Tear Down this Papal Wall of Silence

In the dark of an August night in 1961, the Russians threw up a barrier between East and West Berlin which came to be known as the Berlin Wall. On June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan stood at a podium in Berlin and delivered his famous speech, in which he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” What President Reagan called for in 1987, became a reality in 1989, when the head of the East German Communist Party announced that citizens could pass through the wall without restriction as of midnight on November 9, 1989. Oppressed civilians immediately began using hammers and pick axes to remove the wall. The authorities came in with heavy equipment and manpower only after the unscheduled start of the demolition by civilians.

Walled cities have helped protect inhabitants from hostile attackers for centuries. Countries have walls as well. The Chinese, the British, and the Vatican all have defensive walls. More recent walls are those separating Palestinians from the rest of Israel and one being constructed along the U.S./Mexico border. Many international leaders, including Pope Francis, have frequently commented on walls. In February 2017, Pope Francis told the general audience in St. Peter’s square, “In the social and civil context as well, I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges,” On March 18, 2017, he tweeted “I invite you not to build walls but bridges, to conquer evil with good, offence with forgiveness, to live in peace with everyone.” While Pope Francis is absolutely correct, it seems that he should follow his own advice.

Pope Francis has not constructed any physical walls, but he has been a master builder of an invisible wall which separates him from much of the Catholic Church. Unlike the brick and mortar wall surrounding Vatican City, Francis’s wall consists of ambiguity, inconsistency, passive-aggressiveness, and silence. He can be very clear on some matters, but when it comes to certain topics, he becomes vague, briefly stepping into the light before slipping back into the shadows. His answers are typically in the form of cryptic rebukes, often through his press office or one of his close advisors. On certain issues his message is hazy and he becomes aloof and inconsistent when asked for clarification. He can even become living satire, such as his recent declaration that plastic in our oceans is an “emergency”—as if environmentalists need support from the pope, as he ignores a scandal in the Church which he himself could resolve with immediate and certain results.

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Until recently, the prime example of Francis’s penchant for ambiguity and misdirection has been Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. The ambiguity in Chapter 8 is unparalleled in the history of the Church, not because there has never been such ambiguity, but because there has never been such ambiguity regarding a settled Church teaching. Learned theologians and scholars disagree regarding the proper interpretation of Francis’s intentions regarding the receipt of the Eucharist by divorced and remarried Catholics. The teaching has always been that without a declaration that a first marriage is a nullity, a remarried Catholic must not present himself or herself for receipt of the Eucharist. As a result of the ambiguity of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, some bishops have concluded that there is no new teaching, and others have concluded that a divorced and remarried Catholic may still receive the Eucharist under certain circumstances. Because of this confusion on one of the most essential teachings of the faith, a group of cardinals issued formal questions to Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in an effort to produce a “Yes” or “No” response on the matter. This Dubia process is the formal and accepted way of addressing the Apostolic See in order to achieve clarity on a vague, ambiguous, or unclear Church teaching.

One would think that the pope would respect the dignity of the four cardinals who have posed very clear questions on a matter which is extremely important to the people of faith. Unfortunately, you would be wrong to think this. Instead of responding, Francis has entirely ignored them. Also unfortunately, a number of his close advisors have disparaged the “Dubia Cardinals” in one way or another, but the pope himself has not said one word regarding the questions posed by the cardinals for nearly two years.

However, the pope did find the time to informally respond to similar questions from bishops of the Buenos Aires region of Argentina, regarding Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, on September 5, 2017.

In his letter to the Argentinian bishops, Pope Francis confirmed that “pastoral accompaniment” allows Catholics who have not received a declaration of nullity regarding their first marriage access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist in specific cases in which there are limitations that mitigate their responsibility and culpability, “especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union.” Please forgive any ambiguity in my attempt to lay this out clearly. It seems that the Argentinian bishops also struggle with clarity.

In essence, Francis has informally attempted to change established Church teaching in a certain part of Argentina without speaking ex cathedra, i.e., from the throne of Peter, but his endorsement of the Argentine interpretation of Amoris did not come with a mandate that everyone follow suit.

After the Argentinian letter was made public, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, said that the pope’s clarification was intended “as authentic Magisterium.” However, even this statement does not make it so. At best, this is an artfully vague way of maintaining an ambiguity.

A Wall Is Built Over China
Another example of Francis’s lack of clarity is his decision regarding the state-controlled Catholic Church in China.

In spite of receiving numerous letters from Cardinal Joseph Zen (one of which was hand-delivered in order to get past Francis’s staff), Pope Francis would not respond to Zen regarding his concerns over the pope’s dealings with the Chinese government. This is a new sort of Chinese wall.

The Chinese government has manipulated the Catholic Church in China since 1951, closing churches, jailing priests, appointing its own bishops and suppressing priests and bishops faithful to the Holy See. Faithful Catholics went underground, celebrating the sacraments and developing a community which was strictly forbidden by the Communist government. In January 2018, Pope Francis announced that he would recognize the bishops appointed by the Chinese government. Cardinal Zen responded to the announcement, stating that Pope Francis had essentially betrayed the faithful Catholics of China. At this point, Zen finally heard from the Holy See, through a rebuke by Pope Francis’s press secretary, Greg Burke. A few months later, Chinese officials arrested Bishop Guo Xijin for refusing to celebrate Easter Mass with a bishop who had been appointed by the Chinese government. He was detained through Easter, then released.

Without detailing other examples, such as his refusal to explain to Cardinal Gerhard Muller why he fired three theologians from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, we can now turn to the latest example of the pope’s wall of ambiguity: his lack of a response to the McCarrick scandal.

A Wall of Silence Over the Viganò Charges
By now, you are likely acutely familiar with Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s 11-page letter, alleging that Pope Francis knew of  Archbishop McCarrick’s openly abusive homosexual lifestyle, before he made McCarrick a trusted advisor to the Holy See. When questioned by reporters about the letter on a flight to Rome from Ireland, Pope Francis could have denied it, explained how it was inaccurate, or offered any other sort of defense, but instead he replied: “I read the statement this morning, and I must tell you sincerely that, I must say this, to you and all those who are interested: Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment. I will not say a single word on this.”

How is that for clarity? For a moment it seemed like Pope Francis was going to respond to it. “I read the statement this morning, and I must tell you sincerely that, I must say this, to you and all those who are interested…” However, he changed course in mid-thought, and simply said we are to make our own judgment and he will not say a single word about it. This is a wall being built right in front of our eyes.

Uncharacteristically, Pope Francis has remained consistent on one thing, he has not said much if anything about the Viganò letter since he was first asked about it. None of Francis’s closest advisors have addressed the allegations either. Instead, they have lobbed personal attacks against Viganò. It is abundantly evident that Francis and his supporters are simply trying to divert attention to other matters, such as, of all things, the environment.

However, many faithful Catholics, from humble pew-sitters to theologians, priests, bishops, and cardinals, have called for an investigation of the allegations in order to get to the truth. Did Pope Francis ignore serious immorality while elevating McCarrick to a very powerful status in the Church? Robert George, George Weigel, Scott Hahn, Patrick Coffin, and Dr. Janet Smith want to know. The priests I know, want to know. Bishop Robert Barron, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, Bishop Robert Morlino, and many other bishops want to know. Archbishop Salvitore Cordileone, Archbishop Paul Coakley, Archbishop Joseph Naumann, Cardinal Daniel Dinardo and other archbishops and cardinals want to know.

How can we come to know what Pope Francis knew? For starters, we could look at the official records on Archbishop McCarrick. These records are held in the Vatican, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., the Archdiocese of New York, the Archdiocese of Newark, and the Diocese of Metuchin, not to mention the offices of numerous seminaries on the East Coast. Unfortunately, the custodians of these records have been unwilling to make these files public. Instead, we have received silence from Pope Francis, and denials from Cardinal Wuerl and Cardinal Tobin. More walls have been thrown up overnight.

Hide State Secrets No More
A cold war has erupted in the Church, replete with walls, opposing sides, and state secrets. How can Christ stand for such division and corruption? Only a Savior who suffered the Passion he suffered could witness today’s Church and restrain himself from raining fire down upon the earth.

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you (Matt. 11:21-24).

Woe to Vatican City… Never before could the hierarchy be so thankful for such a merciful Father in Heaven.

It seems the papacy has come full circle. Shortly after Peter took his seat as the first pope, he, too, had to endure a rebuke like this. Peter, who had declared that the New Covenant came without dietary restrictions and that the gentiles and the Jews were both to be welcomed into the Church, hypocritically shied away from eating with gentiles for fear of offending his Jewish brethren. In Galatians 2, it took St. Paul to rebuke Peter for his behavior and thereby provoke him to humility on the throne.

If Peter would have ignored Paul, would he have remained the pope? Would the Church have thrived as it did? Would it have changed the papacy thereafter from one of humble service to one of prideful rule? Peter certainly talked a good game, but had he disregarded Paul’s rebuke, he would have been a hypocrite, unworthy to be the chief servant of Christ’s Church on earth (1 Peter 5:2-3).

Pope Francis has frequently spoken of his need to be a humble servant of the people of God. Many good people are now playing the role of St. Paul to the Chair of Peter. Will Pope Francis emulate Peter, or will he mirror the pride of Judas?

I’m no Ronald Reagan, but I say what many other good people are now saying, “Pope Francis, tear down this wall!”

Editor’s note: Pictured above, Pope Francis (L), flanked by Head of the Vatican press office, Greg Burke, addresses reporters during a press conference in flight between Ireland and Rome at the end of his two-day visit to Ireland on August 26, 2018. Pope Francis faced accusations by a former Vatican official (Viganò) that he had personally ignored allegations against senior clergy. (Photo by Gregorio BORGIA / POOL / AFP) 


  • Bob Sullivan

    Mr. Sullivan is a practicing attorney and a columnist for The Southern Nebraska Register. His writing has also appeared in Catholic Answers Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Catholic Gentleman. He and his family live in Wahoo, Nebraska. Read more at www.bsullivan.org.

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