Charles Pope versus the real Pope

Monsignor Charles Pope (of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.) recently published an article criticizing the Supreme Pontiff: One Priest’s Concern About Recent Remarks by the Pope. Well, that is not such a bad title for the article. A priest or layperson can respectfully disagree with the Pope and publicly state some concerns. But the title is also quite a poor fit for the content of the article. For in the article, unlike its title, Msgr. Charles Pope belittles and demeans the actual Pope.

Charles expresses concern over two remarks by the Holy Father, Pope Francis.

1. According to, this was the context of the comment:

Asked about the balance between Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and being welcoming to divorced and civilly remarried couples, Francis said that neither “rigorism nor laxity” are the correct path.

“The Gospel chooses another way: welcoming, accompanying, integrating, discerning, without putting our noses in the ‘moral life’ of other people,” he said.

So the Pope is not advocating a laxity of morals. But he also objects to a certain Pharisaical rigorism, in which rules are applied harshly and without compassion. When Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery, He did not condemn her, but he advised her not to commit grave sin again.

Pope Francis says that Church leaders should not put their noses into the moral life of other people. But obviously, as a priest himself, the High Priest of the universal Church, Pope Francis does teach the faithful on morality. Therefore, his meaning is not an abandonment of the moral teachings of the Church, nor of the responsibility of the priest to teach and correct on moral matters. Rather, the holy Pontiff is expressing the need to respect the consciences of the people. We cannot make each moral decision for each person. And we should not be looking over the shoulder of each person, deciding what they should and should not do in every case.

Sinful secular society has adopted a strange cultural paradigm, where each person is supposedly justified in examining and commenting on the details and decisions of every other person. Everything is laid bare in social media. And judgments by the culture through that media are harsh and often quite foolish. We must not imitate them.

So, those are my thoughts on the Pope’s remark. I see no problem with what he is saying.

But what does Msgr. Charles say about all this? He asserts various ways in which a priest should intervene in the moral lives of his flock. And I agree with his position. But I also don’t see any contradiction with what the Supreme and Universal Pastor said; he was not telling priests to refrain from giving moral advice in the confessional, nor to cease instructing the faithful in good morals.

The real problem with what Charles says on this point is that he does not make any attempt to interpret the Pope’s words charitably. He makes no attempt to understand his words in a way that would be compatible with his own insights as a not-so-humble parish priest. Instead, he says: “Permit me to state my utter bewilderment at such a notion.”

A parish priest has a duty to cooperate with the High Priest of our Faith, the Supreme Pastor of the flock of Jesus Christ. Every priest should interpret each Pope’s words, whether in magisterial documents or private theology or extemporaneous remarks, with charity and with the goal of learning from the Father and Teacher of all Christians.

Instead, what is happening today is a cultural phenomenon among Catholics. The conservative Catholic subculture has decided that Pope Francis is not the Ruler of Christ’s whole fold, nor the Rock on which the Church is founded, but an annoying coworker, who should be ridiculed and contradicted as often as possible. It is as if these papal critics are praising one another for attacking the Vicar of Christ. Yes, I said “praising”. For example, Msgr. Charles says: “Others have admirably remarked on his troubling remarks on marriage and cohabitation.” So he says *admirably* about those who attack the Pope.

Well, permit me to state my utter bewilderment that a priest and monsignor would treat the Pilot and Helmsman of the Ark of Salvation with such disregard and denigration.

2. The other remark of Pope Francis, to which Charles takes exception, is the one I discussed in my previous post. Pope Francis called priests who refuse to baptize the infants of single mothers “animals” and accused them of “pastoral cruelty”.

Now Charles does say that “Pope Gregory (in his Pastoral Rule) once said that silent priests who failed to rebuke sinners were like ‘dumb dogs that cannot bark.’ ” OK. That sounds to me like a solid defense of Pope Francis. But Charles does not see it that way. He claims that Pope Gregory was using a metaphor, found in Scripture, whereas Pope Francis was not using a metaphor. He approves of what Pope Gregory said, and he utterly rejects a very similar comment by Pope Francis. He speaks as if Pope Francis were his political opponent.

First of all, all human persons, including priests, are in fact a type of animal. So in the literal sense of the word, Pope Francis is correct. We are all animals. We are not angels, who are pure spirit. We are animals given the gifts of reason, free will, and an immortal soul.

Second, it is obvious that the Pope was speaking rhetorically. He meant that these priests, in denying the source of eternal life — the state of grace given in Baptism — to innocent infants, based on the apparent sin of their mothers, were not behaving like compassionate children of God, but like the lower animals. I see nothing wrong with the Pope’s expression, and no real difference between what Pope Francis said and what Pope Gregory said.

The explanation given by Charles for his objection to the use of the word “animal” is patently absurd:

“No human person should be called an animal by a pope or any anyone, for that matter. Metaphors and similes have their place in human discourse, but to univocally call a fellow human being and animal is out of line.”

All human persons are animals. The Catechism of the Catholic Church even calls human persons animals: “as an animal endowed with reason, capable of understanding and discernment, he is to govern his conduct by using his freedom and reason, in obedience to the One who has entrusted everything to him.” [CCC 1951]. Does Msgr. Charles reject this passage from the Catechism, or is he simply unaware of what the Church teaches in this regard?

Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, repeatedly states “man is an animal” — I. 19. 3. and Supplement 41. 1. and I. 2. 1. and I. 13. 12 and I. 107. 2..

Furthermore, both John the Baptist and Jesus himself called the Pharisees and Sadducees “Progeny of vipers” (Mt 3:7; 12:34). So calling a human person after a type of animal, as a way to criticize them rhetorically, is not necessarily wrong.

Why is it acceptable, in the eyes of Charles, for Pope Gregory to call certain priests dogs that can’t bark, but not acceptable for Pope Francis to call some priests animals? The only difference is that Pope Francis is liberal. Conservative priests and commentators have decided to declare “open season” on the Supreme Head of the whole Church, because he is liberal. They now attack him at every turn, at every opportunity. They seek an opening to contradict and belittle him in every word he utters. They show no compassion toward his person, and no respect for his office.

Msgr. Charles repeatedly belittles the Supreme Pontiff in his article. He says: “I pray that never again will we hear reported such a rude and unnecessary remark from this pope or any pope.” Yet Charles has no qualms in publicly issuing rude and unnecessary remarks against the holy Pontiff. And he has the effrontery to say to the Judge of all the faithful: “Please, Holy Father: Enough of these ad hoc, off-the-cuff, impromptu sessions, whether at thirty thousand feet or at ground level.” These remarks by Charles that I have quoted are condescending toward the Vicar of Christ.

Monsignor Charles: it is highly disrespectful, rude, and unnecessary to treat the holy Pontiff in such a belittling manner. All priests should defend the Pope, interpret his words with charity and understanding, consider the Pope to be holier and more insightful than they themselves, and disagree with him reluctantly, mildly, and with great respect and compassion.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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1 Response to Charles Pope versus the real Pope

  1. janet333 says:

    Thank you Ron. I agree with you entirely.

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