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.