Papal Standards – and Questions

We know that Pope Francis is a believer in the value of criticism from his extensive remarks on the plane ride back from his recent apostolic visit to Africa. He said: “First of all, criticism always helps, always. When someone receives criticism, that person needs to do a self-critique right away and say: is this true or not? To what point? And I always benefit from criticism. Sometimes it makes you angry. . . . But there are advantages.”

He wants critics to come forward with their arguments and be ready for a dialogue aimed at arriving at the truth: “I do not like it when criticism stays under the table: they smile at you letting you see their teeth and then they stab you in the back. That is not fair, it is not human. Criticism is a component in construction, and if your criticism is unjust, be prepared to receive a response, and get into dialogue, and arrive to the right conclusion. This is the dynamic of true criticism.”

He also spoke of those who criticize what he himself has said or done: “Regarding the case of the pope: I don’t like this aspect of the pope, I criticize him, I speak about him, I write an article and ask him to respond, this is fair.” He wants to hear from his critics: “This is clear: a fair criticism is always well received, at least by me.”

With this in mind, we should consider what Pope Francis said to bishops in his homily on September 20 in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae: “You must love first the one who is closest, who are your priests and your deacons. . . . It’s sad when a bishop forgets those close to him. It’s sad to hear the complaints of priests, who tell you: ‘I called the bishop; I needed a meeting to tell him something, and the secretary told me that everything is full for three months . . . . When a priest calls, the bishop must return his call [at the] latest the following day, “because he has the right to know that he has a father.”

With this in mind, I put this blunt but respectful question: Holy Father, the standard you set for other bishops is good and reasonable, but does it apply to you? Your closest collaborators are the members of the College of Cardinals. They have the particular duty of assisting you in promoting the mission of the Universal Church.

Holy Father, it is three years since four cardinals sent you the Dubia concerning certain statements in Amoris Laetitia [AL]. Their request to meet with you and to receive a response has gone unanswered.  Why? The Dubia cardinals simply brought to your attention the concerns and critiques of a significant number of perplexed Catholics who do not see how various statements in AL do not constitute a rejection of Catholic doctrine, especially in contested matters authoritatively dealt with by your two immediate predecessors.

You tell reporters that you want to hear criticisms, and then ignore those criticisms from your closest collaborators? You tell bishops not to close their ears and doors to priests who want to discuss matters with them, when you have turned away for three years cardinals who exercised the Gospel frankness (parrhesia) you so often call for.

In a similar vein, you have not called an extraordinary consistory of the College of Cardinals to consult with the all the members on matters concerning the good of the Church since February 2015. At that meeting, you asked cardinals to collaborate with you in reforming the Roman Curia, “With this spirit of collaboration our meeting begins, which will be fecund thanks to the contribution each of us will be able to express with parresia, fidelity to the Magisterium and conscientiousness for all which is concordant with the supreme law, that is with the salus animarum.”

Holy Father, on the plane back from Africa you also said this:

There’s the ideology of the primacy of a sterile morality regarding the morality of the people of God. The pastors must lead their flock between grace and sin, because this is evangelical morality. Instead, a morality based on such a Pelagian ideology leads you to rigidity, and today we have many schools of rigidity within the Church, which are not schisms, but pseudo-schismatic Christian developments that will end badly. When you see rigid Christians, bishops, priests, there are problems behind that, not Gospel holiness. So, we need to be gentle with those who are tempted by these attacks, they are going through a tough time, we must accompany them gently.

Herein may lie the reason you refuse to answer the Dubia cardinals, and have decided not to call a meeting of the College of Cardinals at which the two remaining Dubia cardinals would have the opportunity to ask questions in an open discussion.

You display no intention of dialoguing with those you find to be the ideological proponents of a “rigid,” “sterile,” “Pelagian morality” that leads to pseudo-schismatic developments that are the fruit of personal problems, not Gospel holiness. You will “accompany” them gently, but you will not discuss their points. You have already judged their arguments as springing from psychological deficiencies.

Holy Father, you should extend the benefit of the doubt to those who have great difficulty understanding how some of your teachings square with teachings they have serenely believed and taught their whole lives. Is it not more reasonable to assume that they are normal men, truly motivated by a love for Christ, His Church, and her doctrine – and are not insecure and troubled men?

Ignoring them is unacceptable behavior that you rightly reject when done by other bishops. Giving them a hearing and answering their doubts is not a gentle concession to people who are going through a tough time, but rather a duty of office for the chief shepherd, charged by Our Lord with strengthening the brethren.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.