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After Francis, What Stability?

Current pope demolishing legacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI -- and beyond
Screen Shot 2022-06-04 at 11.47.41 PM

My friend a podcast partner Kale Zelden, a Catholic, has an interesting Twitter thread about how troubled he is by Pope Francis’s recent acts, and what it says about the direction of the Catholic Church. It begins here:

Kale talks about how, as a younger man, he was so inspired by the figure of John Paul II, and the solid rock of Truth his papacy, and the Roman church, represented. Now, though, Francis continues to repudiate so much of JP2’s legacy, and not only that, but magisterial Catholic teaching. More:

Kale refers his readers to this Catholic World Report essay by the Catholic theologian Larry Chapp, along the same lines. Chapp begins by talking about what it means that Francis has just elevated Bishop Robert McElroy, the super-liberal Uncle Ted McCarrick disciple, to the cardinalate — just the latest in a line of progressive red-hats made in America by Francis. Excerpts:

Indeed, McElroy was one of the bishops who voted against a USCCB petition pressing the Vatican for more transparency and speed in the McCarrick investigation. I repeat: he voted against transparency. Which marks him off as either someone who is: A) personally compromised himself in the McCarrick situation and who is seeking to cover things up; B) uncaring toward the victims of abuse; C) a Pope Francis sycophant who was simply trying to shield the Pope from criticism; or D) all, or some combination, of the above.

All that said, I think there is a need to identify the root issue at stake in all of these concerns and criticisms. Beyond particular and proximate issues such as LBTQIAA+++ promotion, Eucharistic discipline, sex abuse scandals, and obstructionism, it is important to ask a simple question: why does Pope Francis like Bishop McElroy enough to make him a Cardinal? After all, the man has some serious baggage.

And the answer to that question can only be ascertained once we understand how important to this pontificate Amoris Laetitia is. Just as Traditionis Custodes was in many ways a clear repudiation of Summorum Pontificum, so too is Amoris Laetitia a repudiation of large parts of Veritatis Splendor.

My view of this papacy is that Pope Francis—slowly and brick by brick—is attempting to subvert the theological hermeneutic of the previous two papacies: Pope John Paul II’s in particular, and primarily in the realm of the late Pontiff’s moral theology. Bishop McElroy has been an unabashed supporter of Amoris and his promotion to the red hat is the Pope’s way of signaling that McElroy’s approach to the moral theological principles of Amoris is correct.


This also explains, as I have blogged on before, why Pope Francis has systematically dismantled the John Paul II Institute in Rome and replaced numerous professors and leadership—all of whom were devotees, of course, of John Paul’s thought, of Communio theology, and of Familiaris Consortio/Veritatis Splendor—with theologians who are largely proportionalists in moral theology and strong supporters of a more “progressive” agenda. And they have all been given the specific mandate to transform the Institute into a think tank for Amoris Laetitia. This is also why nobody from the previous regime at the Institute was invited to the Synod on the Family.

Therefore, in my view, the various red hats that Francis has given out to the Church in the U.S. are primarily, although not exclusively, about moral theology and the revolution in the post-conciliar theological guild on the topic of human sexuality. People tend to focus on the great controversies surrounding liturgy in the post-conciliar era. And those issues are important. But take it from someone who lived through it—the deepest, most important, most contentious, most divisive, and most destructive debates surrounded moral theology, especially after Humanae vitae and the massive dissent from it that followed.

Read it all. 

You might think this is inside Catholic baseball. You’re wrong: it’s one of the biggest religion stories of our time. Kale Zelden is just a few years younger than I am. It turns out that we were both in the New Orleans Superdome in 1987 to see John Paul II. I wasn’t yet a Catholic, but I was drawn to the Dome by the personal magnetism of this Pope. Six years later, I was received into the Catholic Church. It wasn’t a straight line from one to the other, but as I was wrestling with whether or not to become a serious Christian, Catholicism seemed to be the only option (I barely knew what Orthodoxy was back then).

Why? Well, because of John Paul and what he signified. I understood him to be a morally courageous, powerful spiritual leader who stood confidently against the chaos and corruption of the modern world. I believed back then, in my early twenties, that if Christianity was going to survive, it would need what the Catholic Church alone had: a Pope and a Magisterium. The Protestant world was divided into thousands of churches, but the Catholic Church bestrode history and the globe as a colossus of unity and truth. Et cetera. That’s what I believed, because that’s what a lot of the triumphalists of the JP2 era said.

If you had come to me in 1993, right after I had been received into the Catholic Church, and told me that I would live to see a pope do the things that Francis has done, I would not have believed it possible. Seriously, I would not have believed it. Maybe you had to have been there, and been young and in love with John Paul II, to have been so confident about the future. The kind of thing Kale Zelden talks about (“We watch as the legacy of our whole life is just systematically dismantled”) resonates deeply in my heart, though I left the Catholic Church sixteen years ago.

If the abuse scandal hadn’t annihilated my capacity to believe in Roman Catholic claims of authority, then the Francis papacy probably would have done the trick. The reason I wouldn’t have believed a visitor from 2022 going back in time to 1993 with news of the many liberal accomplishments of the Francis papacy is because I honestly believed all that stuff about unchanging doctrine, and the pope never teaching error.

I know that many of my closest Catholic friends are suffering greatly right now. None have talked to me about becoming Orthodox, and I would not take advantage of someone’s suffering to press the case for Orthodoxy on them, unless I feared that they were in danger of losing their faith entirely. Don’t misunderstand me: I think that Orthodoxy is true — I believe that far more strongly today than I did when I became Orthodox in 2006 — but I remember how much pain I was in when my Catholic faith was being gutted out of me, and I would have resented anyone who took advantage of my suffering to push their version of Christianity on me.

Nevertheless, as someone who admires the Catholic Church and who wants it to be strong, and as someone who is passionately interested in religion, I can’t avert my eyes from the iceberg towards which Capt. Bergoglio is sailing his ship. In fact, I think he’s broadsided the thing, for the same reasons Kale Zelden and Larry Chapp do.

I doubt this will matter to most Catholics, who go about their business without worrying too much what the Pope says about this or that. Even Chapp ends his essay with:

Again, at the end of the day, I really don’t care whose head is adorned with a red hat or whose petard sits in an office chair on the via della conziliazione. The immediate needs of my day and the tidal undertow and sinful entropy of my degraded life seem much more pressing to me. I seek Christ and Him crucified.

It seems to me that if a Catholic is determined to remain Catholic, that’s the only realistic response he has after this papacy. Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing, but I don’t see how it’s possible to make the kinds of claims for Catholicism’s steadiness and continuity, especially through the papacy — claims that drew me in like a tractor beam in the early 1990s — and be taken seriously. After JP2 and BXVI, and now Francis, it looks like the Catholic Church is governed like countries are with changes of parties and governments after elections. You can’t just say, “Well, let’s just sit back and wait for God to send us a pope we like better.” It doesn’t work that way. A future conservative pope who undid all Francis has done would unavoidably destabilize the institutional Church and its authority even further.

I welcome comment and critique, but what I won’t post is griping about me being an ex-Catholic writing critically about this papacy. Nor will I post anti-Catholic smears. If you just want to take potshots at Catholics, or me, don’t bother writing anything, because I’m not going to post it. What I’m genuinely interested in is hearing from small-o orthodox Catholics — especially Gen X Catholics whose idea of the Church was shaped by the JP2 era — about how they are coping, and how they are explaining all this to themselves.

UPDATE: A Catholic convert reader texts:

On the Catholic front, I think the short answer is that anyone who embraced Catholicism because they believed that the Church was a perfect and unmoving pillar of orthodoxy against an unchanging world that was immune to all modernity, middle class respectability, and elite trends that now exist throughout the West is going to be disappointed. You have to go in eyes wide open — as you do with every other institution in the world today!

John Paul II’s legacy is complex because, like most actual people as opposed to caricatures, he did great works of unambiguous good but also allowed / presided / tolerated an environment that directly allowed the Francis pontificate to emerge in the first place, as did Benedict XVI.

I think anyone who chooses to accept the entirety of the papacy, including all of the medieval disputes where you had literal saints on the opposite sides or the Avignon period, should understand that this is neither the first or the last time the Church has been in this situation. The belief that we were “beyond” all of this is a dangerous form of presentism, and I would argue that the belief in Rome as an unshakeable pillar has more to do with the collective perceptions of the Cold War, the Black Legend, and the Catholic assimilation in the US than it does with the actual history of the Church during the nineteenth century. This is the main reason why ultramontane types who sought to present the Church as immaculate and pristine against all such blemishes were doing it a disservice and it is no coincidence that Dante assigned so many popes to hell in his writings.

As far as the “How can you believe this?” I think the answer is that the truth and faith claims of the Catholic Church either hold up or they do not, just as you have to believe they did during these medieval and nineteenth century periods, something that I have seldom seen consistently engaged in most discussions of Francis and his legacy. The Francis approach to achieve a third way dialogue with both the woke order on one hand and the Chinese order on the other is rather clearly not going to work because neither is interested in dialogue except as a means to further subvert the Church. As a result of this experiment, the Church is going to be much weaker, have less credibility, and is going to suffer greatly at the hands of its enemies. The same could easily be said of a host of eighteenth and nineteenth century popes, and as a Catholic you have to believe that the Holy Spirit guided them as well, going back to God’s ability to work all things together for good.

As far as the accusations that Francis has definitively promulgated heresy as official doctrine, I think that would require a level of effort and commitment from he and his entourage that I frankly do not see to date, something that as a Catholic I attribute to the protection of the Holy Spirit. What I see instead is a completely disjointed mess that I would submit does not even begin to result in any kind of official teaching, though it is certainly capable of leading astray the faithful and is eagerly amplified by internal Catholic modernists and the press.

Asking where Francis stands on a particular issue is likely asking where Trump stands: there are any number of quotations from he and his cronies that can be used to support any position on his controversial stands that one likes, to say nothing of us having to rely on the Hadith method where information is not distributed by Francis directly but instead informally through his trusted cronies. The result, as I said, is a confused mess ,and this doesn’t even begin to get into the toxic brew that is Vatican corruption, another dynamic Francis did not create but has done everything to enable.

In terms of the claim that a future conservative Pope would only cause further disruption, my counter would be Julius II, who incited King Charles VIII of France to invade Italy and explicitly depose Alexander VI as pope throughout the 1490s and well into the early 1500s while he was still a cardinal before finally becoming pope in 1503. And this was while the Reformation was brewing! If you are a Catholic, then you believe that disruption was necessary in order and ordained by the Holy Spirit in order to achieve the complete destruction of the Borgias and their crime family control over the papacy, even while acknowledging Julius II was a far from perfect man.

The nostalgic desire to preserve the Church as a bulwark against modernity should not lead anyone to illusions about what must be done. To be absolutely clear, I am not speaking of schism and have no desire whatsoever to leave the Church, but there is a huge distinction between embracing the uncritical ultramontane position that I think is increasingly untenable, as opposed to being a faithful Catholic as it would have been defined throughout the majority of the Church’s actual history.

UPDATE.2: A Catholic priest writes:

For what it’s worth, I think BCSWowbagger is making an excellent point. Although imperfect and sometimes wrong-headed men of their times, the popes of the last couple centuries have been an above average run of pontiffs. They stood for the Gospel, faced the reality or threat of kidnapping under Napoleon and Hitler, resisted many contemporary errors while promoting Christian renewal of mind and heart, and an unusually high percentage of them even led saintly lives. As Western culture eroded, they stood out. Easy for Catholics to make more ado about the papacy than is theologically or historically warranted.
I respect John Lamont who has elsewhere presented fine insights on authority and obedience, however, I think here he is right about context but mistaken about the intent of the JPII pontificate. The life of much of the Church was already deep in crisis by the time JPII arrived. Practice and piety had been thinned out or abandoned. The curia and  much of the Western European/First World hierarchy were uncertain or modernist-leaning in the midst of consumerist secularism. JPII himself had spent his adult life in a persecuted, sometimes clandestine Church were the traditional rhythm of daily Christian life had been upended. The curia was doctrinally, liturgically, ethically, and spiritually compromised, even corrupt. JPII chose to use what was available to make a vigorous, authentic proclamation and reintroduction of the Gospel, so he took the message directly to the people using the apparatus of papal catechesis. Ratzinger/B16 supported and continued that effort. Neither were astute managers, certainly not of the curia and hierarchy.
But it simply hasn’t been the case that the Church in its long history has relied on the popes to provide this direct catechetical role. Most people never read or heard a single word from the pope nor expected to rely on him to be the one to affirm basic Christian doctrine. It wasn’t necessary and it wasn’t his primary task.
Your own point is instructive and encapsulates the theological and historical problems facing many people. In the crisis of modernity. It was easy to accept without awareness an idol made from a triumphalistic image of the institutional Church and the Papacy. Those who did so are now having a rough go of it as that image, too, is shattered by the forces of modernity and postmodernity. Those whose experience or studies protected them from misconceptions and idolatry are also suffering, but their view of the Gospel, the Church, and the pope are largely intact.
Similar things are happening in most denominations. It is a painful purification of our reception, understanding, and living of the Gospel. It’s for our well-being, but it’s also the means by which the Church will be able to face the times ahead. It is, I think, the eye of the needle. Much that is good will have to be left behind along with what is bad in order for the Church to bear faithful witness in the dominant culture that is emerging. The Church, her members, and her hierarchical ordering will remain–and will remain imperfect in practice–but will be freed of many idols and illusions. That’s the lesson of theology and history. Most importantly, it’s what Jesus promised.


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