The Anti-Ecumenism of Pope Francis

Fiducia Supplicans causes the Coptic Orthodox to suspend their ecumenical dialogue with Rome, citing the declaration's change to the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality.

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So much for the “big brotherhood” Pope Francis invited Catholics to share during his first speech from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica (unless there is another Big Brother that Pope Francis bends the knee to). If the white flag is a form of courage—as Francis said, urging Ukraine to surrender to Russia and earning himself some blistering criticism—Francis has been brave regarding the social justice ideologies of the day. But Christians, in ever growing numbers, are not on board with Francis’s brave new church.

For all his overtures for unity, it is literally beyond belief how divisive this pope has proven—and continues to prove—to be. It is almost as though he harbors some sort of intention to divide the house against itself to the point that at least a part of it will fall. That part would be those who suffer from what the Holy Father has called the disease of nostalgia, those backward conservatives, those custodians of tradition who are unwilling to evolve with the inclusive times and “broaden and enrich” Catholic theology. 

On March 7, the latest in Catholic division occurred.

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“After consulting with the sister churches of the Eastern Orthodox family,” the Coptic Orthodox leaders published in a press release, “it was decided to suspend the theological dialogue with the Catholic Church, reevaluate the results achieved by the dialogue from its beginning twenty years ago, and establish new standards and mechanisms for the dialogue to proceed in the future.” This announcement was accompanied by a video in which the Coptic Orthodox spokesman, Fr. Moussa Ibrahim, said that, among the decrees established at their annual Synod held last week in Egypt, was the decision “to suspend theological dialogue with the Catholic Church after its change of position on the issue of homosexuality.”

Fiducia Supplicans strikes again. Pope Francis and the embattled Cardinal Fernández can assert till they are blue in the face that this declaration from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith does not change the Church’s position regarding homosexuality. They can insist, with either blue or blushing cheek, that there is nothing heterodox or inherently scandalous in nonliturgical, spontaneous blessings of irregular unions and homosexual couples. But, without putting too fine a point on it—and with respect to their holy offices—they are not speaking the truth. To be clear, they are correct when they say that the declaration doesn’t change what the Catholic Church teaches; but it has changed the way people think of the Church. And it is false.

The Coptic Orthodox, together with the Catholic African bishops, are calling a spade a spade and not having anything to do with such dangerous, damaging nonsense. They’ll wait for better days with the enduring patience of traditional souls who side steadfastly with the “divine design for marriage between a man and a woman.” As it was, so it is, and ever shall be, say the Coptic Orthodox, a community comfortable with the tests of time. 

The Coptic Orthodox Church is among the oldest of the Eastern Orthodox Christian communities, with the founding of their See dating back to the apostle St. Mark. The Coptic Church derives its name from the Greek word Aigyptos, as they are based out of Egypt. They number 10 to 20 million out of 260 million Orthodox Christians. 

Though not in full communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Coptic Church claims Orthodox membership under its leader, Pope Tawadros II (the only other Christian leader to assume the title of “pope”), and maintains unity with what are known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches: namely, the Syriac, Ethiopian, Armenian, Malankara, and Eritrean Orthodox. None of these denominations accept the Council of Chalcedon of 451 and its definition of the two natures of Christ, but in recent decades, the Oriental Orthodox Church has sought dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, who both hold the Oriental position as heretical.

And that dialogue had every appearance of advancing positively, with Rome even granting a celebration of the Oriental Orthodox Divine Liturgy at St. John Lateran in 2023. Shortly after this liturgy, Pope Francis included the names of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians martyred by Libyan Islamic terrorists in 2015 in the Roman Martyrology. But any progress toward a glorious reconciliation of these separated Christian brethren, whose church possesses valid sacraments and saints, has been seriously undermined, if not destroyed. 

And the Coptic Orthodox aren’t the only ones who are discouraged by Fiducia Supplicans and, hence, discouraged from the prospect of dialogue with the Catholic Church. Last month, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Biblical-Theological Commission saw their bishops unanimously declare Fiducia Supplicans an innovation that “manifests a sharp deviation from the Christian moral teaching.” These are alarming determinations, but they are not surprising. They were as predictable as Fr. James Martin blessing a hand-in-hand homosexual “married” couple hours after the declaration with full press coverage and words that are easily interpreted as, “Finally, the Church is saying it’s OK to be gay.”

There are nuances to being Catholic that go beyond the general principle of loving the sinner and hating the sin, because Catholics are not called to despise sin detached from people. Faced with popular perversion, Catholics must consciously resist the muddled secular strategy of loving the sinner and the sin. Such resistance will, unfortunately, always be branded as “intolerance.” Embracing the sinner without the sin, however, is not a hypocritical sugarcoating for homophobic bigotry. It is an act of love that desires perfection for another. 

While Pope Francis pushes that it is not the union that is blessed but the persons, the confusion that this nuanced allowance breeds is truly a disservice. The transgression against charity here is embracing the sinner together with an unlovable appetite in the name of unconditional love. The appearance of loving acceptance of the lies called same-sex unions and couples is not an act of love—it is a participation in the lie. As Hamlet pleaded with words of love to his mother concerning her unnatural marriage, “do not spread the compost on the weeds to make them ranker.” Pope Francis needs to learn that there is nothing hateful or judgmental in rejecting falsehood.

Fiducia Supplicans is false because it is trying to make the Church appear to change without really changing. It is a deception, a sleight of hand, a social-justice grab. No one can bless a sin, just as no one can pray a lie, as Huck Finn teaches us with his rough eloquence, and in words that might be good for the pope himself to consider in his ministry:

I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing,…but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.

Pope Francis may desire the saving power of grace in the lives of those who are living in sin, poor sinners that we all are; but with Fiducia Supplicans he is only estranging our Christian brethren—both within and without the Roman fold—and misleading Christian resisters. But the distancing of the Orthodox is particularly unfortunate. The Orthodox are not in communion with Rome, but they are Christian—even Catholic—with historical and spiritual ties to the Roman Catholic Church. 

The divisions this papacy is effecting are simply not for the common good of the Church, proving that some messes aren’t worth making. This particular mess is only shouldering out the Orthodox in order to throw an arm around those who are not really interested in being Catholic as the Church requires, and welcoming them with unspoken qualifications that are, in fact, essential—such as, repentance and a firm purpose of amendment.

The withdrawal of the Coptic Orthodox from their ecumenical relations with Rome is a tragedy caused by our pope’s at best misguided and at worst sophistical intentions to make the Church relevant in a way that she already is. And communities like the Copts and the other Eastern Orthodox Churches are rightly judging this declaration as an apparent and erroneous departure from a Christian anthropology, Catholic social teaching, and, frankly, common sense. 

In closing their statement from the Holy Synod, the Coptic Orthodox leaders wrote:

The Church also affirms its adherence to its pastoral role in helping its children who suffer from homosexual tendencies, as well as not rejecting them, but to provide support and assistance to them in order to reach psychological and spiritual healing, placing its trust in its Christ, the Holy One, who is able to heal, change, and develop in ways more than what we ask or envision.

Granting a vague, relativist blessing to homosexual couples has no part in true Christian acceptance, or the supplicating trust all Catholics must have in Jesus Christ.

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