all along.
I have chosen to write on this topic because I am troubled by the fact that most of the attention with regard to Amoris has focused on the now infamous footnote 351, all the while ignoring the true timebomb located in its pages. And that timebomb has now exploded in the demolition of the John Paul II Institute. This is why I made light of all of the hoopla surrounding the so-called “heresies” of Pope Francis since I think such accusations are not only false, but distract from the deeper malaise that afflicts this papacy. The world in which we live today – – a world gone insane through its now open rejection of the formal structure of creation – – does not need yet one more Christian Church that preaches the Gospel of the therapeutic, bourgeois, self. The destruction of the Institute might seem trivial in the eyes of many. It might seem to be just one more of the thousands of “reforms” inflicted upon the modern Church by quislings in the hierarchy. But it is not trivial in the slightest. It is a very big deal owing to what it portends. And what it portends is a Church that has thrown its hat into the ring of insanity and joined in on the cathartic party of libidinous “liberation.” Earnest and honest seekers of truth in this modern insanity have every right to expect the Church to hold firm and to lard the Church’s pantry with the bread of truth. Instead, the Church now gives out stones and asks us to bed down with the vipers.
Saint Pope John Paul II understood the crisis we face. He understood that this is a titanic struggle between the forces of the Gospel and the anti-Gospel, with the nature of the family in the crosshairs. And he further understood that the Catholic Church is the last great hope for the world to avert catastrophe in a technocratic and dystopian future governed by a collective of concupiscence. Therefore, he started the Institute, and the brave Cardinal Caffarra collaborated in its founding. It was, of course, never popular with the espresso and croissant crowd of prissy ecclesiastics, but it stayed the course and produced enormously beneficial fruits. Its founding showed that Pope John Paul II “gets it.” Its destruction shows that those now in charge do not.
The destruction of the Institute in the furtherance of a false and anti-Gospel view of gradualism is a questing after the comfort pillow or Teddy Bear of a false mercy. It is honey laced arsenic and is the toxic Kool Aid of a deep and deceptive despair. And it is deceptive because it comes dressed in the garb of hope, promising happy times galore, even as it hollows out our souls. It reminds me of Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” who berated Christ for giving us freedom and for expecting too much from us. What the Inquisitor offers instead is the illusion of a shiny thing: the security of material comfort and a conscience left alone. Not for us is the epic adventure of holiness, with all of its travails and failures. What we need, says the Inquisitor, is Cardinal Kasper’s gated and guarded sandbox of safe, bourgeois, mediocrity. What we need is to be told that our so-called “sins” are merely the idiosyncratic quirks of our personalities which are the true markers of our brave new “identity” as children of the “safe spaces” carved out for us by our zookeepers. No thank you. I seek Christ and Him crucified, despite all of my manifest and grotesque moral failings, and I now plead with the Church to raise the battle banner of chivalrous holiness once again, and to blow the trumpet of salvation.
I do not think Pope Francis is a heretic. But I do think that he is deeply and disastrously wrong about some important things. And with regard to the Institute, he is most definitely deeply wrong. We can argue until the cows come home about this or that ambiguous statement from Pope Francis. But his actions with regard to the Institute are very unambiguous. And in my mind, that destruction is the hermeneutical key to understanding this pontificate. I pray that I am not only wrong, but profoundly so. But I don’t think that I am. Of course, I rarely think that I am wrong. So there’s that.
Dorothy Day, pray for us
Saint Pope John Paul II, pray for us