One of the most common statements I’ve heard from Catholics over the past decade is, “We should give the pope the benefit of the doubt.” When someone criticizes Pope Francis for a questionable statement or action, you inevitably see some Catholics jumping in to say we need to give him the “benefit of the doubt.”
The most recent case was the sacking of Bishop Strickland. No official reason was given, but we are supposed to give Francis the benefit of the doubt and assume there’s a just reason for this shocking papal act. Why? Because he’s the pope, that’s why.
But is this a legitimate frame of mind for Catholics? After all, what does this mean, to give someone the “benefit of the doubt?” Does it always apply in every situation, to every person, in every act? Or do unlimited benefits of the doubt apply only to the pope? Can a pope exhaust how many benefits we give him before we no longer extend to him this courtesy?
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First, what does it mean to give someone the benefit of the doubt? Simply put, it means that something a person did or said is unclear—of doubtful meaning—and so we assume the best (most charitable) interpretation of their actions and words.
If your husband leaves you a message saying, “I’m going to be late coming home today,” there are a million ways one could interpret what is meant. In a marriage rocked by infidelity, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the wife to assume that he was meeting with a girlfriend, i.e. the wife would not give her husband the benefit of the doubt.
In a strong, stable marriage, however, the wife likely will assume her husband just has some work to catch up on, or he is stopping on the way home to pick something up. She extends to him the benefit of the doubt and doesn’t assume the worst interpretation of his statement. There is of course a spectrum of possibilities between these two extremes: if a husband previously cheated but repented, there’s reason to at least be somewhat doubtful, and so giving the benefit of the doubt might be more difficult.
If, on the other hand, a wife catches her husband in the act of adultery, there’s no benefit of the doubt to be given, because all doubt has been removed. What is happening is all too clear.
So there are two factors when giving the benefit of the doubt. First, what do you know about the person doing the action or making the statement? Is he trustworthy? Has he ever broken trust in the past?
Second, what actually is being done: is there actually doubt about the meaning behind it?
In general, we always give the benefit of the doubt to loved ones who have given no reason to doubt them. We also should give the benefit of the doubt to those we don’t know at all. To default to assuming the worst of strangers isn’t a good way to live. Only those we have given reason to distrust should we be hesitant to grant the benefit of the doubt.
Admittedly these are subjective standards and everyone will vary in how quickly they extend the benefit of the doubt and how quickly they will assume bad intentions. But overall these are the parameters.
Then what about Pope Francis? Does he deserve a blanket benefit of the doubt? Is there anything that can break that benefit?
Some Catholics would argue that he deserves it by virtue of his office. In a maximalist interpretation of Lumen Gentium 25, which states that we must give “religious submission of mind and will…to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff,” these Catholics would say that essentially every action, every word, of the pope must be assumed to be in accord with Catholicism and for the good of the Church. But this flies in the face of reason, as well as Church history.
We know, for a fact, that popes in the past have acted under bad intentions. We know that popes have personally erred in their understanding of the Catholic faith. We know popes have been corrupt and immoral. We know that if this is true of past popes it can be true of current or future popes as well.
To say, then, that Catholics are required to always assume a pope’s words and actions are blameless and consistent with Catholic teaching would be asking Catholics to deny at times the reality right in front of them. St. Paul didn’t follow that advice, nor did St. Polycarp, nor did a whole host of Catholics throughout history when faced with popes behaving badly.
But at the same time, respect for the papal office and a general inclination to offer the benefit of the doubt when possible does mean that Pope Francis should be given that benefit if at all possible. The problem is that Francis has done so many problematic things over the past decade, that it’s difficult to argue that he still deserves a blanket benefit of the doubt. Francis has done so many problematic things over the past decade, that it’s difficult to argue that he still deserves a blanket benefit of the doubt.Tweet This
Let’s just list a few examples of papal actions that have eroded trust in this pope:
- Promoting many clerics, such as Fr. James Martin, who undermine Church teaching on homosexuality.
- Gutting of the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family
- Honoring of abortionists
- Bringing Theodore McCarrick out of retirement into the pope’s inner circle
- Attacking the traditional Latin Mass, and traditional Catholics in general
- Suggesting that God wills multiple religions
- Changing the Catechism to say that the death penalty is against human dignity
- Allowing Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics
And of course the list could go on, and on, and on. Now some will argue that if we always give Francis the benefit of the doubt, then all of these actions can be explained in an orthodox light. But that’s denying the cumulative effect of doubtful actions. Trust might not be lost in a single doubtful action, but many doubtful actions added together can surely weaken and even break that trust.
What if a husband continues to tell his wife he’s going to be late from work, over and over, without giving any reason, and then the wife starts to hear from friends that her husband is seen out at restaurants with his secretary? And then when the wife confronts her husband to explain his actions, he just ignores her, or gives a non-answer? Should the wife continue to give the benefit of the doubt to the husband? It’s possible that the husband is innocent of infidelity, but the evidence points in another direction. Eventually the wife’s benefit of the doubt is going to be exhausted, even if absolute proof of infidelity is never produced.
That’s our situation today with Pope Francis. He’s done a myriad of problematic things, and time and time again makes no effort to clarify them. Sure, one could say that the pope doesn’t have to answer to Catholics (although that’s not being a very good “servant of the Servant of God”), but at the same time, it’s reasonable for Catholics to in turn construct a picture that isn’t favorable to the pope’s intentions due to all the outstanding evidence.
The pope’s refusal to clarify his doubtful actions contrasts with the actions of Bishop Strickland. One of the biggest criticisms of the former bishop of Tyler is that he read a letter that appeared to espouse sedevacantism last month. So many of his enemies immediately assumed the worst and argued that he was removed for rejecting not only the pope’s authority, but the legitimacy of the Francis pontificate as well. But many of his supporters, including me, were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t agree with all the contents of the letter he read.
And Bishop Strickland, upon realizing the confusion, clarified that he was not a sedevacantist and that he accepted the pope’s authority. In other words, he understood there was a doubt, and he cleared it up. Pope Francis does not do this.
All this doesn’t mean we must give the worst interpretations to the pope’s actions. I’ve seen that happen as well, where fed-up Catholics assume that Francis is intent on destroying the Church—that he’s actively working for its downfall in every action he takes. I think that’s unfair, as a more reasonable interpretation is simply that his view of Catholicism is at odds with what the Church has traditionally taught and practiced. To give the worst interpretation of every action and statement of the pope is just as bad as a blanket benefit of the doubt, as both deny reality.
Catholicism does not require that we check our reason at the door. We don’t have to pretend that an action or statement means something it clearly doesn’t mean. If Pope Francis does something egregious—and the sacking of Bishop Strickland is a perfect example of such an action—we don’t have to assume the best intentions on the part of a pope who has continually fallen short of earning our trust.