Pope Francis doesn’t have to “break the Church”

Last summer during Acton University I had the chance to get to talk at length with Russ Douthat of Hell’s Bible (aka The New York Times… echo chamber of record for the liberal snob elite).  Douthat is a voice of sanity in a dry place.

He has a piece about the recent Synod, which you ought to read.  He got it right.

The Pope and the Precipice


SUCH a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice. Of course it would be welcomed by some progressive Catholics and hailed by the secular press. But it would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents — encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.

Those adherents are, yes, a minority — sometimes a small minority — among self-identified Catholics in the West. But they are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were. They have kept the faith amid moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal.

Which is why this pope has incentives to step back from the brink — as his closing remarks to the synod, which aimed for a middle way between the church’s factions, were perhaps designed to do.

Francis is charismatic, popular, widely beloved. He has, until this point, faced strong criticism only from the church’s traditionalist fringe, and managed to unite most Catholics in admiration for his ministry. There are ways that he can shape the church without calling doctrine into question, and avenues he can explore (annulment reform, in particular) that would bring more people back to the sacraments without a crisis. He can be, as he clearly wishes to be, a progressive pope, a pope of social justice — and he does not have to break the church to do it.


What a refreshing point of view… and prose style.  After all the smarmy rubbish I’ve read about the Synod from the catholic Left and the spittle-flecked zany stuff from the extreme right, this is a great cleansing of the palate.

There’s more.  Read and engage.  I don’t go with everything he wrote, by the way.  I am simply refreshed by a clear-eyed, well-written view.

And, in the balance, he got it right.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. jacobi says:

    Let’s not kid ourselves, there is a danger of schism in the Church at present.

    This has been hypothesised for some time now. What is generally termed the forces of Relativism are pushing for a Church which will not be in continuity with, two thousand years of Catholicism. It has been termed a Relativist Reformation.

    Douthat comments that Catholics (in Continuity) are but a small minority . Yes, but of course so are the liberal/Relativists. It is always so. The majority are just looking for guidance.

    The difference this time is that the liberal/Relativists have the energy, have the bit between their teeth. Catholics have only belatedly realised this and are belatedly countering it.
    The Catholic Church is in a bad state at present, numbers declining , confusion , low morale, and low public appreciation. All bad enough.

    We need a Pope of the stature of St Pius V. Let’s see if Francis is up to it.

  2. Unwilling says:

    There are honest people and evil people in every random multitude. Honest people have more or less consciously held moral principles by which they live. Catholics get theirs from the Church. Non-Catholics who behave well in our Western society are governing their actions more or less consciously on borrowed Catholic moral principles. They take them to heart because they are already written on their hearts and recognize them as true when they learn them, more or less directly, by absorbing the paradigms of goodness that come to them from the Saints, who have them from the Church, who has them from Christ Who is God. They are welcome and wise to do so. To the extent that they fail to do so, they approach dishonesty instead. What happens when the avenues of access to Catholic principles are obscured, discredited by greed or lust, muddled in expression, cut off from their Divine source?

  3. moconnor says:

    His book, Bad Religion, is a must read for American Catholics. Very clear understanding of how the post-modern era has herded most Americans into accommodation heresies.

  4. revueltos67 says:

    Uhh… Do you maybe mean Ross Douthat?

  5. marcelus says:

    jacobi says:26 October 2014 at 5:06 pmLet’s not kid ourselves, there is a danger of schism in the Church at present

    Agree. Sure looks like its going that way for the traditional side of the church. Trad cardinals are clearly making their point of view be seen, most not in like with the ‘alleged’ inclinations of the Pope, since other than the clowninsh mid relatio, nothing has seriously changed.

    Curiously when Attempts are made to bring the sspx back, but i do not think the traditionalist cardinals will be able to ‘ coexist’ with the Pope under the same roof much longer. Though they are indeed a minority in the church worldwide it shall make loud noise should it take place.

  6. robtbrown says:

    I don’t think there is danger of formal schism. For years that was the ploy of liberals (e.g., Bernardin) to keep Rome from acting.

    Those forces in the Synod want localization of praxis. That would mean the pope could reaffirm the doctrine, then urge a pastoral application. That pastoral application, passed down via the Sec of State through the Apostolic Nuncio, would permit/encourage bishops conferences to have a prayerful consideration of the situation, toward developing “merciful” praxis.

  7. anilwang says:

    With gestures towards both the SSPX and liberals, I’m increasingly starting to believe that the Pope could best be categorized as what the Anglicans could call a latitudinarian. Anglican roughly consists of four factions: low Church (i.e. pseudo Presbyterians), high Church (i.e. pseudo Catholics), liberals (i.e. pseudo Pagans and secularists), and latitudinarians (i.e. cafeteria Anglicans…they love the diversity of Anglicanism and are equally comfortable in a clown “mass” as they would be in a Sarum Rite “mass” and love that they can change moral stances every day of the week and have Anglican friends across the spectrum, and think that the only sin is to not get along with all other Anglicans).

    Traditionally, this mess has been kept together ambiguous wording on the Catholic/Protestant divide that allows all to believe their own version of Anglicanism, and by affirm a type of “mere Christianity” that is relatively orthodox (e.g. C. S. Lewis). But as the liberals gained strength ambiguity spread to all parts of Anglicanism and this ambiguous peace has become harder and harder to keep. Low and high church are still allies against the liberals, but there are now so many latitudinarians that it is nearly impossible to clarify what the problem is, much less excommunicate the liberals or even split from the liberals. No matter how it tries to save itself, latitudinarians gum up the works and prevent any sort of clarity that would result in a resolution. So latitudinarians are a worse problem than even liberals, since at least with liberals you know where you stand and you can fight them through reason.

  8. Traductora says:

    Interesting article. I agree that the Pope may be trying to calm things down a bit and walk back some of his statements. Actually, whether by design or simply because his thought processes are not very orderly, he rarely makes a statement that is clear enough to be walked back; it’s generally a matter of his adding another statement that he hopes will placate people upset by the implications of his first unclear statement. And while it is true that his most recent words on the Synod criticized both sides (although one a lot more severely than the other), I found it disturbing that he viewed the whole thing as just a partisan matter in the first place, rather than an issue of truth, and that he felt that showering down criticisms from a lofty and somehow impartial height was the way to deal with it.

    I heard a very good homily at a church in Le Puy yesterday, where the priest began by mentioning that he had been receiving a stream of emails and phone calls from upset and confused Catholics (remember, France may be totally apostate on one hand, but those who are not on that side are very solid Catholics, who recently had huge public demonstrations in favor of real marriage). He assured us that Catholic doctrine cannot change because it is based on reality, such as the reality of the difference between the Persons of the Trinity setting the pattern for marriage as a fruitful relationship between distinct persons with distinct characteristics (that is, not persons who were the same, such as being of the same sex). He said that no one, not even a Pope, can change the heart of doctrine and he thought that Pope Francis was just looking for a better way of expressing it. So it was helpful to be reminded of that, and while I think that the Pope should be a lot more careful and concerned about the faith of the “little ones,” he can’t “break the Church” and it’s not his intention to do so.

    I read that Cardinal Pell said in an address that there will be no “doctrinal backflips” because such would be impossible. He said that there have been 266 popes, of whom more than 30 have been anti-popes or even heretical, and yet the Church survives because it is the person of Peter and not his opinions that are the rock.

  9. johndunk says:

    Well every 500 years, so, schism is due, isn’t it: the Jews, the Muslims, the Orthodox, the Protestants, and now the modernists.

    Modernists haven’t named themselves yet. I like Individualists.

  10. jflare says:

    I agree with jacobi and marcelus. We can couch it however we wish, but the fact of the matter is that our Church does stand in grave danger of serious division next year.
    I find Fr Reese’s attitude to be downright alarming. I can’t imagine what he or any bishop thinks we can do as a Church to “welcome” LGBT persons or “remarried” persons any more than we already do. He seems thrilled about the “discussion” and free-wheeling debate. Frankly, I’m horrified that anyone believes that we have anything of particular substance to debate related to LGBT or “remarried” persons. Either a homosexual act is gravely (mortally) sinful, or it isn’t. Either the gay lifestyle places someone in the circumstance of bringing someone near to the occasion of sin, or it doesn’t. Same for “remarried” persons. Either it is an act of grave sin to live in an intended state of adultery, or it isn’t. Either it is a sinful act to receive the Eucharist while living in this state, or it is not.
    I don’t begin to understand how we help anyone to escape the torment of their lives by lying to them about the sins they’ve committed and/or intend to commit. I can’t understand how you can truly demonstrate compassion for a person whilst patently ignoring the objective reality of the person’s sinful behavior.
    We aren’t intended to be a church of happy, fluffy teddy bears at all costs. Hell is literally too serious of a threat for that. If we’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or tormenting them with teh fullness of revealed Truth, we must remember where the torment truly comes from.

    I do fear that if next year’s regular Synod insists on doing as much equivocating and tap-dancing as this one did, our Church will suffer tremendous chaos as many faithful, lay or clergy, won’t be able to readily discern the sacred from the sinful.

    If we have many bishops trying to insist that things really won’t be all that bad, our Church will have a horrid time with presenting anything remotely resembling a prophetic voice to the world.

    Our faithful and the world need to hear the Word of Christ, not a bunch of happy, fluffy equivocal nonsense.

  11. jflare says:

    Just a footnote to my previous comment:
    On several occasions, I’ve heard Pope Francis commenting about how priests and bishops need to be “more pastoral” with the flock, that they need to “walk with the faithful” (that’s not really a quote, but the general gist of his idea) as they work their way toward heaven.
    For all that I think that’s a great idea, I must highlight the problem that such an intent poses. I think the only way to “walk with” anyone is to literally spend time with people, to provide mentorship and guidance. That requires that we have numerous priests in numerous dioceses to do the walking with people. …Which is one very serious problem with this whole idea.

    We have not had nearly enough priests in active ministry to do this personal walk with every person in my lifetime. For all that we’d like to be more personal, we ultimately must admit that we’re going to need to simply tell people about revealed Truth, then we’ll need for people to wrestle with the consequences on their own in many cases.
    Certainly we can offer help in dealing with temptations, I think doing so would be marvelous.

    Problem is, in all these discussions related to LGBT or “remarried” persons, I have heard not even one serious word about provoking the laity to help to provide that personal guidance. I have not heard even one whiff of an idea that lay people need to be available to help LGBT or “remarried” persons to struggle through.
    I have heard only suggestions that we ought to relax the discipline of communion and make life easier to seek a Declaration of Nullity.
    How on earth are those approaches supposed to help anyone deal with any serious concern?

  12. Joseph-Mary says:

    The Church does survive and Our Lord promised that for she is the Bride. My most positive thought is about B. Pius IX–did he not enter the papacy as a revolutionary but then became a holy reactionary. He suffered much for the Church and also proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Of course he was not a modernist Jesuit to begin with but people do change. That is my hope. At the moment, the Church is looking rather Episcopalian, at least in perception, and that is not a good thing. There can be all this talk of making sin no longer sin and having ‘mercy’ so that some are comfortable in sin but what we truly need is care for the salvation of souls and I am not hearing that mentioned. What I hear is a capitulation to the pull of ‘the world’ and its passing views. What about the offense to God?

  13. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “I don’t go with everything he wrote, by the way. I am simply refreshed by a clear-eyed, well-written view.” Ditto.

  14. iteadthomam says:

    Douthat notes that Pope Francis is trying to maintain the middle way approach between traditionalsists and liberals. My first question is, who are these so call “traditioinalists” who are merely concerned about the letter of the law to the exclusion of mercy? I’ve yet to encounter such a traditionalist. Is this perhaps a straw man used to discredit the traditionalist position in favor of a more liberal approach? Also, I don’t understand this middle position the Holy Father seems to maintain. If the traditionalists are right and the liberals are wrong, a mid way approach is questionable. For example, if the traditionalist position is the 2 + 2 = 4 and the liberal position is 2 + 2 = 6, the mid way position 2 + 2 = 5 is still wrong. What am I missing here? I am not questioning Pope Francis’s motives, I assume they are good, but I am questioning if this is the right approach (maybe I shouldn’t be after Michael Voris’s apology for appearing to question the Pope, but my understanding is that Canon Law permits the faithful to charitably question their leaders and even to make these questions known to the faithful.)

  15. shoofoolatte says:

    Francis’ recent address about the sacramentality of marriage – that it is not a “social event”, that it is a lifelong commitment, a way of holiness- shows a deeper intent. If the secular culture is to be healed, its understanding of what marriage is must be realigned. Louis and Zelie Martin, parents of St. Therese of Lisieux are an example of the sacramental way of holiness in marriage.

  16. La Sandia says:

    Because, as a friend of mine pointed out on FB yesterday, it’s not as though we haven’t had a Pope in recent memory who managed to have great personal charisma, a knack for relating to the common man, and an ability to win over skeptics and unbelievers…while at the same time clearly articulating the moral teachings of the Church and refusing to compromise with the spirit of the age. If JPII could do it, why can’t PF?

  17. robtbrown says:

    I think in the next 18-24 months Pope Francis will begin feeling the weight of office.

    It is one thing to charm pilgrims in the Piazza, encourage decentralization, speak in double talk about moral issues or about mercy, and indirectly propose an agenda assuming wide support. It is quite another to make a concrete decision affecting the Universal Church. Whatever Papa Bergoglio’s episcopal inclination (according to what I’ve read and what I’ve been told by Argentinian friends) to avoid controversy, he is now a man on the spot.

    I have said that he is an Existentialist, and that an Existentialist prefers chaos to order because his decisions are more his own and more heroic.

    It will be interesting. We will find of what stuff Jorge Bergoglio is made.

  18. robtbrown says:

    La Sandia says:
    Because, as a friend of mine pointed out on FB yesterday, it’s not as though we haven’t had a Pope in recent memory who managed to have great personal charisma, a knack for relating to the common man, and an ability to win over skeptics and unbelievers…while at the same time clearly articulating the moral teachings of the Church and refusing to compromise with the spirit of the age. If JPII could do it, why can’t PF?

    JPII’s background was much different.

  19. The Masked Chicken says:

    The philosopher, Ed Feser, has some really insightful remarks about the use of semantic implicature, where one says one thing, but means another, by implication, in use by some Churchmen, today (and at the Synod). I don’t often recommend posts, but I think this is a must-read.


    The Chicken

  20. fnr says:

    Oy, vey. Another piece of reductionism to binary. As if the Trinity could be summed up as 011.

    The dominant cultural meme, which so many Catholics embrace willingly, is that there is a low-level war going on between Tradition and progress, or orthodoxy and heterodoxy, if you prefer. Take the Michael Voris slant, and the Synod was a hair away from being the ecclesiological equivalent of the Beer Hall Putsch. Secularists and the RadTrads both point to a radical change being shoved down the throat of the Truly Faithful Catholics, and it’s a story peddled in the pages of the secular press, EWTN, and here too.

    If you paid any attention to his whole corpus of Francis’ preaching, the binary narrative is just wrong. On multiple occasions, he has stressed the need to prioritize time over space, of initiating processes over “occupying space.” He’s not FDR, stacking the Supreme Court. He’s more like Wangari Maathai, planting trees.

    That which just passed was an Extraordinary Synod, in preparation for the next Synod a year hence. If you look at the Holy Father’s closing address at the Synod, he called out the differences that were aired, he reminded us of the oneness of the church, he derided both “sides” of the binary choice, and he called for a maturing of the ideas developed by the Synod Fathers over the next year.

    It’s not over. It’s just begun.

  21. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear anilwang,

    I don’t think that the “Latitudinarian” analogy fits this Pope or the state of the Church. As you note, the difference lies in first principals and provides somewhat of a cautionary tale. The Anglican Church had already fallen into schism and then heresy before the Latitudinarian movement began. They began, through their sovereign Henry, by denying the authority of the Pope. It should be remembered that although Henry dissolved the monasteries (for his own financial gain and to eliminate any power and influence the clergy might retain), he did not fall into heresy. By the end of his reign, through the adoption of the Act of Six Articles in 1539, the Church of England adhered to unambiguous Catholic orthodoxy with the exception of submission to the Pope. The Seven Sacraments were affirmed, clerical celibacy was reinstated (to the embarrassment of Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had married), and heresy outlawed.

    Things changed with the accession of Edward VI. At this point, the heresies of the Reformers, under the authority of Archbishop Cranmer, became the theology of the Anglican Church and the break became complete. The return of Catholic Teaching and an attempt to restore liturgy, albeit both in truncated form, did not find fertile ground until the birth of the Oxford Movement in the 19th Century, through which the workings of the Holy Spirit brought Bl. John Henry Newman into communion with the True Church.

    Anglicanism provides another warning as well. It is undeniable that the Church of England is quite capable of producing beautifully choreographed, technically correct performance of its liturgical rites. What can be lacking is the essential element – faith, in which case it is no different from having an actor recreate a technically correct Mass on stage. The road away from faith begins with pride which often manifests itself in the denial of the authority of Christ’s Vicar.

  22. The Masked Chicken says:

    ” If you look at the Holy Father’s closing address at the Synod, he called out the differences that were aired, he reminded us of the oneness of the church, he derided both “sides” of the binary choice, and he called for a maturing of the ideas developed by the Synod Fathers over the next year.”

    Ed Feser points out, rightly, that even if there may be a sliding scale of prudential ideas on a subject, if one stress one side of the scale 80% of the time, it gives the implication that it is the side poised to become doctrine, even if the idea is totally loony. This is exactly what we saw with the MSM response and the general public’s perception at the Synod. This is, exactly, why Humanae Vitae was such a shock. The public was primed, merely by implicature, to expect a liberalization of the Church’s teaching on contraception. When that didn’t happen, many people still acted as if it did. The Pope doesn’t have the luxury of playing both sides or implying that the dogmatic side is mean without that having profound implications to listeners.

    The Chicken

  23. marcelus says:

    In the meantime, kasperites and the likes are sitting back enjoying the reaction. Can you not see it? they threw the stone into the pond and waves appeared.

    So we have a Pope who is ………. fill in the blanks. Learned , naive, evil merciful innocent authoritatian..?

    Still he is and will be Pope for a while.

    How do you use that to benefit you cause?

    Had he wanted the gay agenda and the rest of the stuff, he would have forced it.

    I find it very difficult to see PF as a gay agenda fanatic really.. I his life here in Argentina I may be mistaken but the only time he dealt with that was when the Govrnt pushed the SSM bill.

    My impression, he let the libs for some reason (show what you got? here is your chance, let’s see what you can make of it? inclination?) play their cards and stepped aside. Of course lot’s of things point differently.WHen it turned into a mess, quickly and clumsily handled in one week, he stepped in.

    Noisy mid relation disappeared, Papal speech.

    In the end what did it leave? the trads angry at the Pope,Cardinals questioning the Pope, right or wrong and with or without right to do so. This is probably the more painful consequence. Talk of schism in the press. Reports on Bsp. Tolbin and then Archbsp Chaput speaking against either the Pope or the synod, some proved false but, the harm is already done.

    And the libs, quietly sitting back, pushing the schism flag everywhere, and some trads already speaking of it.

    PF I suspect will not be the Pope either side of the church wants but, it is the traditional side which will suffer this greatly. Thus there may be consquences.

    iteadthomam says:
    27 October 2014 at 8:02 am
    ” but I am questioning if this is the right approach (maybe I shouldn’t be after Michael Voris’s apology for appearing to question the Pope, but my understanding is that Canon Law permits the faithful to charitably question their leaders and even to make these questions known to the faithful.)”

    I do not know what that was. I followed MV and the first came out with the report from the piazza stating if I recall ” Crdl Burke blasts the Pope… Pope causing harm to the church and so..” The report was indeed true.

    A few days later, he came out with two things: One his video apologizing for reporting?? No need to apologize, he did not do anything other that his job. I don’t know.

    And a post over at CM.Tv, at more or less the same time, stating that no hard words or bashing would be allowed about PF and that comments or posts would be cancelled.

    Finally, they posted a picture of Crdl Burke with some words on the synod or something and the tide turned definately, People begun posting comments on PF , no nice ones so to speak and CM.tv decided to bacck Crdl Burke’s words.

    I still have no idea what that was about

  24. Lorenz says:

    La Sandia says:

    Because, as a friend of mine pointed out on FB yesterday, it’s not as though we haven’t had a Pope in recent memory who managed to have great personal charisma, a knack for relating to the common man, and an ability to win over skeptics and unbelievers…while at the same time clearly articulating the moral teachings of the Church and refusing to compromise with the spirit of the age. If JPII could do it, why can’t PF?

    There is a big difference between John Paul II and Pope Francis I. Pope John Paul II was charismatic and largely popular in spite of negative secular media coverage and in spite of attacks of progressives in the Catholic church (the enemy within the gates). With less than 2 years as pope the vast majority no little about Pope Francis. With the exception of the damage caused a couple of weeks ago he has done and written little. Where Pope Francis is mostly popular is in the secular media where he gets mostly positive coverage. Was he not Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 2013? I recall many people worrying about this at that time. When the world (the Devil) praises someone there is good reason to worry.

  25. Lorenz says:

    In Latin America there is a saying that an Argentinian is an Italian who speaks Spanish and thinks he is British. When Bergolio was elected pope there was an applaud that a Latin American from the global south was elected. A first! I was amused and reserved my thoughts. Bueonos Aires is noted as being a European city which is more European than most cities in Europe and its residents pride themselves at that. It is also one of the most isolated. One can live there and never meet and Asian or African. Would someone from there really understand the situation in Africa or Asia? Also, keep in mind the condition of the Jesuit order and that Bergolio was ordained in the Arrupe era at the height of the meltdown.

    How many cardinals does Italy have compared to the Philippines (a nation of mostly practicing Catholics). How many cardinals does Germany have compared to India (a nation with more Catholics than Canada has people). Not to mention the strong growing church in Africa. A big problem is that the church is as Euroscentric as ever. As the synod approaches and as this papacy moves forward, I fear that the West’s progressive agenda will move forward due to their lopsided voting power.

  26. robtbrown says:

    Lorenz says,

    Pope John Paul II was charismatic and largely popular in spite of negative secular media coverage

    The coverage of JPII by the secular media was usually favorable from the beginning of his papacy. At the beginning it was mainly because of his personality (his first US visit was a love fest, the Time cover said: JPII Superstar). Later, it was because of his role in bringing down the Soviet Union.

  27. Lorenz says:

    Robtbrown, thanks for the corrections. There are many missgivings about JPII’s governance of the church (scandals, no discplines, appointments of heterodox bishops such as Kasper) but at least he achieved goals worthy of recognition (role in bringing down Soviet Union, working with youth, extensive encyclicals on family and marriage, etc.). FI has no significant accomplishments neither as pope nor as a bishop. His popularity is built up by the secular media who may recognize him as one of their own.

  28. TWF says:

    Canada has 35 million people. I don’t think India’s Catholic population is near that high. Maybe pushing 20 million… but your point is well taken regardless.

  29. Pingback: Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner – and Feel a Bit Ambivalent About the Synod : Oriens

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