The War against Francis

Between a rock and a hard place

That wise man, Fr Gabriel Daly, now in his 90s, in his latest book remarked that there was no way to reconcile the huge differences between those who wanted reform in the Church and those who didn’t. This perceptive remark has been borne out by subsequent events.

Almost daily, certainly weekly, there are reports from Rome of Pope Francis’ efforts to introduce much-needed reforms and the opposition of the Curia (the Church’s civil service), including bishops and cardinals, working up a head of steam against them.

While the big battle – and battle it is – is going on in Rome, there are more minor skirmishes taking place at national, diocesan and parish level, between those convinced of the need to introduce sweeping changes in the Church’s laws and practices and those holding on grimly to the past.

For the latter group church tradition is unchanging (and they quote chapter and verse to prove it) for the first group tradition develops and changes (and they quote chapter and verse to prove it).

The debate is becoming bitter. In a recent article in The Guardian, the celebrated writer on church matters, Andrew Brown, introduced a wide-ranging article entitles ‘The war against Francis’ with the words: ‘Pope Francis is one of the most hated men in the world today. Those who hate him most are not atheists, or Protestants, or Muslims, but some of his own followers.’ Brown quoted an English priest: ‘We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private. Whenever two priests meet, they talk about how awful Bergoglio (Francis) is.’

Another example is the letter written to Pope Francis by Fr Thomas Weinandy, a Capucian priest and former head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a current member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. He made a number of points, some general, others personal attacks on the pope. He disputed Francis’ letter opening up the possibility of people in irregular marriage situations receiving Communion, suggesting that the letter ‘demeaned the importance of Church doctrine’. He questioned Francis’ choice of newly appointed bishops, suggesting that some of them supported views contrary to church teaching. He suggested that instead of Francis promoting unity in the Church that his words and actions were doing the opposite. And, finally, he said that Francis resented criticism even though he gives the opposite impression.

Almost immediately, Weinandy’s predecessor disassociated himself from the criticisms and published a point-by-point rebuttal of the accusations made against Francis and pointed out that Weinandy ‘did not merely object to this or that thing Pope Francis has said or done; the whole tone of his letter, his choice of words, showed a lack of respect and humility that was appalling’.

One of the delicious ironies of the present time is watching the discomfort of those who had the inside track during the Benedict papacy and were appalled by even the mildest criticism of Benedict, and who are now throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Francis with no apparent concern for what they called ‘filial obedience to the pope’ – which they promoted with such fervour during the last papacy.

It is difficult to see how there can be any agreement between sides that are mutually and diametrically opposed to one another – sometimes to the point of bitterness – and every reforming effort by Francis is being fought tooth and nail, even reforms that are necessary for the very survival of the faith in parishes all over the world.

Take priests, for example. Everyone now accepts that there’s a huge crisis with priest numbers. And everyone accepts that something has to be done. It’s quite clear that Francis is open to the ordination of married men, possibly to making celibacy optional in the future and possibly to the ordination of women deacons.

Here are some figures that indicate the problem. Fr Martin Keveny from Killala diocese writes in the upcoming Vineyard, the Killala diocesan magazine, that in Brazil there are 18,000 priests and 147,000 Protestant ministers catering for over 200 million people. All we have to do is the maths. One diocese in the Amazonian basin that’s five times the size of Ireland has just 30 priests so receiving the Eucharist – a vital sustenance for faith – is impossible for most of the people in that diocese most of the time.

The bishop there, Edwin Krautler, has said that the priority for his diocese is to ordain married men but that he also hopes that women could be ordained to the diaconate because that most of the small communities struggling to keep the faith going are headed by women.

Requests for fundamental changes are already on Pope Francis’ desk and he’s made a decision that at a meeting in the Amazon basin area the ordination of married men will be on the agenda. The suggestion is that the Amazonian area will become a pilot area where married men will be ordained, a test-case for reform.

On the figures for Brazil (and for Ireland in the next decade or so) it’s a no-brainer. Reform in the priesthood for the Catholic Church is necessary if the faith is to survive, much less thrive.

But Francis is ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’. If he introduces the ordination of married men and the ordination of women deacons, he will have started a process of reform that will help solve the problem of a Eucharistic famine. By doing so he may cause a fragmentation of the Church, a schism as we call it, as those who are embedded in a centuries old tradition (priesthood confined to celibate priest) attempt to circle the wagons in an effort to avoid change.

As Gabriel Daly suggests there may be no way to reconcile what are directly conflicting expectations.

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  1. Sean O’Conaill says:

    All of these categorisations (conservative v. liberal / traditionalist v. reformer / introvert v. extrovert) are products of the dualistic mind – the mind that must make distinctions in order to think. This is also the default mind of the journalist, whose bread and butter it is to engage the reader in a story of conflict.

    I was therefore deeply disappointed in Andrew Brown’s Guardian article, because in describing Pope Francis as an ‘extrovert’ he grossly oversimplified what the pope is saying in Amoris Laetitia and added grist to the mill of those who wish to see him as a populist who will dilute the deposit of faith and weaken the sacraments in order to remain popular.

    The pope’s essential point is expressed in Amoris Laetitia 37: “We are called to form consciences not to replace them.” He amplifies this point both in his writings and in his behaviour: we are led to the whole truth only through companionship. The enforcement of barrier rules is something else.

    This distinction mirrors the ‘change of era’ that the pope discerns also. That era when bishops could be content merely with making rules for others to enforce has passed: people need to be accompanied compassionately if they are to believe the most important truth of all – that they are loved by the World Spirit who guides the church. The magisterium must model that companioning if it is to teach us all to do the same.

    Pope Francis understands that the mind of Christ is not dualistic. Commanding us to love rather than to ‘know best’ it forbids these facile ‘left / right’ categorisations. It begs us to stop bickering and to attend together to those whose suffering are unbearable. In Ireland these include many young people who have given up on the existence of a God who loves us all equally.

    They have given up on that especially because this truth is not being passionately preached or embodied by us elders, whatever ‘camp’ we belong to. And that is why our younger generations cannot see the point of ‘priesthood’ either. It is that very failure to convey passionately to our younger generations that all are loved equally and unconditionally – and that the Mass is the font from which that belief flows – that lies at the root of the crisis of the priesthood in Ireland. The mere abandonment of the mandatory celibacy rule (however welcome it might be) cannot fix that problem.

    All of us, the ordained priest as well as the ‘merely baptised’, share in the common priesthood of the faithful. Deriving from the idea of a ‘bridge’ between heaven and earth, this priesthood imposes upon all of us an obligation of bridging also the divides within the church.

    It is surely time to wake from the obsession with ‘sides’ to address together the pain of those who could not care less about all that. Our Irish church is far less divided than elsewhere, and it will surely collapse altogether if we imitate those exterior polarisations. Both these times and the texts we are reading these mornings are bidding us to put on a different mind, and to rise to the challenge of unconditional love for one another.

  2. When I first took an interest in Catholic reform issues over six years ago, I did so because I could see there was a battle on for hearts and minds within the Church. I had been involved in the Church at parish level for over thirty years and had been waiting patiently for the reforms of Vatican II to take the Church into a new era fit for 20th and 21st century living. But over time it was becoming clear to me that what I took to be frustrating individual set-backs was in fact a concerted effort by strong forces within the Church to take us back to the good old days of the pre-vatican II era. There was also evidence that the Catholic church was not immune from the rising tide of religious fundamentalism that was event across the globe. I had a choice to make. Either I left the Church in which I had given a fair amount of my time to over the past 30 years (and had tried to convience others to be a part of), or remain in the Church while contributing in some way to the movement for reform.

    Battle is a hard word, but unfortunately that is what it is. Hopefully it can be fought cleanly, with respect for the views of others and certainly not by wishing to exclude. I agree with Sean @1, Pope Francis understands that the mind of Christ is not dualistic. It is clear that he is trying to avoid taking sides by imposing change on the Church. But what he is doing is creating the space for us to make good choices – for choices have to be made.

    One thing is for sure, we cannot travel in opposite directions at the same time.


  3. Dr. Aaron Milavec says:

    Dear Priests and Concerned Laity,

    I just completed creating

    This site is devoted to sorting out the criticism that Pope Francis is receiving from some cardinals and theologians through official channels. If you want to share in this exploration and discussion, please post your comments with us. They will be warmly accepted and appreciated.

    Dr. Aaron Milavec

  4. Con Devree says:

    This article “War on Francis” indicates the confusion and weakness of faith in the Church at the moment. Some people would agree with the title of this article. Some would say that the said war merely replaces that which took place against Pope Benedict and his predecessors. And some again would say that The Vatican is waging and winning a war against St John Paul II.

    If such wars exist then Amoris Laetitia has been the most recent major battle.

    At the core of Amoris Laetitia is the freedom it granted to Catholics. The Exhortation made church teaching subordinate to a combination of the person’s conscience and circumstances. True or untrue?

    Is it now allowable to state that this relief granted in the context of one Commandment now applies to all of them? And further does granting this relief to Catholics gave them the right and freedom to decline acceptance of The Exhortation itself? If so then it is a huge relief to those pray-pay-obey Catholics who have always put great stress on obedience to the pope. They may however already found solace in the statement of the Maltese Hierarchy supporting The Exhortation, that the only pope they have to obey is the one alive at any given time.

    It seems a point has been reached where one person’s notion of reform is another person’s idea of a heresy. Which takes us back to 1517 and after. How do we cope with the divisions, highlighted yet again in the Weinandy affair? Both sides predictably went at it again, indeed went at each other, ad hominem, again. Both sides continue to talk among themselves, never interacting with the other side, never meeting in person.

    Will it get any better? What are the chances of a second, concurrent, parallel gathering of families in Dublin next August? Are we facing or are we just in an ever continuing war of religion. Who is the main promoter of such wars and who benefits from them?

    How does “throwing” more priests at the problem help? After all the Chosen People (their race is unimportant) had the prophets and Christ. Irish Catholics have had no shortage of priests, no shortage of opportunities for the sacraments, no recent persecutions. Technical improvisations do not address general weaknesses in faith.

    Con Devree

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Well, the way I feel about this is simple. There is one true war raging on the planet. These are all just simple distractions going on around us, keeping us from the task at hand. Does this make me cold? Oh, no I’m swinging for the fences personally. As the only animator in the Maritimes, it gives me a certain ability to organize locally and I needed that. Now, I need proper leverage but proper leverage only comes when you have key individuals on board. One person can make all the difference in the world to a group of 2/3 when combining to tackle things. A bishop can make your idea come to life. A university chaplain can push things along if you are organised enough. They can put a business plan together if you need one.

    Pope Franscis’s platform, if we reduce it to simple playbook action is this : we need to turn the clocks back in the business world because this business world is making fast fools out of us all. You can stick your head in as much sand and dig down under as much rock as you’d like – there are few constants in this world right now. They require addressing from a conscious state and Pope Francis has it on full blast that you all are conscious. From what I’m starting to get from members in your midst, you are not only conscious but you know the reason for this slip into amazement (media/mimesis) and how likely it is that we stay in this trance for a good many more years (200) because of our (in)efficiency at addressing culture (no pats on the back please because I know you think I’m simply not addressing Irish Catholic culture which can essentially be whatever it wants to be at this moment). True, but when urgency is called for and none is shown, what does that say about our religion? That WE can’t mobilize to secure a proper future for mankind? Should anyone be a part of a group that large that can’t mobilize? So, this task should be done for us by others? We will pray for this to happen and provide commentary. Great! Either do it or cooperate with those who feel called to do so.

    Don’t listen to the mimetic right now and be in awe of what it is they are doing/representing. This message is not intended for this group apparently. They need as much help right now as everyone else. Money doesn’t make you immune to oceans acidifying – and if the elite are just pursuing a grand cull (50% cancer rates in the North currently) because their world can be automated now, what does that say about their humanity? We are all in the same ship yet some have problems finding that humanity.
    Are personal wealth numbers decreasing at a time when so much is out of sync? No, that is growing like it has never done before.

    The “Our Children’s Trust” lawsuit comes at you from a young generation. They are questioning if you all have your heads screwed on properly at this time. We are about to blow it for them on so many levels. We are now aware of this and still refuse to make personal appearances with bishops to describe how Pope Francis’s take on the addressing concerns on this planet, should quickly become Catholics’ right to advocate for it locally. If you think it is up to you to decide what urgency you apply to this, then this might be the attitude that is standing in the way of you continuing a relationship with the youth of your nation.

    I think this is addressed in this post at some point. This is not a “planning” problem. This is now a theological debate. There are things that can be done that would show a support of future generations and Pope Francis has already laid it out for us. As adults, how can we not immediately follow up with all this at a local level and establish that think tank. It is much easier to establish this, when everyone gets together and starts to pressure bishops in the way only we can.

    Your health stats have recently gone down the tubes, we are breaching an extinction event with today’s old technology which in turn creates a dirty planet for generations, we are on the cusp of nuclear war (can be immediately illegal if enough people stand up for it – Catholics), and the oceans are starting to heave in disbelief.

    Does a version of afterlife come with such blinders? Please tell me it does, Dr. Milavec. If it doesn’t then someone do the cardinals credit and let them know before they continue to persecute Francis any further. If they can’t come to terms with what has been written here, then they do not have right to be representatives of our faith, right? We are not given the forever option of changing whenever we see fit. We are being told to immediately mobilize. Where are these cardinals on this? This is the only way to protect Francis at this stage, is it not? Support his reforms in any way we can and expose those who don’t. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.

  6. A war of persuasion. Nothing wrong with that.

  7. Colm Holmes says:

    Fr Gabriel Daly writes that the institutional church remains an alienating force despite the spirit of reform introduced by Pope Francis. So the battles in the institutional church continue. Many young people have walked away from an institution that is not relevant to their lives. In the end the truth will set us free. Whether that is with a reformed institutional church or with a new church growing from the grassroots only the Holy Spirit knows and she will guide us to the truth.

  8. Pascal O'Dea says:

    while your points are well made regarding the irrelevance to disengaged young people of some of the internal divisions within the Church,Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s acknowledgement of womens relative irrelevance in the structure of the Church and the disillusionment of young people with the church resulting from the abuse scandals as the two biggest issues facing the Church in the Dublin Archdioscese in his recent talk in Haddington road on the future of the Church in Dublin,leads me to believe that the division in the Church is not amenable to a resolution,but rather a parting of the ways is inevitable,

  9. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Exactly, Martin @ 6. We all need to grow a little more backbone and expect a better planet/system/religion. Colm, the Holy Spirit has been corrupted as of late – we haven’t been guided to the truth – those of us who have made it here have dragged and kicked and screamed our way to the surface, if you ask me. The battle now is not uphill though – it’s to cruise to the destination.

  10. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Yes, simple persuasion, but enough of this “War against Francis” bit – this is a war against this coming generation if we are truly seeing what it is that’s going on. This disconnect is real in society too. We have no idea what it is we are doing here but for some reason, we think we’ve got things covered doing what we are doing now.

    It’s alienating because it has completely cut off from a young generation but we are being poised to show how it is we react to a situation of this magnitude. It starts from the top down and then flips (triangle) to stir things up. Every bishop is tasked with collaborative ministries which is stirring things up for the better. Every last one of them. Gather forces and start a round of fund raising or two – monthly. Then provide them with details on how it is going to be structured for donations to the poor. I’m hoping you see the long term investment in solar cooperative as the best option but your government is still dithering when it should be opening its coffers – how blind are they to the destruction fossil fuel creates on this planet?). Maybe you could start asking your local representatives if they support Laudato si’???

    Every bishop is mandated to support collaborative ministry under Francis right now and it is time to take advantage of it. Watch the video from our diocese here. We have you covered on this side of the water where it concerns the downturn of the church and what is going to happen next. Are your bishops speaking like this? I hope so. Act on it.

  11. Kevin Walters says:

    Con Devree @ 4

    “This article “War on Francis” indicates the confusion and weakness of faith in the Church at the moment”…

    Some say ‘that the divide that exists between the priests and bishops badly needs to be bridged’.
    I believe as I believe that you also do, that the problem goes far deeper than that. In that it is a spiritual one, but sadly the church cannot give us a solution, because in doing so it would have to confront itself in ‘Truth’

    Here is a spiritual message from the Hopi Elders
    You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour.
    Now you must go back and tell the people that this is The Hour.
    Here are the things that must be considered:
    What are you doing?
    What are your relationships?
    Are you in right relation?
    Where is your water?
    Know our garden.
    It is time to speak your Truth.
    Create your community.
    Be good to each other.
    And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
    This could be a good time!
    There is a river flowing now very fast.
    It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
    They will try to hold on to the shore.
    They will feel like they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly.
    Know the river has its destination.
    The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off toward the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.
    See who is there with you and celebrate.
    At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally,least of all ourselves!
    For the moment we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
    The time of the lonely wolf is over.
    Gather yourselves!
    Banish the word struggle from your attitude and vocabulary.
    All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
    We are the ones we have been waiting for.

    My understanding of the Hopi poem

    In whatever world are you living, this is the hour to leave and let go of the safe institution (shore) and step into quickening water of Life/Grace, as now is the time to speak the ‘Truth’.
    Create your spiritual community. Be good to each other and do not look outside yourself for the ‘Light’/leader. Leave the dead to bury their dead on the shore as you know that the river of grace has its destination.
    Keep your eyes (Hearts) open, see the grace in the water/life, see who is with you and rejoice
    Walk His ‘Way’ of Truth; do not struggle, as all that you do now must be done in a sacred manner (Trust)
    Are you one the ones, He has been waiting for.

    A statement from Hopi Elders, that relate to the state of world today; it is full of wisdom.

    “The forces we must face are formidable, but the only alternative is annihilation. Still the man-made system cannot be corrected by any means that requires one’s will to be forced upon another, for that is the source of the problem. If people are to correct themselves and their leaders, the gulf between the two must disappear.
    To accomplish this one can only rely on the energy of ‘TRUTH’ itself.

    And that energy rests within Christ our King.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  12. Sean O’Conaill says:

    #4 “At the core of Amoris Laetitia is the freedom it granted to Catholics. The Exhortation made church teaching subordinate to a combination of the person’s conscience and circumstances. True or untrue?”

    I don’t know how you got there, Con. For me the core of AL is a deep concern for the family and its vulnerability, and a realisation of the necessary role of the church in accompanying families to assist in strengthening family relationships. To single out a merciful recommendation in relation to those who have divorced and remarried as the core of the document would be for me to capitulate to a mistaken view of Francis as wilful saboteur of the ideal of marital fidelity, the very distortion that lies at the root of the anti-Francis campaign.

    I will NOT call that campaign a ‘war’ because that would be to overdramatise this dispute in media terms, and to propose the taking of sides – when tomorrow there could be another article in the Guardian proposing that there is a ‘war’ against Pope Francis over the issue of the 2010 Missal, or the Rohingya refugees, or his refusal to use the papal apartments in the Vatican or whether he should cross the Irish border next August or you name it. Why on earth should the vocabulary we use for discussing internal church matters be determined by secular media that always have a vested interest in fight promotion rather than conflict resolution?

    For the latter we need grace, not an adrenaline rush. If I DO encounter someone deeply concerned that Francis may be leading the church astray I will be very interested in knowing why, and in sharing what is clearly Francis’s calm realisation that we are all frail ‘works in progress’ who need grace to see clearly.

    There will always be differences in the church. Rushing to the conclusion that we are now ‘at war’ because the Guardian says so is to behave like Corporal Jones – as though the Lord is NOT always with us.

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