The War on the Pope
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul takes angry issue with evident division among that community’s Christians (1:10-15).
“Every one of you is declaring, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ’,” Paul admonishes. He then asks: “Has Christ been split up?”
The apostle wrote his letter around 25 years after the crucifixion of the Lord. Almost 2000 years later, division still afflicts the Body of Christ. In the Catholic Church, the most visible sign of our unity is the pope, who is the apostolic successor of St Peter, the rock on which Christ built his Church
In the Catholic Church, the most visible sign of our unity is the pope, who is the apostolic successor of St Peter, the rock on which Christ built his Church (Mt 16:18).
Much as the Chair of St Peter unites us as Catholics, no pope will ever represent all Catholics in every position he takes. To borrow St Paul’s phrase, he can’t be all things to all men.
Pope John Paul II knew this. He had his critics from the left on issues such as Church authority or sexual ethics, and critics from the right on questions such as ecumenism or social justice or economics. To borrow St Paul’s phrase, he can’t be all things to all men
John Paul was not particularly open to critique, and sometimes was too quick to shut down disagreements. The Church, as was often said, is not a democracy.
Even now, with a pope who is relatively tolerant of criticism, it is true that the Church is not a democracy. The people do not vote for popes nor campaign to have them vacate their office.
Of course, it is legitimate to differ with popes and to put forward reasoned arguments that express such disagreement. But in doing so, we must respect the office and its incumbent, and on matters of doctrine always appeal to the teaching authority of the Church, of which the pope is the head.
The social contract between the pope, the clergy and the faithful is based on respect for the Chair of St Peter, even when we hold different positions.
Alas, at present there is a deficiency in that respect. The papacy is now being treated as if it was subject to an adversarial democracy in which there must be winners and losers. Now there are even people campaigning for the pope to resign!
The ideological opposition to Pope Francis is increasingly taking on the appearance of impudent disloyalty. At every opportunity, his opponents start fires intended to burn the Holy Father. Their strategy is taken straight from the ugly playbook of US politics. Frequently they use proxy issues — such as the abuse scandal or the Vatican agreement with China — to sow confusion and erode confidence in the pope
They create a perception of chaos by mixing facts and legitimate critique with distortions, half-truths, lies and innuendo. Frequently they use proxy issues — such as the abuse scandal or the Vatican agreement with China — to sow confusion and erode confidence in the pope to the point where all his initiatives are open to doubt.
Those firestarters are noisy, not least thanks to social media, but they are not representative of the multitudes of Catholics at the centre of the Church. Those Catholics love the pope, even if they may not concur with him on everything.
And they need to be awake to coordinated opposition to the pope. Without abandoning all criticism of the pontiff’s positions — no pope can be all things to all men, and Pope Francis is not immune to weaknesses — the faithful need to beware of propaganda that is intended to damage the Holy Father.
And where necessary, we must put out the fires his enemies are setting, and take great care in not feeding these fires unwittingly.
This is vital not only in solidarity with the current pope but, more importantly, to defend the papacy in general. If the legitimate exercise of authority of one pope is weakened, the legitimate exercise of authority of all popes is weakened, and with it the papacy’s function as a seal of our unity.
If we allow the office of the pope to be subject to open attack whenever one disagrees with its incumbent, then it will weaken to the point that there will always be open season on the papacy.
If the legitimate exercise of authority of one pope is weakened, the legitimate exercise of authority of all popes is weakened, and with it the papacy’s function as a seal of our unity.
The centre must hold. The alternative is a Church in which revolt, enmity and, indeed, relativism will dominate. It will be a Church of internal division and potentially schisms — a Church that defies Christ’s command to unity.
This must not happen.