An A to Z defense of Pope Francis

This post is a rebuttal to the post titled The A – Z list of concerns with Pope Francis by John-Henry Westen, co-founder and editor-in-chief of

1. Amoris Laetitia

The magisterial teachings of any Pope are non-infallible — always automatically necessarily non-infallible — unless and until the conditions are met for the teaching to fall under Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary and universal Magisterium. So it is absurd to condemn a Pope for apparent errors in non-infallible teachings. Every Pope can possibly err in his non-infallible teachings, though never to the extent of heresy.

Perhaps there are some limited errors in Amoris Laetitia. I’ve read the document and have found no substantial doctrinal errors, though I would disagree at times with its emphasis, and I think that some additional points should have been included.

On the other hand, in all humility, we must consider the possibility that, when a Pope seems to have erred, we are the ones who have misunderstood. The arrogance of the papal critics is found not so much in that they think the Pope has erred, but in their assumption that they themselves cannot be the ones who are wrong.

But the idea that a teaching of a Roman Pontiff should be condemned, or opposed, or changed, on the basis of a claim that the teaching causes confusion in the minds and hearts of fallen sinners is contrary to the Gospel teaching. For the parables of Jesus often caused confusion in His listeners, in His disciples, even in the Twelve Apostles. Should we then condemn the teachings of Jesus? If a subset of students become confused by a teaching, why do people assume that the teacher or the teaching must be at fault?

As I understand the situation, the confusion comes from the false assumptions of many conservative Catholics. They assume that the conservative answer to any question on discipline or doctrine must be correct, and that the liberal answer must be wrong. They assume that the majority opinion in the conservative Catholic subculture cannot err, as if they were infallible, as a group, in their interpretation and application of Tradition and Scripture and past magisterial teachings.

The confusion also stems from pride. They have adopted and held a certain imperfect and flawed view of the Catholic faith, and now they are confronted by a Supreme Shepherd who teaches in contradiction to their views. So they assume that he must be wrong. For they cannot imagine that the conservative Catholic subculture could err in any way, on discipline or doctrine. After all, didn’t Jesus say that wherever two or three conservatives are gathered in the name of conservatism, they become infallible gods whose role it is to judge and condemn the Pope? No, I guess He didn’t say that.

It is pride that is causing confusion. “We are confused because Amoris Laetitia implies that our own understanding of discipline and doctrine may be imperfect and flawed.”

The Church has the authority to admit to holy Communion any baptized Christian who is in good conscience, that is to say, who is not conscious of unrepented actual mortal sin. A liberal version of discipline for Communion would broadly admit persons who judge by their own conscience that they are not guilty of any unrepented actual mortal sin. A conservative discipline would restrict persons also who were guilty of objective mortal sin, regardless of their conscience or whether the grave matter is also an actual mortal sin. I personally prefer a more conservative discipline on Communion, but the position of Amoris Laetitia is within the authority of the Church. The divorced and remarried may be admitted to Communion, if they find themselves to be in good conscience.

Hypocrisy abounds in the position of most Amoris Laetitia critics, which cries out loudly against the reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried, while saying little or nothing about the many Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics who are guilty of other objective mortal sins, and who also do not confess and change their lives before receiving Communion. The vast majority of Communion-receiving Catholics are guilty and unrepentant from one or more of the following grave sins:

* use of contraception
* use of abortifacients
* getting an abortion, or paying for one, or approving of the legalization of abortion
* the heresy that rejects magisterial teaching against contraception and abortion
* various grave sexual sins
* the heresy that rejects magisterial teaching against these sexual sins
* the heresy that accepts homosexual acts, relationships, and marriages as if good and moral
* the heresy that rejects the Real Presence of Christ and Transubstantiation
* the heresy that rejects the teaching authority of the Magisterium
* other grave sins and heresies

And yet, these Catholics receive Communion, with the silent approval of most Amoris Laetitia critics.

2. Burke demotion

Are you kidding me with this complaint? Every Roman Pontiff has authority over every member of the Church on earth, including Cardinals and Bishops. The idea that Cardinal Burke — or any other person with lesser authority in the Church than the Pope — should be immune from the Pope’s own discretion as to when, where, and how he will serve, is an inherently schismatic idea. Conservative Catholics imagine themselves to be necessarily faithful in all things, merely by being conservative. And they impute infallibility and impeccability to any Cardinal or Bishop who is thoroughly conservative. But Jesus did not teach conservatism, and He did not found His Church on the Rock that is conservatism, but on the Rock that is every successive Pope.

If a liberal Pope wishes to demote a conservative Cardinal or Bishop, he may do so, on his own initiative, for his own reasons. And no one on earth has the authority to oppose his decision or to demand an explanation. He’s the captain of the ship of salvation, and he can give whatever orders he wishes to give to his fellow officers.

{16:18} And I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
{16:19} And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound, even in heaven. And whatever you shall release on earth shall be released, even in heaven.”

3. Cohabitation

The complaint is that “papal confidante Fr. Antonio Spadaro tweeted a photo of the Pope greeting a couple who ‘prefer to live together without getting married.’ ”

Every Roman Pontiff meets with persons from around the world who are sinners, many of whom are not following the Catholic Faith. If Pope Francis were to be condemned for meeting with that couple, then every Pope would have to be condemned for meeting with various sinners and unfaithful Catholics.

Moreover, this accusation against Pope Francis is the same as the accusation of the Pharisees against Jesus:

{9:11} And the Pharisees, seeing this, said to his disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
{9:12} But Jesus, hearing this, said: “It is not those who are healthy who are in need of a physician, but those who have maladies.
{9:13} So then, go out and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the just, but sinners.”

It is astounding to me how closely the papal critics imitate the Pharisees, and yet they do not notice the similarities between their words and deeds, and that of the Pharisees.

By welcoming sinners, Jesus did not thereby approve of sin. By welcoming cohabitators, Pope Francis did not thereby approve of cohabitation.

Pope Francis opines that the “great majority” of Catholic marriages are “null” because the couples do not intend a lifelong union, but have in mind, from the beginning, to divorce if things don’t work out. It is certainly the case, canonically, that any Sacrament is invalid without the proper intention, just as the Council of Trent taught. So if a Catholic couple do not intend marriage as a lifelong union, but as a trial marriage, the Sacrament is null. Other issues can make a marriage invalid. Some theologians and canonists opine that sexual acts using contraception do not suffice for consummation.

The opinion of the Roman Pontiff on how widespread these errors may be is not subject to the judgment and condemnation of Cardinals and Bishops, nor of laypersons who happen to have their own website or blog. I don’t know if he should have said the “great majority”, but problems that might affect validity are widespread.

Cardinals, Bishops, and online Catholic commentators do not have the authority or role to judge and condemn personal opinions of the Roman Pontiff. They are free to disagree with his opinions, and no Pope condemns anyone for disagreeing with his mere opinions. But it is exceedingly arrogant for any Catholics to consider the opinions of a Pope, and then berate, denigrate, or condemn him because they consider, based on their own ideas, that his opinion are wrong. Again, this is an example of the pride-filled assumption that the opinions of conservative Catholics cannot err.

In a public comment, Pope Francis opined: “I’ve seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity.”

This is the Roman Pontiff’s opinion, not a teaching. Catholics are free to disagree, but not free to condemn the Pope for holding an opinion they dislike.

Theologically, it may be the case that a cohabitating couple is in the state of grace due to a sincere but mistaken conscience. If so, then they can possess various graces, including true selfless love and a type of faithfulness. These graces are much like the graces in a valid marriage. He did not mean that cohabitators have a valid Sacrament of Marriage, but only that they have graces much like a valid marriage. So the Pope is correct in this opinion, though he used inaccurate terminology: “real marriage”.

4. Danneels

The complaint is that Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Godfried Danneels to the Synod of Bishops, despite some words and deeds indicating that Danneels is liberal, not conservative. Criticisms leveled at Danneels are then attributed to Pope Francis. The assumption here is that Popes should only appoint conservatives as Bishops and Cardinals, and that, if anyone appointed to a position of leadership by a Pope sins or errs in any way, the Pope is to blame.

But that standard is not applied to conservative Popes. Danneels was made a Bishop under the reign of Blessed Pope Paul VI, and made a Cardinal by Pope Saint John Paul II. All Pope Francis did was appoint him, a Cardinal, to the Synod of Bishops. Why is Pope Francis condemned for that decision, while Paul VI and John Paul II are not? It is because the conservative Catholic subculture applies a very different standard to liberal Popes than to conservative ones. When the Pope is liberal, anything said or done by him, or by anyone associated by him, is used as a way to condemn him.

5. Emma Bonino

Ms. Bonino is rightly criticized for her words and deeds promoting abortion and euthanasia. But she is rightly praised for her work helping the poor and oppressed, and promoting human rights. It is an all too common error among conservatives to utterly condemn anyone who had done something wrong, rather than see some good in the person and their actions, apart from their sins.

If Christ took that point of view, we would not have had the Apostle Peter as our first Pope, since Peter betrayed Christ.

And consider the woman of Canaan, whom Jesus said had great faith (Mt 15:28) — even though she did not accept Judaism and had not (yet) accepted Christian baptism. The Pharisees of today would condemn her, and would vehemently oppose anyone who said that she had great faith. They have already done so. When a Catholic proposes that non-Christians can have faith and love, and can be in the state of grace and be saved, the Pharisees of today reject that view as if it were heresy.

So the conservative Pharisees are making the same mistake, again and again, assuming that there can be no good in someone who sins objectively and gravely. They think that the divorced and remarried cannot be in the state of grace. They think that non-Christians, who know about the Church and do not accept baptism, cannot be in the state of grace. They think that only baptized Christians are children of God by spiritual adoption.

Personally, I strongly condemn Bonino’s objectively grave sins concerning abortion and euthanasia. But I see no reason to refrain from praising her, if she does anything good in her life and work.

6. First synod interim doc

The interim document of the Bishops’ Synod is termed “scandalous” by Westen. And the Pope is criticized for reading and approving of the document.

Here is the same error again, the assumption by conservatives that they are the supreme judges over every Pope, over every document, over the Magisterium, over the entire Church and the entire Faith. Any point of view that contradicts their own understanding is assumed to be in error. For they cannot imagine that they themselves might err or be in need of teaching or correction, not even from the Vicar of Christ. The conservative Catholic subculture has declared the synod interim document (and many other things) to be scandalous, yet they have no authority to make such a judgment.

One particular criticism is stated by Westen’s article:

“In a section titled ‘Welcoming homosexual persons’, the document states: ‘Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.’ It then asks: ‘Are our communities capable of providing [them a welcoming home], accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?’ “

I don’t see any reason to object to that statement by the document. Christ welcomes sinners of every kind. And even someone guilty of objective mortal sins, might be in good conscience by invincible ignorance and may well have gifts and good qualities to offer to the Church and the world. For example, it is common in Catholic theology to sometimes use as a source the works of Protestant theologians — even though they commit the objective mortal sin of rejecting the Catholic Faith. There is good in their works of theology, despite their grave error.

Many persons who are members of the LGBT community are also believing and practicing Christians. We should be welcoming to them, and should find a way to value them as persons, without compromising Catholic doctrine.

I think it was a mistake for the interim document to phrase this as “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation”. But the rest of that sentence makes it clear that no compromise or change in doctrine is implied. And as an interim document, no one should expect the contents to be infallible.

7. Gender-confused couple at Vatican

At the Vatican, Pope Francis met with a couple who were legally, but not validly, married. The husband was a woman who transitioned to become a man. The criticism here is that the Pope met with them, and used language that seems to accept the gender reassignment and the marriage.

I think that Popes should meet with all kinds of people from all over the world, not only with believing and practicing Catholics. Jesus ate and drank with sinners, and was criticized by the Pharisees for doing so. Now the modern-day Pharisees are criticizing the Pope for meeting with sinners. Have they not read the Gospel? Do they not see how closely their words and deeds match that of the Pharisees of old?

I don’t think it is a problem to use language such as “man” for a trans male, or “married” for a union that is a legal marriage, but not the valid Sacrament. The holy Pontiff did not teach any error by using these words. Recall that Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well: “Go, call your husband, and return here.” Yet as the story continues, we discover that he whom Christ called “your husband” is not really her husband. He used the term that was commonly, though incorrectly, used in sinful society.

8. Holy See population control

Here is the complaint: “Since shortly after the election of Pope Francis there has been a steady stream of population control pushers speaking at the Vatican.”

Pope Francis has clearly spoken against abortion. He has not changed Church teaching on that subject. Some speakers at the Vatican hold views contrary to Catholic teaching. But if the Pope or other Vatican officials want to hear from a wide range of persons, and reach out to the whole world, it is good to allow some persons to speak, despite their errors on some subjects. But conservatives want the Pope to imitate their own behavior, ignoring the opinions of anyone who disagrees with them, especially liberals.

I will also point out, again, that the Roman Pontiff and the Cardinals and Bishops who assist him have the right and duty to make their own decisions about whom they will meet and whom they will allow to speak. The conservative Catholic subculture has no role to supervise or condemn this type of decision. Some persons were permitted to speak whom I, personally, would not have chosen. But it is not my role to decide that question.

And if we apply the same standard to the conservative Catholic subculture — that (supposedly) anyone holding a view contrary to Catholic doctrine should not be allowed to speak — many conservative Catholic leaders would not be allowed to speak due to their schismatic errors, and due to grave errors on faith and morals. For not every conservative theological position is tenable or faithful.

9. Irresponsible to have eight children?

Pope Francis spoke in favor of responsible parenthood, using methods provided by God (meaning natural family planning). But the most conservative Catholics look askance at NFP, and they favor large families. Pope Francis takes the liberal but faithful point of view, that use of NFP to limit family size is responsible due to the limited resources of the parents and society. The world has over 7 billion persons. The Pope is correct in saying that responsible parents should consider whether God might want them to limit their family size.

10. Judge, who am I to?

The Pope actually said: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?” The Pontiff’s remark is in accord with the Gospel:
[Matthew 7]
{7:1} “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.

And the Pope did not misquote the Catechism, he merely paraphrased it (CCC 2358). The claim that he misquoted the Catechism is based on the assumption that the conservative interpretation of the Catechism should prevail, even over the interpretation of the Supreme Teacher and Supreme Judge of the whole Church.

11. Kasper

Here is yet another example of alleged guilt by association. The article criticizes Cardinal Kasper, and then condemns Pope Francis for saying positive things about a book Cardinal Kasper wrote and for appointing him to the synods. But Kasper became Bishop and later Cardinal during the reign of Pope Saint John Paul II. Is Saint John Paul II also guilty by association? The conservative Catholic subculture has judged and condemned a Cardinal appointed by a Pope-Saint. And then uses that condemnation to also condemn Pope Francis.

Cardinal Kasper spoke in favor of democracy in Ireland, even though they voted to make same-sex marriages legal. The conservative Catholic subculture rejects this approach to dealing with secular society, so they condemn any Church leader who disagrees with them.

12. Luther, serious sin to convert

Pope Francis is criticized for calling Martin Luther a “witness to the gospel.” Why, then, is Pope Saint John Paul II not criticized for praising the Luthern/Catholic Commission and its work, which also finds good in the work of Martin Luther? Why is Pope Benedict XVI not criticized for quoting Martin Luther, in his commentary on Scripture and for again referencing his work as a source of insight?

This criticism of Pope Francis assumes a common error among conservative Catholics, that there is no substantial good in the faith of non-Catholic Christians. They are seen (wrongly) as guilty and unrepentant of grave sin, as persons who are condemned, unless they repent and convert. To the contrary, the Church does not condemn non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians, since they may be in good conscience. And Catholic theologians sometimes make use of the theology of Protestant theologians.

Pope Francis was also criticized for his opinion that attempting to convert Orthodox Christians to Catholicism can sometimes be a grave sin. Again, the opinion of conservatives is treated as dogma, and the opinion of any liberal, even a liberal Pope, is automatically rejected.

My own view is that it can be a serious sin to try to convert the Orthodox, since they are less in need of conversion than unbelievers and those of non-Christian faiths. It can be sinful, if the impetus is from a desire to make everyone believe and think as oneself. And that is, by the way, a common sin among conservatives: our way is the only way. They see liberal Catholics as lost souls and liberal Catholicism as heterodoxy or heresy. They see little hope of salvation for anyone outside of conservative Catholicism.

Their criticisms of the Pope are expressions of their own faults and misunderstandings. Whenever they misunderstand some point of doctrine or discipline, they issue a criticism of the Pope. It is clear to me, then, that God has chosen and guided Pope Francis so as to correct conservatives. But they refuse to be corrected, for they see themselves as if they were above the Church itself. The Church is the body, and they think themselves to be Her Head, instead of Christ.

13. Multiplication of loaves

Pope Francis opined an interpretation of this miracle, which is common among liberal theologians, that the people merely shared food that they all had with them. I disagree, and I think the Pontiff errs on that point. But I can also point to possible errors in the opinions and non-infallible teachings of other Popes. And I do not denigrate or oppose those Popes on that basis. No Pope is personally infallible, and the magisterial teachings of every Pope are non-infallible, unless they meet the stringent conditions for infallibility.

14. Name calling against faithful

Now here is a criticism that is very revealing about the conflict between conservatives and the holy Pontiff Francis. The article accuses the Pope of castigating, name calling, and using condemning language against “faithful adherents of the Catholic faith”. Who are these persons? Conservatives and traditionalists. They are automatically assumed to be faithful, and to be innocent of all accusations, and to be above all possible criticism, merely because they are conservative.

And whenever Pope Francis — the Vicar of Christ, Our Holy Father, the Supreme Head of the whole Church, the Father and Teacher of all Christians, the Supreme Pontiff, the Ruler of Christ’s whole fold, the Supreme Judge of the faithful — criticizes them, they automatically assume that the Pope is in the wrong. For they are so filled with pride, they cannot imagine themselves to be in need of any kind of correction.

Pope Francis has repeatedly corrected various problems found among conservative and traditionalist Catholics. And as far as I can see, those criticisms are valid. Conservative Catholics are fallen sinners. There are real problems in the conservative Catholic subculture. And the holy Pontiff is doing the work of Christ by castigating them. And what does Jesus say about the conservative Pharisees?

{15:12} Then his disciples drew near and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees, upon hearing this word, were offended?”
{15:13} But in response he said: “Every plant which has not been planted by my heavenly Father shall be uprooted.
{15:14} Leave them alone. They are blind, and they lead the blind. But if the blind are in charge of the blind, both will fall into the pit.”

15. Overhaul of Cardinal Sarah’s dicastery

Here Pope Francis is criticized for using his own discretion in guiding the discipline of the Church. And the Supreme Pontiff is assumed to be in the wrong because Cardinal Sarah is conservative and the he is liberal. What did Christ say on this subject?

{16:18} And I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
{16:19} And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound, even in heaven. And whatever you shall release on earth shall be released, even in heaven.”

When any Roman Pontiff, liberal or conservative, opens the door, no one can close; and when he closes the door, no one can open. Pope Francis has the authority from God to make decisions on discipline, and no Cardinal has the authority to oppose him.

16. Pontifical Academy for Life scandals

The current head of the PAL is Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. Westen rebukes Pope Francis for choosing him to head the Academy, for removing the previous members and choosing new members, and for deciding not to require a pro-life pledge as a condition of membership. Westen and other papal critics speak as if all the decisions of the Roman Pontiff should be subject to the approval of the conservative Catholic subculture.

To the contrary, Pope Francis has the full authority of every successor of Peter, over doctrine and discipline, just as Christ taught (Mt 16:19). So I don’t need to explain or know the reason why the Pope made these changes. He has the authority, and to speak as if he only has the authority when his decisions please conservatives is schismatic. Every Catholic who refuses to submit to the authority of the Roman Pontiff over doctrine and discipline is in a state of schism. You can disagree with the Pope to quite a large extent without the sin of schism. But if you take the attitude that all his teachings and decisions are subject to your own pretended authority, then you are in schism.

I don’t agree with every decision that Pope Francis made concerning the Pontifical Academy of Life. But I also do not take the attitude that any Pope’s decisions are subject to my evaluation and approval. I trust that the Pope had a good reason for his decisions, and only God can judge beyond that.

Another complaint regarding the PAL is the choice of Archbishop Paglia as its head. Yet no one criticizes Pope Saint John Paul II for making Pagalia a bishop. Decisions of liberal Popes are subjected to harsh scrutiny and quick condemnation. Decisions of conservative Popes are seen as above reproach. But if you only submit yourself to the conservative Popes, or to any subset of Popes, then you are a schismatic, not a Catholic.

17. Quirky selection of Cupich

Pope Francis is criticized for choosing Bishop Cupich as Archbishop of Chicago and later as Cardinal. But Pope Saint John Paul II is not criticized for choosing him as a Bishop in the first place. Westen accuses the Cardinal of “dissent to Catholic teaching on homosexuality”. But Westen is not qualified to judge which ideas are and are not dissent. He has no degree in theology and is not a theologian or priest or bishop. Westen disagrees with the Cardinal’s understanding of doctrine and discipline, and then he simply assumes that he is right and the Cardinal is wrong. But the larger assumption here is that the majority opinion of the conservative Catholic subculture cannot err.

My views are more conservative than those of Cardinal Cupich, but I don’t accuse him of dissent, nor do I automatically assume that I am right.

18. Refusal to answer the dubia

Four Cardinals submitted five questions to the Roman Pontiff on the subject of Communion for the divorced and remarried. The Supreme Pontiff has a role of authority and leadership above these four Cardinals, above even all the Cardinals and Bishops together. He is under no obligation to answer these questions. He commits no offense against God or the Church by using his own judgment as to when or whether he might answer any dubium.

There is nothing wrong with asking a sincere question of a Pope or Cardinal or Bishop or priest. But my reading of these questions is that they are not sincere requests for teaching or correction. They are a challenge to the Pontiff. They are leading questions, meant to rebuke the Pope and to accuse him of violating past magisterial teachings. The questioners clearly present themselves as if they understand Church teaching better than the Pope. And the wording of the questions indicates that they will accept no answer other than the answer they propose within each question.

The attitude of many conservative Catholics is that the Pope commits some type of offense or sin by not answering. Why? The only reason I can see is that they consider themselves to be above the Pope. “Are you more Catholic than the Pope?” They literally think that they are more Catholic than the Pope. So when they ask a set of questions, they feel entitled to demand an answer, since he is beneath them in the Faith. It is like a boss at work asking an employee a question; the boss can demand an answer, and the employee is not free to decline to answer.

Will Pope Francis ever answer the dubia? My guess is that he will answer them, and then conservatives will erupt in anger at the answers. For they already think they know what the answers should be. And they do not accept teaching or correction from any liberal Pope or Cardinal or Bishop.

19. Scalfari interviews: ‘Annihilation’ rather than hell?

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis said: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” Westen misrepresents this quote as if it referred to Heaven and Hell, when in fact the assertion, read in context, only refers to how the Church treats persons in this life. She does not condemn anyone forever, but encourages conversion and repentance, and offers forgiveness.

Pope Francis gave an interview to an atheist (Scalfari) who edits and runs a newspaper. Later, the interviewer admitted that many of the answers supposedly given by Pope Francis were paraphrased by him (by the atheist interviewer). So anything in that interview must be taken with more than a few grains of salt.

The paraphrased answer of Pope Francis to the question of what happens to the souls of the wicked after death is this:

“Francis’ answer is very clear: there is no punishment, but the annihilation of that soul. All the others will participate in the bliss of living in the presence of the Father. The annihilated souls will not be part of that banquet”

The answer is a paraphrase, but it is similar to the teaching of the Catechism, which calls the state of souls in Hell “eternal death”. So annihilation is a figure of speech. Pope Francis did not say that the wicked souls cease to exist, but rather that their state in Hell is forever analogous to death or to annihilation. For they have lost the fullness of life which is given to the souls in Heaven.

20. Traditional youth bashing

Pope Francis has criticized some traditionalists for falling into rigidity in their beliefs and practices, and he has warned young persons, who are attracted to traditionalism, not to fall into this type of error. Each Pope has the God-given role to teach and correct. It is the role of Pope Francis to correct traditionalists and conservatives for the errors that occur, whether frequently or occasionally, among them. And he is absolutely right that traditionalists tend toward the error of rigidity in religion, with attitudes such as: Our way is the best way; All other approaches to the faith are flawed; Liturgical services must occur exactly in one particular way; The conservative answer to any theological question is always correct — and similar attitudes.

Traditionalists and conservatives also err by considering themselves to be above correction and above the possibility of error, especially as a group. But the Christ never promised infallibility to conservatism or traditionalism.

21. Universality destruction

Westen criticizes Pope Francis for trying to move the Church toward more decentralization, such that Bishops and Bishops’ Conferences have more authority. This process of decentralization began with Pope Saint John Paul II and the new code of Canon Law (1983). It is part of the teaching of Vatican II. So it is not an error made by Pope Francis, but a decision made by the authority of successive Popes and of the most recent Council.

Again, Westen assumes that the conservative position on this topic must be right, and the liberal position must be wrong. But Christ did not appoint one Apostle only, Peter, but 12 Apostles with Peter as their head. So it is today that the Pope alone does not rule over the Church, but the Pope as the successor of Peter rules with the Bishops as the successors to the other Apostles.

22. Vatican doctrine chief dismissal

Westen and other conservatives have rebuked Pope Francis for dismissing Cardinal Muller as Prefect of the CDF at the end of his 5-year term, and replacing him with Archbishop Ladaria. Westen thinks the reason that Muller was not renewed for another 5-year term is that he opposed the Pope’s agenda.

So, first of all, if any prefect of the CDF opposes his Pope, he should be removed. But because the Pope is liberal and the Cardinal is conservative, the Pope is presumed to be in the wrong. Conservatives want Muller in office, so that he can continue to oppose the Pope. They themselves openly oppose the Vicar of Christ, so they want Cardinals to remain in office who likewise oppose the Pope. That’s basically the definition of schism.

Conservatives used to boast about their faithfulness to the Pope and the Magisterium. Now they openly oppose the Pope. And they have replaced the Magisterium with the majority opinion in the conservative Catholic subculture.

Pope Francis has every right to choose who will lead the CDF and any other Vatican position.

23. World Youth Day sex ed

Westen claims: “At World Youth Day in 2016, the Vatican released a teen sex-ed program that neglected the parents’ central role in such matters, failed to even mention mortal sin, and included sexually explicit photos and films.”

The films in question are R-rated, and may or may not be appropriate for the oldest teens. The photos cited by Westen, with links, were mild, I would say PG, and not explicit. One particular set of images were from advertisements, and were used to object to the use of sexual images to advertise products. I can see why some Catholics would disagree with this portion of the sex-ed program, but it’s a matter of judgment.

Also, Pope Francis did not design the program, nor did he directly review and approve of it. So we have here another example of guilt by association. Is it really true that a Pope errs whenever any person or group under his authority errs? That standard was never applied to Pope Saint John Paul II. I think the teen sex-ed program in question has many faults and failings. But we cannot blame Pope Francis for every error by anyone at the Vatican.

24. X-rated speech

Here is Westen’s complaint on this point, in its entirety:

“The dignity of the papacy took a hit when Pope Francis used the scatological terms coprophilia (love of excrement) and coprophagia (love of eating excrement) to bash the media for reporting on scandals within the Church.”

First, the term coprophagia does not mean “love of” anything. It refers to a behavior, found in some animals, of eating excrement. Second, the Pontiff was using these terms as figures of speech, because the secular media do not seem to value truth and love of neighbor, but rather scandal and sensationalism. And they also seem to like bashing the Church. So these are apt figures of speech.

Third, Sacred Scripture uses similar figures of speech. For example:

Deuteronomy {7:26} Neither shall you carry anything of the idol into your house, lest you become accursed, just as it also is. You shall detest it like dung, and you shall abominate it like defilement and filth, because it is an accursed thing.”

1 Maccabees {2:62} And fear not the words of a sinful man, for his glory is dung and worms.

Malachi {2:3} Behold, I will cast forth an arm to you, and I will scatter across your face the dung of your solemnities, and it will take you to itself.

Philippians {3:8} Yet truly, I consider everything to be a loss, because of the preeminent knowledge of Jesus Christ, my Lord, for whose sake I have suffered the loss of everything, considering it all to be like dung, so that I may gain Christ,

So these expressions by the Pope were not x-rated and did no harm to the dignity of his office.

25. Yayo Grassi

Westen refers to Kim Davis, a county clerk who refused to issue a same-sex marriage certificate, as “pro-family hero Kim Davis”. The Pope declined to meet with her; we do not know why. But doesn’t the Supreme Pontiff of the Church have the authority to decide with whom he will or will not meet? Is it really a legitimate complaint, if he declines to meet with someone whom conservatives praise?

And notice the hypocrisy here. Pope Francis was criticized for praising Martin Luther, a Protestant. But then they complain that the Pope did not meet with a Protestant, Kim Davis. She belongs to the Apostolic Pentecostal movement. And she has been married four times, to three different men. So she has repeatedly divorced and remarried. Westen criticizes Pope Francis for allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, and for praising Martin Luther, but criticizes him for refusing to meet with a divorced and remarried Protestant woman.

Pope Francis did meet with Yayo Grassi, a former student of the Pontiff. Pope Francis is seen in photos and video greeting and “embracing Grassi and his homosexual partner.” This complaint is just like the complaint of the Pharisees, that Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners.

{2:17} Jesus, having heard this, said to them: “The healthy have no need of a doctor, but those who have maladies do. For I came not to call the just, but sinners.”

The Pope commits no offense by greeting any sinners. And I tell you, there are very many Mass-going Communion-receiving conservative Catholics, whose sins are just as grave, if not more so, than that of a gay couple.

A Catholic husband and wife, who have used abortifacient contraception for many years and who often engage in unnatural sexual acts commit more objective mortal sins, of greater gravity, than a gay couple. For the latter are not guilty of multiple abortions, and the former are. And the former’s sexual sins are more grave than those of the latter, because they additionally offend against the Sacrament of Marriage.

26. Zika and contraception

Some of the most common grave doctrinal errors among conservative Catholics are on the subject of contraception: (1) the idea that contraception is only a sin because it offends against marriage and (2) the claim that abortifacient contraception can be used by a sexually-active couple for a medical purpose, for some other good reason, or in a difficult circumstance. The first error suggests that the use of contraception outside of marriage is moral or “morally neutral”. The second error approves of abortifacient contraception, despite the anticipated deaths of prenatals by a very early abortion. These grave errors are widely accepted in the conservative Catholic subculture.

Westen’s complaint is that Pope Francis said that Pope Paul VI “permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape” (the nuns in the Congo controversy). Afterward, it was debated whether or not the Pontiff gave said approval. I concluded that he did not. So the Pope perhaps made a factual error, unless the error is on my part. But Popes are not personally infallible.

Does the teaching of the Church permit mere contraception — not abortifacient contraception — in cases of rape? Yes, it does, for reasons I have explained at length in other posts. In the case referenced by the Pope, the nuns would be taking abortifacient contraception, while not sexually active, to prevent conception in case of rape. My theological opinion is that this is not moral, since no one could tell, in advance, whether the use of abortifacient contraception in any particular case of rape would act as mere contraception (indirect and so moral), or an abortifacient, which is not moral.

Another question is whether condoms can be used to prevent disease transmission (a medical purpose) in cases of Zika virus infection. The Pope wondered — but did not decide or teach as an act of the Magisterium — whether mere contraception, not abortifacients, might be used in cases of Zika. I would also say, on this point, the position suggested by the Pope is an error.

But the Pope’s error here is very similar to the more grave error by many conservative Catholic teachers, who approve of abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose (such as an irregular painful period). In this case, prenatal children are aborted by abortifacient contraception, while in the Zika case, only mere contraception is used, not abortifacients. And the medical purpose in the case of Zika is of greater moral weight: preventing severe birth defects in a child. Yet conservatives cry out against Pope Francis for this error on contraception, and remain silent or even approve of a very similar but greater error made by conservative theologians and authors.

Is contraception moral when used for a medical purpose? The conservative Catholic subculture says “Yes” to abortifacient contraception for a lesser medical purpose, but “No” to mere contraception for a greater medical purpose. My view is that both contraception and abortifacient contraception are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, regardless of the intention, purpose, or circumstances.

But the Pope’s error is quite limited, and was only in a remark, not a magisterial document. By comparison, the errors of many conservative Catholic theologians and authors, those who have written on contraception, are much graver. Then why doesn’t Westen speak out against those Catholics who claim that abortifacient contraception can be used, by sexually-active Catholic spouses, for a medical purpose? He rails against the Pope for mere contraception in cases of rape. But he is silent when conservative Catholics make a much worse error.


Most of the Catholic commentators railing against the Roman Pontiff are literally not qualified to teach an introductory course in Catholicism, or in Catholic ethics. John-Henry Westen’s degrees are in psychology, not theology. And yet he sees himself as qualified to judge the Roman Pontiff, and he goes so far as to judge him unjustly and publicly condemn him. And the same is true for the vast majority of the other papal critics. A few have degrees in theology or related disciplines. But when I read the formal theology that they write, which is very sparse, I find grave theological errors. Some of them can’t write a single lengthy article on any topic in faith and morals, without doctrinal errors. They are not competent to write or teach theology, but they imagine themselves fit to teach the entire Church and to judge the Roman Pontiff and the Magisterium itself.

This situation is analogous to a courtroom, where, whenever the judge in charge of a case makes a decision that a group of citizens in the gallery dislike, they cry out loudly against him and demand that their judgments replace his official rulings.

Or else it is like an operating room. The surgeon is operating on a patient, and persons in the observation area, who have no medical training, are judging everything the surgeon does, as if they know how to operate better than him.

You are free to disagree with much of what the Pope says and does. His personal opinions, decisions on discipline, even his non-infallible teachings, allow for some degree of faithful disagreement. But to assume that your views are absolutely inerrant, just because you are part of the conservative Catholic subculture, is insanely arrogant.

This attitude expressed by many conservative Catholics, that they must resist the Roman Pontiff, scrutinize and criticize his every word and deed, and constantly oppose him, is schismatic to its core. All Catholics are required to submit their minds and hearts to the Roman Pontiff, regardless of whether he is liberal or conservative or otherwise not to one’s liking. He is the Vicar of Christ, and you are not. Anyone who speaks and acts as if he has the authority to judge and condemn any Pope is speaking and acting as if he were God. And that is a very grave sin.

Many conservatives are breaking one of the Ten Commandments, by bearing false witness against their neighbor, Francis. And this sin is made all the more grave by the fact that he is the Vicar of Christ.

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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11 Responses to An A to Z defense of Pope Francis

  1. Mark P. says:

    The Holy Father is trying to get us all to take the logs out of our eyes so we can more effectively help take the specks out of each others’. I agree with his metaphor of the Church as a hospital to the wounded. He sees the world as a spiritual battlefield littered with wounded souls who have to be shown the mercy of God concretely. Beating lapsed believers, non-believers, and even those hostile to the Church over the head with doctrines, disciplines, laws and rules will not do anything to convert them; not that those things aren’t important, but approaching a sinner and telling them “the Church says you’re wrong” is not going to bring them into the fold. Thinking otherwise is naive. In some aspects, the Holy Father is trying to become as aggressive as possible in bringing souls back into the Church, even if it means temporarily loosening certain disciplines in the name of mercy. Obviously no compromise of teaching can take place. So the Church needs to evangelize “within the rules” but using different tactics than in previous times. It is like a soccer team losing a game by one goal, and in the last minutes the entire team plays offense in the hopes of scoring so they can at least make it to overtime. They have played the game out of the traditional sense in that all defenders, even the goalie, are trying to score a goal. But they still cannot touch the ball, add more players than 11 to the field, foul another player, or commit offsides to achieve their purpose. So the discipline of having established positions has been temporarily suspended, but all of the rules are still intact and cannot be broken. Perhaps not the best analogy, but one that may be a little helpful.

  2. questioner says:

    I have no bias either for or against Pope Francis, but I don’t see any logic under Point #3, with the Pope stating that “marriages are ‘null’ because the couples do not intend a lifelong union, but have in mind, from the beginning, to divorce if things don’t work out.” How is this nullity possible when the vow is understood to be “as long as we both shall live.” It is a sin to use mental reservation; it is your solemn oath, a contract, a covenant, which a priest has presumably explained to you. Forget about distorting the institution itself, either one or both of you has committed fraud, potentially doing serious harm to a partner and some children — with the Pope seeming to brush it off. In essence, he’s saying yes indeed, if you see this as your “trial marriage,” you CAN divorce “if it doesn’t work out” — and here’s your annulment in advance — your free pass. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    With annulment, the default presumption is supposed to be that the marriage is valid, and a burden of proof is required. If Francis believes things are “different” now, when exactly did they change, and which rules should I go by? Why would I struggle and carry my cross and work on my own flawed marriage, when it seems fully half of all marriages are off the hook? Will there be enough married people left in my parish to share experiences with, who can support me? I think the good will of the Pope is so generous, that I will take the leap and file for divorce today… but my doing so will be yet another failure, further diluting my entire community’s commitment to the institution of marriage.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Council of Trent taught that each Sacrament requires the intention to do what the Church does by that Sacrament. In marriage, one must intend lifelong commitment since that is inherent to the marital state. There is no question that the Pope is correct that marriages are not valid without that intention. I think he might be wrong about the extensiveness of that failure; it might not be the great majority. The default presumption is that the marriage is valid. But that does not prevent the Pope from making a general observation. Yes, you are right that it is seriously wrong to marry without intending a lifelong commitment. But we live in a very sinful time.

    • Matt says:

      Pope Francis approved a revision to the official transcript to say that “a portion” of sacramental marriages are null, instead of “the great majority.”

  3. Gregory L Manglitz says:

    Good job Ron

  4. Dear Ronald Thank you for defending Pope Francis.

    I have a question the article I was on did not have comments on to write but this is a little off topuc but the microchip? Could it be the mark in the future or possibly Islam since Allah equals 666? The antichrist mostly likely won’t come in a couple centuries because of the church age were in.
    Remember the antichrist will be born of a bishop and a Hebrew nun false Virgin.

    – Our Lady Of La Sallete

    The thing about the chip can I get a NSL language chip in my head, it a chip that allows you to speak a foreign language. I don’t know if that was a hoax or what but can I do that? God Bless.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Antichrist does not come for a few centuries. The mark of the beast is NOT a microchip. And the number 666 refers to the name of the Antichrist. It does not refer to Islam or Allah. I don’t believe there is any kind of language chip that can be implanted in someone.

  5. Okay thank you God bless

  6. Guest says:

    I’m thankful for Pope Francis. He has shown me that liberals are not the only sizable share of “cafeteria Catholics”. These people show me that they only submit to the Roman Pontiff insofar as they approve of him and his words and actions. All their rhetoric about how great a pope is who can correct you when you’re wrong is flatulence to them.

    They forget that after Christ it is the pope who has supreme authority, to bind and loose Church discipline and laws, promote or demote anyone in the Church however tactfully or not–being as authoritarian as he well pleases–, and to preach against immoral politics, economic structures and social conditions.

  7. turnrod says:

    In general, I agree in the blogosphere that there are criticisms of the Pope that are both uncharitable and do not respect the authority of the office. Without impugning Pope Francis’ motives, there are in my opinion legitament criticisms that could be reasonably levied against his exercise of the office. Here are just a few examples:

    Weighing into political issues (e.g., immigration) that do not involve intrinsic evils, but complex issues requiring one’s prudential judgement. Does he have the authority to provide his opinion? Certainly, however, one could rightly criticize this, since one could confuse Pope Francis’ personal opinion with Magestarial teaching.

    In terms of Catholic teaching, given today’s climent ambiguity is another area where criticism is not inappropriate. For example in your article section 6 you cite “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation”, referring to homosexual persons. Since both inside and outside the Church there are forces pushing the moral acceptance of homosexual acts, one could rightly question how one’s desires that are intrinsically disordered, as the Church has always taught, could be valued and accepted? If one meant ‘persons’ that happen to have same sex attractions it would be helpful to be clear on such things.

    In regards to Amoris Latetia, is the Pope required to answer the dubia? No, but given the current climate in the Church and the fact that these questions involve instrinsic evils and the perennial practice of the Church it might be helpful to leave no doubt what AL has changed or not changed.

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