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... But Pope Francis Has Spread Confusion and Division

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The following is the second part of a two-part series addressing criticism of Pope Francis. Read the first part, Is Pope Francis a Heretic? Well, No ....

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (June 3, 2019)

In his commentary on the "open letter" of Easter Week, 2019 — the letter accusing Pope Francis of the canonical crime of heresy — Catholic philosopher Edward Feser wrote that if the letter had just accused him of encouraging doctrinal error, or negligence in resisting doctrinal error, rather than outright heresy, it would have been much harder to mount a defense of the pope.

Catholic theologian Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap, agreed that the heresy charge overshot the mark: "The fact that Pope Francis articulates these [controversial] positions in an ambiguous manner makes it almost impossible to accuse him rightly of heresy. ... Those who interpret his ambiguous teaching in a manner not in keeping with the Catholic faith may be heretical, but the pope is not, even if the pope appears to give silent approval to their erroneous interpretations."

All of this raises the uncomfortable truth about Pope Francis (and much of this is put on display in the open letter): There can be little doubt that he has made controversial statements (and taken controversial actions) that fall short of teaching or promoting heresy only by their ambiguity, thereby causing confusion to the Catholic faithful, and that he has in many cases refused to clarify these statements, or the implications of his deeds, even when cardinals, bishops, and leading theologians or groups of theologians have pleaded with him to do so. What is the inevitable result of all this? Confusion and division within the Church.

Allow me to offer some examples.

As readers of this article may know, last week I defended Pope Francis against the charge of outright "heresy" — especially with regard to the pastoral provisions he has permitted for some divorced and remarried members of the Church to to receive Holy Communion in exceptional circumstances. To my mind, all well and good. But Pope Francis left the implementation of that directive entirely up to the local bishops' conferences, and the result has been international chaos.

For example, in Germany and Switzerland reportedly it has become practically the norm now for divorced and remarried Catholics freely to partake of the Sacraments, while in neighboring Poland, there has been no change at all in pastoral practice on this matter. A prudent pope at least would have required all requests by such persons for access to the Sacraments to approach a bishop's chaplain designated in each diocese to be the pastor in charge of such cases. What we have instead is a breakdown of sacramental discipline and unity in the Church regarding marriage and the Sacraments on an unprecedented scale.

Here is another example, one that affected me personally. In 2018 Marian Press published a book I wrote titled A Bridge of Mercy: Homosexuality and God's Merciful Love. In the research leading up to its publication, of course, I was aware that early in his pontificate Pope Francis had made a controversial statement about persons with same-sex attraction: "Who am I to judge?" It was said that this statement was taken out of context by the press, because the Pope seemed to be referring to Catholic priests with a homosexual orientation who are faithfully serving their flocks.

Moreover, it seemed to me that "Who am I to judge?" could be taken in a way that did not imply the Holy Father was condoning homosexual acts. Indeed, he may have meant "Who am I to condemn them" — God alone judges — rather than, "Who am I to say that homosexual behavior is wrong." So, given all this, faithful Catholics should cut the Pope some slack.

Unfortunately, when the Holy Father's book The Name of God is Mercy appeared in 2016, I was hoping to find clarification of his controversial statement so that I could quote it in my own book. No such clarification was offered. Quite the contrary, he more or less repeated the ambiguous statement "Who am I to judge" without effective clarification, and this time not in the context of a discussion about homosexuality among the clergy. In other words, he made the confusion even worse!

Then I started to take notice of his actions with regard to this issue. Most of these are included in the open letter (although I have done my best to double-check the allegations through research myself). For example, Cardinal Oswald Gracias has publicly expressed the opinion that homosexuality may be an orientation given to people by God. Pope Francis appointed him as one of the organizers of the Vatican summit on sexual abuse in February 2019.

Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta was accused of homosexual misconduct and the sexual harassment of seminarians, photographic evidence of which was presented to the Holy See in 2015. Pope Francis named Zanchetta as an assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See in December 2017. Here is an especially egregious example, listed by the open letter:

[Msgr] Battista Mario Salvatore Ricca was engaged in grave homosexual behavior while employed in the papal nunciature in Uruguay. This included getting trapped in an elevator with a male prostitute and having to be rescued by the fire department. After these scandals became public, Pope Francis put him in charge of his residence, the Casa Santa Marta, and named him prelate of the Istituto delle Opere di Religione.


At least two persons that Pope Francis has appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life have stated that some homosexual relationships can be paths to holiness (Fr. Alain Thomasset) or reject Catholic teaching that such acts are objectively disordered (Professor Marie-Jo Thiel).

On June 9, 2014, the open letter charges, Pope Francis received the leaders of the militantly pro-homosexual Tupac Amaru organisation from Argentina at the Vatican and blessed their coca leaves for use in their pagan religious rituals, which involve the use of the coca plant as sacred.

Names more familiar to the English-speaking world also come up in this regard. For example, Fr. James Martin, SJ, popularly known as "the Rainbow priest" for his propaganda legitimising homosexual relationships, and his scandalous gay and lesbian Rosary, was appointed by Pope Francis a consultant to the secretariat of communications of the Holy See in 2017. Father Timothy Radcliffe, OP, has stated that homosexual activity can be expressive of Christ's self-gift. Pope Francis appointed him as a consultor for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2015.

Pope Francis did publish under his signature a reaffirmation of Catholic pastoral teaching regarding homosexuality in Amoris Laetita, sections 250-251, so at least I was able to include that in my book. But that section of the Apostolic Exhortation was a report of the consensus opinion of the bishops at the Synod on the Family; it was not written in the first person, so to speak. So what does Pope Francis really think about homosexuality — and what is he really trying to say to the Church on this issue? His words and deeds are both controversial and confusing, to say the least.

The same could be said about his words and deeds related to the life and death issue of abortion. Pope Francis was the first pope ever to be invited to address the United States Congress. In that speech he made a clear, explicit and forceful call for the end of the death penalty. At the same time he never mentioned the word "abortion" in his speech, simply asking Americans to defend and nurture human life "at every stage of its growth and development" — words which challenged almost no one on the Pro-Choice side of the issue, since most of them believe that an unborn child is not yet a fully human life, and that its true growth and development as a distinct person begins at birth. Pro-life advocates in the U.S. were bitterly disappointed by the Pope's tepid words, and noted that in the year that the Pope gave this speech, there were 36 judicial executions in the U.S., compared with the killing of nearly 1 million unborn children.

Pope Francis was silent with regard to the referendum to legalize abortion in Ireland. Where was his pastoral plea to this historically Catholic nation to uphold the rights of all vulnerable and innocent life? He has also appointed pro-abortion advocate Professor Nigel Biggar, who holds that abortion is morally licit up to the 18th week of pregnancy, to the Pontifical Academy for Life. Again, what is the inevitable result of the pope's actions (and inaction) in this vital area of Catholic moral teaching? Confusion and consternation.

Besides spreading confusion and division, there is also the cloud of hypocrisy enveloping this pontificate. Many will know of the recent agreement signed by the Vatican with the government of Communist China. Here is what I wrote to a friend about that matter a few months ago:

Take the new Vatican agreement with the Communist government of China about episcopal oversight of Chinese Catholics. Pope Francis has now agreed that the Chinese government must approve any episcopal appointment in that country. Which means that they will only approve those who are communist agents or communist sympathizers. Which means that those Red-bishops will now have access to the information about who is actually a member of the Catholic underground church in China — and you can imagine the security of the future for those people!

The leadership of the underground Catholic Church in China has pretty much unanimously condemned the agreement, including a public rebuke of Pope Francis by Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong. It is so appalling that even George Weigel, who defended Pope Francis in the first few years of his papacy, wrote a blistering attack on the agreement. No one who is practicing and preaching "holiness" should be selling out the courageous faithful in China like this.


Frankly, I am not impressed by a pontiff who makes a show of humbly riding in a low-budget car, living in the Vatican hotel rather than the papal apartments, and who repeatedly claims to speak up for the voiceless and the downtrodden — and then institutes Vatican policies like this one. Words and symbolic gestures are cheap: rank appeasement of the atheist, totalitarian government of China is costly — and will be especially to Chinese Catholics.

Then there is the Cardinal McCarrick affair. We may never know the full truth about this, because Pope Francis has remained silent about the accusations against him and ordered a review of all the documents relating to the relationship between the Holy See and Cardinal McCarrick (a review that easily could have taken just a week, but has been dragging on for many months now). That review, of course, is being undertaken by the Vatican itself — so the Vatican is investigating malfeasance by ... the Vatican.

Meanwhile, the basic facts of the case are indisputable. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano claims that in 2013, he warned Pope Francis in person that Cardinal McCarrick had a thick file of accusations against him for the sexual abuse of seminarians, and that as a result, Pope Benedict had asked Cardinal McCarrick to retire to a life of prayer and penance. But Pope Francis subsequently used Cardinal McCarrick for important tasks, including trips as a representative of the Holy See to Israel, Armenia, China, Iran, and Cuba, and McCarrick even accompanied Pope Francis himself on trips to Israel and Cuba. The basic facts seem to imply that Pope Francis just looked the other way until new evidence became public in 2017. Vigano, therefore, called for the Pope's resignation. Meanwhile, Cardinal McCarrick was laicized by the Pope in 2019.

While the Pope has to this day refused to explain his actions from 2013-2017, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet fired off a ferocious letter in his defense, accusing Vigano of making a "blasphemous" attack on the Vicar of Christ. The charges against McCarrick were just rumors until 2017, Ouellet alleged, and there is no evidence that Pope Francis ever looked upon McCarrick as a key advisor for episcopal appointments. The latter point is unimportant, given that McCarrick was clearly brought out of retirement, at least to some extent, by Pope Francis.

Moreover, the claim that the charges against McCarrick were just "rumors" until 2017 is preposterous. As the open letter of 2019 states: "Between 2005 and 2007, the Diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Newark paid financial settlements to two priests who had accused McCarrick of abuse." Moreover, Pope Francis was informed by his papal nuncio in 2013 that the church had a thick file of accusations that McCarrick and had been pressuring seminarians into homosexual relations with him over many years.

Perhaps there are perfectly good explanations for the Pope's actions from 2013-2017, but we have yet to hear them. The Holy Father seems to think that stonewalling it with perpetual silence will make this all go away. In this post-modern era of suspicion of all authority, however, only transparency and accountability will finally lay this matter to rest.

Finally, consider the new rules from Pope Francis for dealing with accusations against bishops of sexual misconduct. The Holy Father has spoken tirelessly (and rightly so) of the need to drain the poison of excessive "clericalism" from the governance and life of the Catholic Church. And yet the new Vatican rules are as pure a specimen of clericalism as one can imagine. Accusations of sexual misconduct against bishops should now be sent to the regional archbishop or metropolitan, who, if he deems them credible, will seek permission from the Holy See to proceed with an investigation, etc., etc. In other words, everything is to be kicked "upstairs."

But what if the archbishop himself is compromised in this area (McCarrick, after all, was Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C.), or the Vatican itself? The hierarchy investigating the hierarchy is not a recipe for justice to be done. The new rules do not mention (and therefore do not forbid) the creation of quasi-independent councils of competent laypersons to carry out such investigations on behalf of the Church (as the U.S. bishops were prepared to implement last year, before Pope Francis stopped them from doing so). Once again, the cloud of hypocrisy enveloping this pontificate is becoming ever more disturbing.

I do not relish expressing these grave concerns about how Pope Francis is spreading confusion and division and manifesting hypocrisy. I hope and pray that others, and especially the Pope himself, will respond clearly to such concerns (as found in the open letter of Easter Week 2019) and restore my confidence, and that of many others, in this pontificate.

At the same time, I sincerely acknowledge the many good things that Pope Francis has done (for example, proclaimed the Jubilee Year of Mercy, consecrated the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, streamlined the burdensome and expensive procedures for adjudicating requests for annulments of marriage, penned the first ever papal encyclical on care for the environment, and called the whole Church to put the needs of the poor front and center).

There is much to be thankful for ... and yet at least as much, if not more, to prompt us to fall to our knees on a daily basis and pray about. And that's probably the best place to leave this matter: in prayer, in the Heart of Jesus, for our Holy Father Pope Francis.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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Frank Rizzo - Jun 10, 2019

An excellent dissertation on the current state of the Papacy.During these troubling times we are all called to prayer, fasting and mortification for the purification of our Church.In addition we must abandon our angst to God and not depend on human interventionHaving said that we must stand ready to stand for the Truth in whatever way God asks in accordance with the talents we have been given.Teach ,proclaim and defend the Truth in a gentle and loving way.