Catholic critics of Pope Francis often claim he is confusing the faithful. But what are they confused about? I’ve asked but have never received a solid answer.
The best I can tell is that some people disapprove of his very traditional Catholic approach to critiquing an economic system that uses people by turning them into commodities and robs working people of their dignity.
Instead of addressing this forthrightly, they distort what he wrote in Amoris Laetitia regarding the reception of communion by divorced and civilly remarried people and use this misrepresentation to suggest or assert that Pope Francis is a heretic or anti-pope.
They also dislike the way he criticizes clericalism. Time and again, Pope Francis has reminded the Church that the clergy do not represent a higher class of people with special privileges.
For Pope Francis, clericalism leads to corruption and scandal. Many clerics disagree because they enjoy their privileges, and some lay people have difficulty with this element of Pope Francis’ teaching because they have always submitted to the clerical hierarchy. They also may fear consequences of taking responsibility for their own actions within the church.
Other wealthy and influential lay Catholics tacitly approve of clericalism because they wield influence through their ordained collaborators.
Pope Francis, however, is offering a Vatican II vision of a global church. Sadly, some lay and ordained people in the Church simply reject the Council, its authority, and its documents. Hence, their “confusion.”
Rather than being confused, detractors of the Holy Father (especially high-ranking church officials, reactionary social media voices, and wealthy naysayers) have understood him clearly since Jorge Bergoglio took the name Francis.
They comprehend his call for a poor church for the poor.
They know the significance of when Francis welcomed refugee families in Vatican City.
They grasp the meaning of the Supreme Pontiff celebrating Mass at Ciudad Juarez, a few yards from Mexico’s northern border.
They comprehend the implications of saying deporting refugees and building walls is not the way a Christian politician should behave.
They see Pope Francis embracing and kissing people with illnesses and diseases just as St. Francis did with a man suffering from leprosy.
They know what a field hospital for sinners is.
They have a pretty good idea what it means when the Successor of St. Peter says that a shepherd must take on the smell of sheep.
They receive the message the pope is sending about relinquishing privilege and beginning to serve when he moved out of the Papal Palace and into Domus Sanctae Marthae.
They’ve seen him rebuke and dismiss wealthy bishops for refurbishing their multimillion dollar dwellings, and they do not want to be on the receiving end of this rebuke.
They hear his catechesis on the priesthood not being a job that provides opportunities to climb the ladder of success.
They hear him telling seminarians that clericalism is “our ugliest perversion.”
They have witnessed him confess his mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and seek to make amends.
They know the importance of the Bishop of Rome gifting holy relics to Ecumenical Patriarch as a good will gesture to cement Christian unity.
They witness him embody the ecumenical vision of the Second Vatican Council.
They notice that his apostolic visits have been primarily to nations on the peripheries.
They count his unexpected appointments to the College of Cardinals.
They recognize the significance of his cooperation with people of non-Catholic traditions in order to work for peace.
They saw the day of ecclesiastical privilege and decadence end on the evening of March 13, 2013 as the new Pope Francis greeted the crowd in St. Peter’s square with a humble, “Buona sera.”
High ranking prelates and their collaborators are not confused at all. They simply do not welcome the message. In Jesus’ parable of the sower, there is thorny soil where “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.” These cynics understand that receiving the message from Pope Francis means they must divest from themselves, lose their power, and relinquish the possibility of advancing up the ecclesiastical ladder.
Instead of being confused, these intelligent ordained and lay opponents are disappointed in the way Francis stymied their personal plans, political agendas, and ecclesiastical hopes. Subsequently, they themselves are sowing seeds of confusion among the faithful and blaming Pope Francis.
They have composed books, articles, and tweets accusing the pope of heresy.
They make liturgical pronouncements without consulting the Supreme Pontiff.
They have whispered that the 2013 conclave was not valid.
They claim Benedict is the true pope.
They suggest there are two popes.
They call on the Bishop of Rome to resign.
They flirt with schism.
They accuse the one guarding the deposit of faith of creating a schism.
They host expensive gatherings at exclusive venues to list their grievances against the Successor of St. Peter and suggest he is a heretic.
They gather a papal posse on Catholic television to hunt down the Vicar of Christ.
They martial a media empire to oppose and spread conspiracy theories about Pope Francis.
They claim the Holy Father has bad intentions.
They suggest the Successor of St. Peter has become a friend of Herod and Pilate.
They claim the Vicar of Christ welcomed a pagan fertility ritual in the Vatican.
They say they pray for the pope, but what exactly are they praying for? Do they want the Supreme Pontiff of the Church to conform to their will? At least one prominent reactionary Catholic social media voice has called for prayers to the pope’s death; he has deleted the offensive tweet.
No wonder many among the faithful are confused.
Some opponents have published documents ostensibly asking the pope to resolve their supposed confusion, but these complaints are little more than public pronouncements of disagreement.
Much like when the foes of Jesus sought to snare him in his words by asking entrapment questions, Pope Francis’ adversaries publish doubtful disputations. They have shown little interest in dialogue. When the Bishop of Rome refuses to play their game, they launch a crusade against him and a synod of bishops.
If his opponents are truly confused, I suggest they read any of Pope Francis’ defining documents. They are all online.
Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) sets the tone for his papacy.
Following a two year period of synodal consultation, the pope published Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). This declaration announces the pope’s pro-family priorities.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis demonstrates the church’s need to address the pressing issues of our world as they relate to climate change.
There is nothing confusing in these landmark documents. If someone like me can understand them, I’m certain that cardinals and canon lawyers can.
Truly confused Catholics should look to the pope — not social media, not their favorite Catholic news outlet, not even their preferred cardinal — because “Christ appointed St. Peter and his successors to be the guarantor of the unity and orthodoxy of the Catholic Church…One cannot dissent from the Pope’s official teachings without violating the requirements of the Catholic faith.”
The Catechism teaches, “The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.’ ‘For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.’” (CCC, 882)
At the consistory on October 5, 2019, Pope Francis reminded the new cardinals to “ be loyal in our own ministry.” The next day, he took the them to visit Pope Emeritus Benedict who exhorted them to be faithful to the pope.
That message is not just for cardinals but for all faithful Catholics.
Reactionary Catholics who vigorously oppose the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church are the ones who are confused. They substitute their opinions for the magisterium of the Church and the authority of the pope. And the degree to which they continually pursue their opposition, they are sowing seeds of confusion.