In any area of human endeavor, the testimony of others and certain types of authority are necessary to producing agreement about what is true and false, even in the realm of the natural sciences. The historian Steven Shapin argued many years ago that
knowledge is a collective good. In securing our knowledge we rely upon others, and we cannot dispense with that reliance. That means that the relations in which we have and hold our knowledge have a moral character, and the word I use to indicate that moral relation is trust.
We must find our interlocutors in debate credible, and trust their basic honesty and veracity, in order to share a common moral order with them. Loss of trust means loss of the ability to tell true knowledge from its counterfeit, with all the confusion and chaos that implies.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It ought to be crystal clear to anyone paying attention that we live in an age of declining—if not almost nonexistent—trust in what is left of Western civilization. Though this is fairly obvious, if you want confirmation you can consult a variety of surveys since the 1960s which show just how little most Americans trust their government, the news media, and other authorities. This list also includes the Catholic Church. The difference, of course, between those institutions and the Church is that it possesses divine sanction. Yet it is clear that distrust—between bishops and priests, clergy and laity, among lay Catholics—has thoroughly poisoned God’s Bride on earth.
Two recent events illustrate this. The “Synod on Synodality” came to its 2023 conclusion without, apparently, a definitive attempt to overturn Catholic teaching on homosexuality or Holy Orders. The other is the Holy See’s removal of Bishop Joseph Strickland from his see in Tyler, Texas, for reasons that are not completely clear (and which the Vatican has not attempted to clarify).
For those of a “progressive” stamp, these events have been cause for rejoicing, as they cherish the idea that the Church may finally give into their demands for radical changes. Among those who have been alarmed by the more radical aspects of this pontificate, reactions have become quite toxic. Some have censured those who feared the Synod would countenance radical changes to Church teaching with what amounts to a lack of faith, because the Synod did not issue any doctrinal statements. Others have accused those who criticized Francis’ removal of Bishop Strickland as being “Protestant” for their willingness to criticize or even disobey the pope.
I am among those who have been highly critical of Francis, and I think his pontificate has been a moral and spiritual disaster; so, naturally, I am sensitive to such accusations. The matter of obedience to the pope has become the subtext of virtually every discussion in the Church these days, partly because of the actions of Pope Francis, partly because the modern Church (since Vatican I) has made it central to every aspect of the Church’s life. But what those who criticize the critics of Pope Francis need to understand is that there is something else besides obedience at issue when it comes to authority of any kind: trust.
It often appears that these critics—you can call them “popesplainers” if you choose, though I dislike the term—believe that any criticism of Francis amounts to disobedience and that any such “disobedience” amounts to heresy, or schism, or both. More than this, it presumes that, no matter what his actions or what pattern of behavior he has exhibited, Francis must be given every benefit of the doubt, while his critics must be presumed to be motivated by only the basest instincts. In the minds of many, Francis simply cannot be responsible for the conflict his papacy has created, and his critics are alone guilty of sowing the mistrust that currently roils the Church.
But this obviously is not the case. His actions have exacerbated, and in some instances created, confusions about basic doctrines of the Faith. One can perhaps excuse this or that speech or that passage in one of his writings in isolation, but only by ignoring the obvious pattern his actions have created over time. Pope Francis has consistently refused to clear up statements that appear to contradict teachings which come directly from Christ Himself; he has given interviews in which his interlocutor claimed he denied the existence of Hell, and he barely bothered to correct these claims. It beggars belief that his actions are not intentional.
Aside from his teaching, he has also sown distrust with his handling of sexual abuse. He has raised up and protected men who are sexual abusers and those who have covered up such crimes. If it is true that some of his critics have not treated him with the respect and charity his office demands, Francis could have cleared up questions about his teaching or relationship to men accused of sexual abuse easily and quickly long ago. The details of the Marko Rupnik scandal are simply horrifying, and it is revolting to hear Catholics excuse the pope’s handling of this and other cases.
When it comes to the teaching of the Faith or protecting the faithful from sexual abuse, Pope Francis has well-earned the distrust of faithful Catholics. And this is germane to my larger point: that no authority that repeatedly violates the trust of those in its charge can realistically expect people to willingly obey him, even if such authority is divinely ordained. Grace is supposed to build on nature, not destroy it. And before any authority, even a supernatural one, can expect obedience, there must be trust on a natural, human level between those in authority and those expected to obey them. When it comes to the teaching of the Faith or protecting the faithful from sexual abuse, Pope Francis has well-earned the distrust of faithful Catholics.Tweet This
And this is why calling people “Protestants” who object to Bishop Strickland being removed while German bishops who give permission for their priests to bless “same-sex unions” remain in office is so deeply wrong and damaging. Not only are such insults thoughtless, uncharitable, and, above all, false, they deepen the distrust that already exists, while distracting attention from the man ultimately responsible for this mess, the pope. Those who continue to make excuses for him ignore the larger patterns of Francis’ governance, both before and after he became pope. His pontificate has paralleled his rise and fall as Superior of the Jesuits in Argentina, where by the end of his tenure his order was bitterly divided between his supporters and his detractors.
Telling Catholics they should be happy the bishop of Rome has declared that priests can bless gay unions on a case-by-case basis but has not “changed Church teaching,” or excusing his record on sexual abuse because John Paul II’s record was also questionable on that issue, are in no way adequate responses to reasonable criticisms about Francis’ teaching and governance. Francis, precisely because he does hold the ultimate authority in the Church on earth, bears the lion’s share of responsibility for our current mess, even if his critics are not without blame.
But this does not mean Francis is responsible for the wider crisis in the Church, which long preceded him. This crisis of trust is rooted in a warped notion of obedience. Most Catholics I have encountered presume that whatever the accusation or criticism, unless it is couched in the most abjectly submissive terms, it must necessarily harm the Church. Such an attitude makes honest discussion of problems practically impossible. I have noted, for example, that defenders of Pope Francis will admit in theory that he might have made some mistakes, but when pressed on particular examples, they always portray it as either misunderstanding or malevolence on the part of the person raising the objection to his behavior.
This type of denial is hardly limited to the present pontiff, however, or even to the clergy. I know this because I have, in the past, made such excuses to people who objected to the Church’s appalling record on sexual abuse. I sincerely repent of having done so because this tendency—to always assume an absolute trust in a person with authority in the Church and an absolute distrust of anyone making the slightest criticism of such authority—is the major cause of our current crisis.
This automatic defense of authority on the part of Catholics is a reaction to the Reformation and the French Revolution—and the crisis of authority they spawned. Catholics are naturally defensive to criticisms from Protestants and others who deny the supernatural authority of the Church. Others have written more eloquently and in depth on the problems that this understanding of obedience has caused in the Church, but it allows delinquent clergy or even lay authorities in the Church to shut down any criticism, whether it is true or not. It is the reason that blaming accusers became the favored and very successful tactic of sexual abusers and their accomplices.
This attitude persists because it simplifies things for clergy, especially bishops, who don’t have to face up to genuine criticism. But it also simplifies things for the laity, as it absolves them of the responsibility to think for themselves. All that matters is obedience to authority. I find that for many Catholics, all that matters is the will of the person holding authority. As long as they command something, then it must be obeyed, whatever the goodness or wisdom of it. And when it comes to criticisms of Church leaders, the truth of such criticism matters almost not at all.
Obviously, some criticisms of the Church are harmful, are not true, and many accusations against her are certainly false. And Catholics should always be eager to defend the divine authority of Holy Mother Church against such attacks.
But when her shepherds refuse to teach the “ancient and unchanging faith of the whole Church” and substitute for it the findings of social scientists, or when they refuse to protect victims of abuse and protect the abusers themselves, it is a violation of right reason to expect unquestioning trust from the People of God. You can call the critics of Pope Francis whatever you like, but you cannot shame them or bully them into trusting authorities who have thoroughly betrayed that trust and who appear so little interested in earning it back.
[Photo Credit: Vatican Media]