A bishop – a balanced and bright and brave man – confided to me recently that he feels mildly depressed over the state of the Church. On the one hand, he would like to speak out about many things that have contributed to the current turmoil. On the other, as a bishop, he believes it to be among his primary duties to be a sign of unity in his diocese. He is, therefore, mostly silent, not out of fear of reprisals from Rome – though let us say, even if he does not – that those can be real enough: as Cardinals Burke and Müller (along with three of his former colleagues), Josef Seifert, and many former members of the Pontifical Council on the Family, among others, could testify. He’s stymied, instead, by what, in our current confusions, he is called upon to do.
He’s not the only one.
That’s the proper context for understanding the public release of a letter to the pope last week by our sometime contributor Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap. The good padre is an internationally celebrated theologian – and has served both as chief of staff of the U. S. Bishops’ Conference committee on doctrine and as a member of the Vatican’s own International Theological Commission. He relates in a moving explanatory document how he was led by what seems a miraculous series of events to write to the pope about “chronic confusion” in the Church after days of personal anxiety and prayer during a July meeting in Rome.
You may question whether or not it was right to make the letter public now. But there’s no denying that – like the bishop I mentioned and, doubtless, bishops, priests, and laity around the world – there are many conscientious and faithful Catholics who are similarly puzzled about what the Church now teaches and what they are supposed to do.
Except for the Germans and a few predictable figures in America and elsewhere, the world’s bishops have been almost entirely silent about such matters. Given the open resistance of Poles and other Eastern Europeans, the well-known traditionalism of Asia and Africa, the large majority of JPII/B16 bishops in America, their silence is likely to reflect a deep uneasiness that they feel they cannot express. Indeed, that was a main worry in Weinandy’s letter; and so he gave expression himself to an attitude that – despite the efforts of various actors – is not a fringe view and is not going away, whatever consequences it may bring.
For Weinandy, the consequences were swift: he was forced to resign his position with the American bishops. But the public announcement from Houston Cardinal Daniel Di Nardo, current president of the USCCB, gave no real explanation why. The announcement affirms the need for dialogue, charity, and the presumption of good faith – and expresses unity with and loyalty to the Holy Father. But these are assumptions that all of us – not least Fr. Weinandy himself – already share. Indeed, he wrote the letter to Francis because he was afraid that, intentionally or not, precisely those essential things have been placed in jeopardy, with a consequent loss of confidence in the pope himself.
It was inevitable in our current climate that this heartfelt document would immediately be politicized. It was not inevitable that several critics all but dismissed these concerns as the mental aberrations of a “small sliver” of Catholics, as some sort of obstinate personal animus against Pope Francis, even as disrespectful “dissent.” Read the letter and judge for yourself.
I argued here about a month ago that we’re starting to see emerge a kind of faith without reason that is quite different from the mainstream Catholic tradition. As sadly happens when you make any argument on the Internet these days, commenters accused me of calling people I disagreed with stupid – including the pope himself. But what I actually said is that I think there’s been a conscious decision to emphasize a kind of pastoral sentimentalism over the older hard-head/soft-heart Catholic realism – sometimes even bordering on the belief that clear doctrine obstructs the workings of the Holy Spirit. Something considered “pastoral” is assumed to trump other teachings, even consistency and fidelity to tradition.
When you take that approach, you look less to what others actually say and more to how it might help or harm what you are trying to achieve. In the Weinandy case, it’s telling that the omnipresent Fr. James Martin has weighed in saying that “dissent” is a two-edged sword: how is Fr. Weinandy’s belief, he asks, that God personally encouraged him to write the letter different from LGBTQ people who believe God finds their inclinations just fine? It’s tiresome to have to point out the obvious here, but Fr. Weinandy was speaking up for the whole Catholic tradition and those who believe in it – not “dissenting” or pushing a personal interest – and sincerely asking the Holy Father to take up his role as the promoter of Church unity.
We have now definitely entered a period of confusion that will require no little time to repair. In Rome, the defenders of Amoris laetitia and other controversial papal moves have repeatedly told us that they are not changing doctrine, merely reforming pastoral practice in the direction of discernment, accompaniment, and mercy. Elsewhere, various figures have used this pastoral cover to push their own agendas. Last week, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich gave an address to the Catholic Theological Union arguing that to “discern” like Pope Francis, you have to let go of “cherished beliefs” and “long-held biases.”
It’s not easy to say whether the cardinal is speaking for Francis or only himself. But until we see what “cherished beliefs” we’re being asked to abandon, and what are now being considered “biases” among Catholics, we should be thanking, not punishing, anyone like Fr. Weinandy who asks what, precisely, are we talking about? And what are we being asked to do?