On Advising the Pope: An Exchange

It is Not Our Place to Advise the Pope

The truths of the Catholic Church do not change, but the world does—and the world tends to stray from the truth. Efforts must be made, therefore, to bring the Church to a world that has lost its way—and that may involve, as in the parable, leaving the ninety-nine behind. Pope Francis is a missionary pope, a pope trying to introduce the timeless truths of the Church to a people who have lost their hold of truth in general. He cannot do this without making a stir—especially among the ninety-nine, it seems. Catholics are, however, called to have faith in their shepherd. They are not called to inveigh against the Vicar of Christ. They are not called to dissent. They are not called to turn the house against itself. They should, instead, receive the challenge of papal leadership, firm in the Faith, and consider the enormity of Pope Francis’ mission to bring so many wandering and hard-hearted sheep back into a forgotten fold.

sean FitzpatrickIn a recent Crisis article over the Synod, Rev. Dwight Longenecker expressed concern that our holy pope in some ways compromises his job as a holy priest, and offered some advice to Francis:

I can only do the job you want me to do if you do the job you have been called to do. With the greatest respect and love, please don’t feel that it is your job to tinker with the timeless truths. If my job is to be the compassionate pastor for those in the pew and beyond, then your job is to be the primary definer and defender of the Faith. I can’t do my job if you don’t do yours.

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With all deepest respect and fraternal love to Rev. Longenecker, I, for one common layman, believe that Pope Francis is doing his job—but perhaps not in the way the ninety-nine see fit. The job of the ninety-nine, however, are to be sheep when it comes to the shepherd. The pope is breaking new ground in order to plant old seeds; and will cause some disruption. The Church must not stagnate in the name of timeless truth. It must address people in a voice that will be heard and understood. Pope Francis is not, as Rev. Longenecker intimates, failing in the defense and definition of doctrine by reaching out to those who, through sheer ignorance, have felt marginalized by the Church, thinking that the Church hates the sinner together with the sin. By engaging the issues of the day with a loving heart, the pope is not redefining dogmatic truth—he is simply not being an isolationist. He is applying eternal truths to modern problems, which changes their aspect but not their essence, and provides an honest, down-to-earth example for his brother priests in parishes and on the streets.

To hold Pope Francis accountable for the unawareness of the world is misplaced. Confusion caused by the pope’s words is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Church teaches, and it is not Francis’ fault—but it is his concern. Should he simply not speak out with fervor in an effort to keep the boat from rocking? No. Nothing worth doing is free of peril. The teachings and testimonies of Our Lord are built on this principle. Francis is taking the risk, as we are all called to do as witnesses to Christ, fearless in proclaiming his love. Francis is doing this according to the dictates of his conscience and heart. That is his job and he is doing it. It is our job, as laymen, priests, and bishops—as sheep all—to follow him and avoid the temptation to criticize Christ in our midst; and never give in to the precarious rhetoric of telling the Pope how to do his job. That is between the Holy Father and Our Father.

Since the world will not cry out to Christ, it is His vicar’s job to cry out to the world instead. Pope Francis’ voice has assembled the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme of “The Pastoral Challenges for the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” If the culture is sick, the foundation of human culture must be made whole: the human family. In the preparatory document released by the Vatican, Pope Francis gave direction to this pilgrimage toward reaching out as pastors to a lost flock. “The social and spiritual crisis, so evident in today’s world,” the document reads, “is becoming a pastoral challenge in the Church’s evangelizing mission concerning the family, the vital building-block of society and the ecclesial community.” It goes on to outline the Church’s eternal positions on marriage, procreation, the sanctity of life, parenthood, catechesis, and other matters in an eight-part questionnaire for the bishops to consider and answer about families in their own dioceses.

Pope Francis is reaching out to those in homosexual unions, difficult or irregular marital situations, and those closed to life. The assembly’s objective is to record honest and accurate assessments of where families stand in modern society, and then ask the question: how can the Church touch their lives through revitalization and evangelization? The Synod is a call to consider “concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago,” and is bold enough to call attention not only to the issue of same-sex ‘marriage’ but also to “the widespread practice of cohabitation … presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary … forms of feminism hostile to the Church….” and “the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life.”

First and foremost, this Synod clearly emphasizes the open arms of Holy Mother Church—open to receive all in the embrace that Francis called a “big brotherhood” on the night he was elected pope. Though the reports flowing from the Synod may not be clear to the general public, neither is there a clear solution to the manifest problems in human civilization, whose “building-block” is the family. Pope Francis is inviting the leaders of the Church to strategize on how to heal the foundation of culture, and this is a duty for leaders, that they may lead those in the trenches and secure concord and clarity for all. Priests will ultimately carry out the work in parishes—as Rev. Longenecker rightly says—but this does not mean that there should not be a synthesis of ideas and attitudes, even theoretical and theological ones, by the princes of the Church whose obligation is to guide the parishes in their dioceses.

Rev. Longenecker advises Pope Francis to mind the importance of teamwork and the principle of subsidiarity. I ask, is it teamwork to caution and criticize the Supreme Pontiff, however respectfully? I ask, is it in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity to challenge the head of the Church, despite pure intentions? Rev. Longenecker writes that he can look to other and holier sources of inspiration than Francis. I am sure the pope would be the first to agree. But does this mean that he ought not to inspire people—especially the wayward? The battle is over nothing less than the future of human civilization, a struggle over the roots of Christian culture. That is why the Synod is both radical and requisite—it is a challenge to the apostles of our day to disregard precedent and posturing and be apostolic. It challenges our bishops to call a spade a spade in the marital ring, and touch families so that whole peoples may be made clean.

How can the Church be merciful, so that we as a Church may obtain God’s mercy? Humility and love, says Francis—and, there, all agree. I thank God for sincere and zealous priests like Rev. Longenecker, but notwithstanding I, for one, think that Catholics should be wary of putting the pope on the pillory.

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Good Popes Value Constructive Advice

I am grateful to Mr. Fitzpatrick for reading my article, indeed, I am even more grateful that he has taken the time to take me to task. I’m afraid however, that he sees more in my article than was either intended or communicated.

d_longeneckerMr. Fitzpatrick suggests that I do not appreciate Pope Francis’ maverick-like ways, his missionary zeal and his ability to turn over tables in the temple. Not only does my article not criticize this aspect of Pope Francis’ papacy, but in the first part of the article I especially espouse the pope’s exhortations to “make a mess,” reach out to the needy, express compassion for the poor and smell of the sheep. I affirm that I want to be that kind of priest and thank the Holy Father for his example and encouragement.

Mr. Fitzpatrick waxes eloquent about the pope’s desire to re-package Catholic truths in an acceptable way for a modern age, his attempts to reach out to the marginalized, his efforts to evangelize and his ability to inspire and encourage and then suggests that I am opposed to such efforts. Again, he reads far too much into a single short article. I am in favor of all those noble goals, and in my article I said so. Furthermore, any single contribution of a writer must be balanced by his other scribblings. If Mr. Fitzpatrick were a reader of my blog and my writings at other websites he would know that I have been a firm supporter of Pope Francis in the face of critics to the extent of being lampooned, called names, castigated and mocked by extreme conservatives who heartily dislike the Holy Father. That I am called a liberal by conservatives and conservative by liberals seems to me to be good evidence of balance.

We then have a long explanation by Mr. Fitzpatrick about the Synod on the Family. Here is where there is some confusion of the sort that often occurs between writers, editors and readers. My article was written before the controversial relatio from the Synod fathers was published and it was not intended as a direct comment on either the relatio or the Synod. As these things happen in the fast-paced world of instant online publication, the editor of Crisis accepted the article and published it with his own headline linking my article to the Synod. He did this in innocent goodwill, but it gave the incorrect impression that my article was a direct response to the synod and the publication of the relatio. It was not. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s comments, therefore about the Synod, are not directly relevant to the matter in question, and I have no dispute with what he has written. Once again, he seems to assume that I think the Synod mistaken or the Holy Father’s work misplaced. I do not.

All that is about what I did not write. Now about what I did: my article was a simple heartfelt plea from a parish priest that the Holy Father not forget that his main role is that of articulating the faith clearly and simply to his flock and to the world. My experience as a parish priest and a communicator is that this papacy has often brought confusion rather than clarity. The fact that Fr. Lombardi of the Vatican Press Office is continually picking up the pieces after the pope and issuing “clarifications” confirms my point. Pope Francis communicates beautifully through significant gesture and passionate exhortation. He takes risks and speaks his mind, and I like that about him. It reminds me of Jesus.

The problem is that the radical prophet is rarely the precise theologian. It does no harm to point out that we need both.

Which brings me to a final point. Mr. Fitzpatrick suggests that any criticism of the Holy Father is out of bounds. Surely not. It is part of the responsibility of all the faithful to speak from the heart clearly and openly with respect and submission. Pope Francis himself has asked for a frank debate, plain speaking, honest listening and fraternal conversation. One is not a dissenter or rebel simply by asking honest questions, making a clear point and expressing one’s point of view. The root of the word “obedience” is “to listen” and listening implies a conversation in which both parties listen.

I am confident that the article (and the rest of my writings) clearly expresses my genuine admiration and support for the pope. The pope himself has asked for a frank debate, an open spirit, a willingness to speak one’s mind, to “make a mess” for the sake of truth. My article was not dissent or rebellion of any kind.

It was a little shout out from one of his shepherds reminding him that in our work we need clarity in the service of charity.


  • Sean Fitzpatrick and Rev. Dwight Longenecker

    Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson.

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