Fr. Weinandy’s letter is found here: Catholic World Report, along with his note of explanation. It’s a letter to Pope Francis, which was sent to the Vatican, and subsequently made public by Fr. Weinandy. The letter takes the same position and makes the same errors as so many other papal critics.
In his note of explanation, Fr. Weinandy says that the providence of God instructed him “to write something” on his topic of concern about Pope Francis and the Church. I believe his story on that point, and I believe that God was telling him, via providence, to write on that topic. However, the contents of his writing in his letter to the Pope are not thereby approved by God. Perhaps God wanted him to write the letter, so that he would lose his position with the USCCB and then go on to other tasks for God. Perhaps God wanted him to write the letter to stimulate further discussion on the topic.
Confusion and Unease
“Yet, Your Holiness, a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate. The light of faith, hope, and love is not absent, but too often it is obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease.”
Yet again, the holy Pontiff is accused of fostering “confusion”. His words and deeds are subject to varying interpretations. And he does not intervene, at least not immediately, to clarify each point of confusion. Yes, but the same can be said of the Bible, or almost any major encyclical, or Vatican II. The whole Christian faith is subject to varying interpretations and to different ways to apply the teachings. And for a long time now, liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics have had such differences of interpretation.
So why are conservative critics speaking as if this type of ambiguity were new? Essentially, it’s because the current Pontiff is liberal. Conservatives have long assumed that the correct path in through any type of controversy on discipline or doctrine was the conservative one. And now a liberal Pope proposes some liberal answers to certain issues.
Conservatives are not really confused. They simply disagree. They are confused only in the sense that they cannot see anyway to accept the decisions of the Pope on doctrine and discipline, other than by admitting that their point of view is not absolute infallible truth. They are confused because they assume that they themselves are above correction and above being taught something new.
The alleged “growing unease” is not found among most Catholics. When many papal critics say “the faithful”, they mean the conservatives. I have seen this attitude develop over the last several decades. Since Vatican II, a Council initiated by a liberal Pope, conservative have tried to portray themselves as inherently faithful and as necessarily orthodox, just because they are conservatives. And a corollary idea is that liberal Catholics are necessarily unfaithful and heterodox. But now we have a liberal Pope, who speaks and acts like a faithful orthodox liberal Catholic. Conservatives are confused because they continue to make the false assumption that the conservative answer to any questions on doctrine and discipline must be the only correct answer.
They are uneasy because a liberal Pope is pointing out their faults and failings, offering them correction, and teaching them from a liberal point of view. And in their great pride, they cannot accept teaching or correction from a liberal.
Next Fr. Weinandy points out that priests, theologian, Bishops, and Cardinals have disagreed with a section of Amoris Laetitia. Yes, but throughout the history of the Church some of the same have disagreed with the teachings and decisions of each Pope. The difference today is that the dissenters are conservative, and so they are assumed to be in the right.
“In Amoris Laetitia, your guidance at times seems intentionally ambiguous, thus inviting both a traditional interpretation of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce as well as one that might imply a change in that teaching.”
The conservative approach to the Faith is marked by clear and definitive answers to each and every point of doctrine and discipline, even when the Magisterium has not definitively decided a question. The liberal but orthodox approach to the Faith permits greater liberty in doctrine and discipline, except where the Magisterium has issued a definitive decision. So the real objection here is that the Pope uses a liberal approach, emphasizing liberty. In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
“As you wisely note, pastors should accompany and encourage persons in irregular marriages; but ambiguity persists about what that accompaniment actually means. To teach with such a seemingly intentional lack of clarity inevitably risks sinning against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth.”
The same point applies to the quote above. Pope Francis leaves open the liberty to hold varying opinions, except where the Church has a definitive teaching, and he leaves open a variety of different ways to apply that teaching. Thus, accompaniment can be interpreted and applied differently. That is the liberal approach to the Faith, and it is no way heretical or erroneous. The conservative approach narrows the scope of faithful differences of opinion on doctrine and discipline. But the Pope is not wrong to choose a more liberal path.
No, it is not a sin against the Holy Spirit, to use a more liberal approach to doctrine and discipline. To equate liberal Catholicism with sinning against truth is to imply that Catholicism is conservatism, or that God himself is conservative. In fact, the teachings of Jesus include very liberal teachings (e.g. opening the faith to Gentiles and doing away with the Mosaic discipline), as well as moderate teachings (e.g. the path to Heaven is keeping the Commandments), and conservative teachings (e.g. on divorce).
On the other hand, it is a sin against the Spirit of Truth to try to bind the teachings of Jesus to the preferences and mere opinions of the conservative Catholic subculture.
“The Holy Spirit is given to the Church, and particularly to yourself, to dispel error, not to foster it.”
Yes, but error is not defined as any idea contrary to the conservative point of view. And no Pope has ever been obligated to answer every theological question with definitive proclamations. Every Pope so far has permitted a range of different theological opinions, on various matters of faith, morals, and salvation, as well as discipline.
“Yet you seem to censor and even mock those who interpret Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia in accord with Church tradition as Pharisaic stone-throwers who embody a merciless rigorism.”
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were conservatives. Some of the criticisms of Jesus toward the Pharisees are applicable to conservatives today. Conservatives are not above criticism, yet they seem to think they are. It is the duty and right of the Pope to correct and criticize conservatives as well as everyone else.
The attitude of conservatives is: “Why are you criticizing us, when we are the most faithful Catholics?” They have long taken the attitude that, by being conservative, they are necessarily orthodox and above criticism. And that just isn’t true. Furthermore, when the Pope criticizes you, it is not mocking or censorship. The Pope has the role to teach and correct everyone. But conservative Catholics do not accept teaching or correction from liberals. That is the problem.
“too often your manner seems to demean the importance of Church doctrine. Again and again you portray doctrine as dead and bookish, and far from the pastoral concerns of everyday life. Your critics have been accused, in your own words, of making doctrine an ideology.”
One of the valid criticisms of conservative Catholics is an over-emphasis on doctrine, especially as theological assertions, without sufficient emphasis on the practice of the faith and on service to persons in spiritual or temporal need. Pope Francis has issued this criticism a few times now, and he is not wrong. But Fr. Weinandy is distorting what the Pope said. He did not portray doctrine itself as dead or bookish. Rather, he criticized the conservative error of turning doctrine from truths that are lived to pedantic theological distinctions, divorced from a lived faith.
Pope Francis has correctly and insightfully criticized conservatives. They should accept his criticisms and try to avoid these errors. As a conservative Catholic, I see that these criticisms apply to me to some extent, and I take them to heart. I do not assume that the Pope must be wrong whenever his words conflict with my own point of view.
“Those who devalue the doctrines of the Church separate themselves from Jesus, the author of truth. What they then possess, and can only possess, is an ideology – one that conforms to the world of sin and death.”
The Pope is not devaluing doctrine. He merely criticized the various ways that doctrine can be misused:
* by treating the majority opinion of the conservative Catholic subculture as if it were dogma;
* by treating one’s preference on a matter of discipline as if it were dogma;
* by closing doctrine to new insights and developments or to new applications;
* by assuming that one’s own understanding of a dogma is itself the dogma;
* by demeaning those who err in matters of doctrine;
and many other possible misuses of doctrine.
Choice of Shepherds
“faithful Catholics can only be disconcerted by your choice of some bishops, men who seem not merely open to those who hold views counter to Christian belief but who support and even defend them. What scandalizes believers, and even some fellow bishops, is not only your having appointed such men to be shepherds of the Church, but that you also seem silent in the face of their teaching and pastoral practice.”
The same thing happened during the Pontificates of Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. For example, John Paul II let the liberal Cardinal Schonborn be one of the main editors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is the same Cardinal who approved of the election of a practicing homosexual to a parish council, over the objection of his pastor. That event occurred in 2012, during the reign of Pope Benedict XVI — who was silent in the face of this error.
It always happens in the Church that some unfit persons, even Cardinals and Bishops, get appointed to various positions. And it is not really the role of the Pope to intervene in every case. By analogy, should the U.S. Supreme Court intervene whenever a lower court makes an incorrect decision? No, that is not how the court system works. And that is not how the Church works. She is a Church of sinners, here on earth. The Pope does not have the role to oversee and correct every decision of every Cardinal and Bishop.
“Encouraging a form of “synodality” that allows and promotes various doctrinal and moral options within the Church can only lead to more theological and pastoral confusion. Such synodality is unwise and, in practice, works against collegial unity among bishops.”
Are you kidding me with that criticism? Vatican II emphasized the very same idea. And every Pope since Vatican II has approved of it. But it is an idea that runs counter to tendencies (at the very least) often found among conservatives.
Furthermore, the allowance of differences of opinion on doctrine and discipline is normal and healthy for the Church. It is an error of conservatism to insist, to an excessive extent, that every hold the same ideas and interpretations on doctrine and discipline, with little room for theological differences.
“Bishops are quick learners, and what many have learned from your pontificate is not that you are open to criticism, but that you resent it.”
Conservatives are not open to criticism from the Pope, and they resent it. The Pope has the role to teach and correct; it is his role to criticize conservatives. They are not necessarily orthodox or necessarily the most faithful. When criticized by the Pope, they not only reject that correction, but they respond by trying to correct him. The conservative Catholic subculture does not have the role of teaching and correcting the Pope.
Assuming Yourself to be Right
Fr. Weinandy has the typical attitude of a papal critic: “I have often asked myself: “Why has Jesus let all of this happen?” The only answer that comes to mind is that Jesus wants to manifest just how weak is the faith of many within the Church, even among too many of her bishops. Ironically, your pontificate has given those who hold harmful theological and pastoral views the license and confidence to come into the light and expose their previously hidden darkness. In recognizing this darkness, the Church will humbly need to renew herself, and so continue to grow in holiness.”
Yes, Jesus is manifesting just how weak is the faith of many conservatives — despite their boasting at being the most faithful members of the Church. Yes, Jesus is manifesting the previously hidden darkness among conservative Catholics, who have gradually transferred their faith from faith in the Church, to faith in the conservative Catholic subculture, to faith in each one’s own misunderstandings and limited understandings. Yes, Fr. Weinandy needs to become humble, so that he can grow in holiness.
What do you think would happen if a priest, in past centuries, for example, under Pope Saint Pius X, wrote an open letter like the one by Fr. Weinandy, publicly and harshly criticizing the Roman Pontiff? I think he would be excommunicated for disobedience and probably also laicized. It is only the influence of sinful secular society which has taught priests, deacons, religious, and the laity that they can publicly rebuke the Vicar of Christ with impunity, that they can take the role to judge and condemn him, whenever he says or does anything they dislike. Under most past Popes, such action would be met with a swift and deserving rebuke.
Any Roman Pontiff would be well within his rights and authority as the Supreme Judge of all the faithful to issue a sentence against persons who write public letters, petitions, or corrections presuming to judge his words and deeds and presuming to condemn his decisions, as if they were grave errors. And the sentence could be an interdict, or excommunication, or removal from the clerical state.
Suppose you work for a large corporation, in one of the lower positions in the company. And you pen an open letter to the president of the company, telling him all the mistakes that you think he is making. You explain how very wrong he is to run the company according to his own judgment, and contrary to your own understanding of how a company should be run. What do you think he would do? You would be fired so fast, your head would spin. And then the rest of the employees would ridicule you, rightly so, for thinking that you could run the entire company better than the president of the company.
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