Amoris Laetitia and the Progressive Pope Myth

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In a discussion of the God-as-watchmaker metaphor with Jonathan Witt, philosopher Jay Richards remarked, “It’s amazing how a simple image can hijack a discussion for a century and a half.” (Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, p. 54) Almost as soon as he was elected, before he had done anything substantive beyond greeting the people in Saint Peter’s Square, the Western chatterati had dubbed Francis a progressive pope. This hasty assessment, fraught with Western political and cultural implications, has similarly hijacked discussion of Francis’ actions by many people both inside and outside the Church.

The Progressive Pope and the “Hermeneutic of Rupture”

The progressive pope myth, in its essence, is a smaller iteration of the larger “hermeneutic of rupture” (or, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI originally called it, the “hermeneutic of discontinuity”) that has persisted in the Church for the last fifty years. To wit, the progressive pope myth has assumed from the very beginning that Pope Francis’ differences in style mark a break not only away from the traditions of the papacy but also away from the dogmas and doctrines of the apostolic tradition.

For example, many commentators made heavy weather of Francis’ refusal to wear red shoes and live in the Apostolic Palace. Few, however, noted his decision to visit Santa Maria Maggiore and pray at the tomb of Pope St. Pius V — a Dominican, a former inquisitor, and a major figure of the Counter-Reformation — the day after his election. Surely the latter was more significant than the former! Yet any clear and unmistakable sign from Francis of orthodoxy or respect for tradition is usually greeted with profound silence … or explained away as “holding out an olive branch to conservatives”.

The progressive pope myth is an a priori construct, albeit one without the benefit of valid first principles. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence,” said Holmes to Watson in A Study in Scarlet. In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, he elaborates: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” The myth of the progressive pope continues to validate Holmes’ dictum, most recently in the veritable blizzard of analyses that have followed the release of Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

Facts Must Not Contradict Theory

Whether your monomania is the Church’s contraception ban, openly gay relationships, communion for the civilly divorced and remarried, or the proper emphasis on sin, you will likely find something in Amoris to delight or horrify you. In paragraph 7, Pope Francis cautions the reader, “… I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.” Said Scott P. Richert in Crisis Magazine:

A cynic might reply that the Holy Father need not have worried, since most of those who commented on the document in the first hours after its release could not be said to have engaged in a “rushed reading of the text,” because they did not actually read the text. Rather, as has become the norm regarding important and lengthy documents in our short-attention-span “Information Age,” most of those who were first out of the gate already knew what they intended to say about Amoris Laetitia; all they needed to do was to skim it quickly, looking for lines that they could use as proof that their preconceived notions were correct.

Facts, as Don McClarey reminds us John Adams said, may be stubborn things. Statements, however, are infinitely malleable. Straw men are mostly stuffed with out-of-context quotes and fallacies of accent. Emphasize this sentence with bold font; eliminate that clause with a timely ellipsis; pay excessive attention to footnote p while ignoring the modifying implications of footnote q; give undue weight to what is not said …. It is all too common now to treat statements, documents, essays, and blog posts as if they were coded messages, their dangerous “real meanings” encrypted in such a manner that they can hide in plain sight, like Poe’s purloined letter. It is common because no matter how stubborn facts are, they must not be allowed to contradict the theory.

Especially not the theory of the long-awaited, long-feared progressive pope.

Pope Not Above Criticism

While the progressive pope myth is pervasive, it is not all-encompassing. Dave Armstrong has compiled an impressive list of articles written in defense of Pope Francis, exposing the many errors committed by both progressives and traditionalists over the last three years in pursuit of their separate agendas, as well as the many episodes of malreportage by the secular press. (Several of these articles were posted in Catholic Stand by my colleagues Scott Eric Alt and JoAnna Wahlund.) Because modern polemics require that a demonizing label be coined to simultaneously smear and dismiss those whose views contradict your own, the Pope’s most vicious critics on the right have yclept his defenders “ultramontanists” — an insult only if, like the members of the schismatic Old Catholic Church, you hold ultramontanism to be a heresy.

“Ultramontanists”, however, do not hold Francis beyond all criticism. For instance, even the most fervent of Francis’ orthodox admirers were taken aback by his ill-considered decision to appoint retired Belgian Cdl. Godfried Danneels, who had been implicated in a sex-abuse cover-up and later claimed to be part of a “mafia” that had worked to dethrone Pope Benedict, to the Synod on the Family. As another example, in “Separating Opinion from Doctrine in Amoris Laetitia”, Fr. Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai’s praise of Francis’ “love letter” ends in a lament over the “infamous footnote 351”:

To introduce a divisive footnote into an exhortation on the family does not serve a global Church challenged on so many fronts and only ends up creating the very scenario that Francis himself decries in AL: a Church wasting its energies on internal acrimonies, in this case, on a matter that is consumed largely by the church in the German-speaking world, pushed on despite the conclusions of the 1980 Synod on the Family clearly enunciated by St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio. The unity of the Church is not served by inconsistencies in official documents, even when they are on mere matters of nonauthoritative opinion. What we have now is an impassioned debate over the meaning of footnote 351.

The often wild misunderstandings of Pope Francis aren’t solely born of malice, journalistic laziness, bad translations, and ideological imperatives. Quite the contrary: they also have quite a bit to do with his shoot-from-the-hip style, his penchant for hyperbole (how else to describe his admonition that confessionals should not be “torture chambers”?), and his prolix, undisciplined writing. (Verbosity, as Fr. George Rutler reminds us, is not only “indicative of muddled thinking” but also “the rhetorical indulgence of the modern age.”) Pope Francis’ speaking and writing, in my opinion, sometimes reveal a man who is desperately trying to articulate a vision that is not very clear in his own mind. He is unable to say precisely what the vision is, and therefore is limited to telling us at great length what the vision is not.

“A Son of the Church”

Nevertheless, those who rigidly hold to the progressive pope paradigm often take Pope Francis’ words not only out of the context in which they are presented but out of the context of the rest of his papacy. It is one thing to constantly remind others that not everything that falls out of his mouth (or pen) is part of the Church’s infallible magisterium. It is another thing entirely — in fact, it is a grave failure of charity and misuse of the prophetic office (cf. Catechism §§ 904 – 907) — to find in the pope’s every other utterance a deliberate desire or calculated intent to undermine that magisterium. And it is certainly a sin against the Eighth Commandment (cf. Catechism §§ 2477 – 2479) to distort his words in order to support such a finding.

On the return flight from Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, Francis was pressured for his “position” on abortion and same-sex “marriage” by Brazilian journalist Patricia Zorzan; Francis’ final, definitive answer was, “The position of the Church. I am a son of the Church.” In another, more recent return-flight press conference, on the subject of allowing communion to civilly divorced and remarried Catholics, he told NBC’s Ann Thompson: “Being integrated into the Church does not mean ‘taking communion’. I know remarried Catholics who go to Church once or twice a year: ‘I want to receive communion!’, as if communion were a commendation. It is a matter of integration … the doors are all open. But one cannot just say: from now on ‘they can take communion’. This would also wound the spouses, the couple, because it won’t help them on the path to integration.”

“The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia,” insists the very traditionalist Cdl. Raymond L. Burke, “is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching.” The same thing can be said of Pope Francis: his concern is not to change the doctrines or discipline of the Church but to bring their benefit to more people:

I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.” (Amoris Laetitia § 308, cit. Evangelii Gaudium § 45)

Wait For the Fruit

Ultimately, my faith is not in Pope Francis but in the promises Christ gave to his Church: that the Holy Spirit will teach her and guide her into all truth (cf. John 14:26, 16:13), and that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against her (cf. Matthew 16:18). The Church has survived her fair share of crooks, fools, and cowards; being an institution full of wheat and weeds (cf. Matthew 13:24-30), she has suffered and survived internal divisions since before the Council of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15:1-29). She will survive Pope Francis; she may even thrive because of him.

The final assessment of Amoris Laetitia and its effect on the Church must await the passage of time — at least two or three generations; the same is true for Pope Francis and his pontificate. “Each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:44); the sapling of Amoris has barely been planted. But if the non-Catholic chatterati must saddle themselves with the myth of a progressive pope, there’s no valid reason why we must do so as well. After all, we ought to know better.

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22 thoughts on “Amoris Laetitia and the Progressive Pope Myth”

  1. It is a fact that pope Francis, prior to being elected pope, condoned same-sex sexual relationships as long as they were not called marriage and did not include children, and thus, according to Gorge Bergoglio, does not affect society. (Page 117′ On Heaven. and Earth)

  2. 1. He may not be a “progressive” but he clearly is not as conservative as St. JPII or Benedict and he clearly wants to take the Church in a different direction from where it was under their pontificates. His most significant supporters in the conclave were among the most progressive cardinals in the Church and he surrounds himself with progressives while marginalizing or ignoring conservatives. Just how far he is willing to go is another question. Also, one would have to be blind not to see that he attempted to “pack” the recent Synod with very progressive bishops.

    2. As for the statement that the Holy Spirit will “guide the Church into all truth” I would say ultimately, yes. But, he clearly does not protect the Church from all error in the meantime – merely from fatal error – as in proclaiming a false dogma ex Cathedra. Josef Ratzinger said that the Holy Spirit does not select the Pope, nor does he protect the Pope from all error. Rather, Holy Spirit keeps the Church on a long leash and the only guarantee is that he won’t allow the whole thing to be irrevocably ruined.

  3. I am not one of those who tries to shoehorn the Pope into some sort of religious-political box. I assume he simply expresses himself in the manner to which he is accustomed. However, it might be best for us if his commentary were a bit more precise for the benefit of those with a tendency to take some part of a comment in isolation to support their own extra-ecclesial views. I am reminded of his predecessors, Pius IX and Leo XIII, about whom there was never a doubt as to what they were saying whether you liked it or not.

  4. ” It is one thing to constantly remind others that not everything that falls out of his mouth (or pen) is part of the Church’s infallible magisterium.”

    About Bergoglio and his consistent use of the media to further his aims…Bergoglio preempts his would-be interpreters. “I´m permanently making statements, giving homilies; that´s teaching. That´s what I think, not what the media say that I think. Check it out, it´s very clear.”

  5. Thank you for a very level headed assessment of the Pope and reactions to him. It is amazing how much people have their theories and search what the Pope says to shove into their theory and the heck with what’s really there. Good article to remind us to NOT do that!

  6. Bravo! Excellent piece. It’s sad to see so many writers and priests I otherwise admire focusing on what they think the exhortation “implies,” rather than what it says. I read what it actually says and does not say, rather than reading the tea leaves of a footnote. At the very least, if something in the Pope’s writings is unclear, we as the faithful should give him the benefit of the doubt.

    1. The ramifications of such “implications” are that the pope has opened a crack a number of doors previously and most wisely which were shut tight and locked. He has done so in service to “spirit of Vatican II” progressives who have previously demonstrated their penchant for kicking open such doors the rest of the way to attain their goals.

      You and other unsuspecting Catholics console yourselves with foolish notions that we are tilting at windmills of implications rather than substance, but you should pay attention to who is cheering this document and the details of their views. Notice among their numbers the positions of some who claim it hasn’t gone far enough. Start with reading Cardinal Kasper.

      It doesn’t take much to see where this will go over time, even beyond this papacy. Educate yourself on the true history of the disobedience and deceit intrinsic to the establishment of receiving Communion in the hand, standing, which is only one of the clearer examples of how progressives get an inch and take it into a mile in the Church. There are other examples.

    2. Again, this is all surmise and conjecture. Nothing in Amoris Laetitia proposes new doctrine OR a change in practice. Nothing. Now, one can argue that it is unclear in places and that the lack of clarity will be abused by those who don’t care about orthodoxy, etc. One can wish that the document had been firmer in some points. One can even say, “I wish Benedict had written it instead!” But there is not a single sentence that, taken as written (rather than as some people want to argue is implied, but not said) is cause for alarm. If Cardinal Burke is not worried about it, neither am I.

  7. We are admonished not to seek “to find in the pope’s every other utterance a deliberate desire or calculated intent to undermine (the) magisterium”. And I entirely agree BUT… And this “but” is quite important. The Pope, whosoever that be but in this case Francis, has a duty not to make utterances, and here I mean specifically in writing, that can confuse the faithful. In order that he cannot do this certain ways of working have evolved. Most importantly, all documents — Apostolic Constitutions, Exhortations and Letters and motu proprio etc – are, before publication, submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and other concerned dicasteries for their consideration and comment in order that before they are issued the Pope can genuinely state that he has issued the document having made himself “fully informed” as to the issue or issues and has then submitted it to the Doctor Theologian to the Papal Household (formerly Master of the Sacred Apostolic Palace, see Pope Paul VI’s apostolic letter Pontificalis Domus,1968), currently Fr Wojciech Giertych OP for his assurance that it is free of defect. It is more than a worry that Pope Francis has abandoned this procedure. And BECAUSE he has abandoned this procedure everything he publishes NEEDS to be carefully studied because whether he intends it or nae there is every chance that things might be present which DO undermine the magisterium.

    1. Francis certainly didn’t “confuse” anyone when he put Cardinal Burke in his place for trying to
      wring the mercy out of the synod – and that’s a good thing.

    2. When exactly was that when Francis put Cardinal Burke in his place? What do you mean by “trying to wring the mercy out of the synod”? And when Cardinal Burke supposedly do this, whatever it is? Oh, and one last thing what entitles you to sneer at a man who has devoted his life to service in, of and for the Church?

    3. Apparently he is more well-versed in Catholicism than you. Any faithful orthodox Catholic may make such an argument with the overwhelming amount of hard evidence in support of it.
      This article is merely another in a spate of recent attempts by the establishment Catholic media to foster their own selection of myths, and like the others (one of the more insulting efforts was by the above-mentioned Dave Armstrong who should be stripped of all rights to present himself as a Catholic apologist) cherry-picks the easiest straw-man arguments while ignoring the substance.

      I’m no sedevacantist, so I acknowledge Pope Francis is my pope. However, we’ve previously had bad popes (as in poor mechanics or poor teachers), and now this one is beginning to concern millions of faithful Catholics who would have recoiled at the idea at criticism of a pope until this document which – despite the scurrilous claims made above – HAS been read and vetted thoroughly to produce plenty about which to be concerned.

      Faithful Catholics are called to resist when any bishop even opens the door to the nonsense spouted by Kasper and his ilk, and there can be no denying that Pope Francis has been, in fact, opening several doors at their behest for the last few years. The previous two popes – one a saint – found it necessary for the sake of the Church and her faithful to shut down Kasper and muzzle him and his proposals completely. The implications of his elevation to a prominent position of influence on the Church’s discourse on marriage related issues have been troubling to faithful Catholics all along, and definitely earn him the description “progressive.”

      There is not way to get around that reality. I give this piece of rhetoric an F; it is merely the most recent example of establishment Catholic media shilling for the ultramontanist wing of the Church. And yes, being called such IS an insult because, though it is not a heresy, it IS an error.

    4. The real problem, Phil is that when any institution, country or ideology becomes of monumental size, the center cannot hold as the poet Yeats remarks. I respect all Catholics ( orthodox, conservative, C & E, dissenting, cafeteria, progressive et al the same ) as somewhere in the middle lies a path between ie: magnetic north, true north and grid north. Hughie there, is no more right than I am – but he seems to think so. And I would never call the guy a buffoon, so score one for me.

    5. A rant is characterised by both excessive length and anger and more than a hint of irrationality. My reasoned comment could only be regarded as anything near this by a buffoon.

    6. That word “buffoon” needs to be used much more often, HughieMc. Good chuckle!

  8. ” Especially not the theory of the long-awaited, long-feared progressive pope.”

    I wonder how ( or if ) you would be able to contrast the writings of another Pius V type – awaited by some in the church and not feared at all I would think by most. Having used an excellent Wicipedia resource to learn about this conservative firebrand I can only theorize that Francis prayed (to God) at his tomb so as to learn from the former’s mistakes while begging grace to deal with the almost exact same issues. In any case, it seems after Francis there is no going back ; nor too far forward either.

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