Francis’s Critics Fall Off Their High Wire

By David Mills
September 29, 2017

As he read the text of Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagates, he found himself “getting impatient,” wrote my friend Michael Liccione in a Facebook comment. The “Filial Correction Concerning the Propagation of Heresies” claims that Pope Francis has articulated or allowed seven heresies, mostly in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

He called the letter “a massive case of begging the question.” He focused on the main charge, that Francis tells people openly committing adultery — specifically those who have remarried after divorce without an annulment — to receive Our Lord in communion.

“While it's certainly the case that unrepentant adulterers and fornicators should not receive the Eucharist, the real question is whether every irregular marriage or cohabiting relationship constitutes unrepented adultery or fornication,” he notes. “The Pope thinks not, and I agree with him. But the text of the ‘filial correction’ never addresses that question. Hence, much of it is just question-begging.”

Pope Francis’s High Wire Act

That fits my reading of the “Correction,” and Michael knows much more about these things than I do. However, what I want to take up here is the damaging way of reading Francis of which the “Correction” is an example. Not despite it’s being written by men of learning and piety, but because such men wrote it. The “Correction” as celebrated by its fans — a somewhat different document — is an even better example.

Francis's way of engaging sinners is a high wire act. He wants to help people hear the Gospel by setting aside for the moment the hard words of judgment. He wants to speak about mercy without setting out the reasons they need mercy, which most already know. He speaks to them as a doctor who wants them healed: he makes the offer of healing first, then gives the diagnosis, then presents the treatment the patient may not like. Which was the way Jesus often speaks in the gospels.

The pope takes risks in doing so. Pastoral care that doesn't begin with condemnation will be taken as approval, because so many people want the pope’s approval. Much of the media, aided by dissenting Catholics, keeps getting the story 180 degrees wrong. The message the world hears may not be the message the pope wants it to hear.

Speaking of mercy without speaking of sin can also decline into lazy, unadmitted approval. I don’t think Francis has done that, but it is a risk he runs with his way of speaking. Perhaps he gets the balance wrong. Jesus did not always speak about mercy. He sometimes spoke of judgment.

Those worries drive Francis's critics, I think. I have some theories about why the worry so drives them, but that's another article. It’s not unreasonable to be concerned.

The Correctors’ High Wire Act

But — and this strikes me as a crucial point in thinking about these things — their way of dealing with (not engaging) the particular sinners is also a high wire act. It takes just as big a risk, and maybe a bigger one. They’re doing something very risky without knowing it.

Few see this because we can’t so easily see their victims. To the extent (if any) that Francis inadequately presents the moral law, we know the effects. Sin hurts people in this world as well as the next. It pulls people away from God and His Church. The moral law is a guide to the good life and a warning against the bad life. As Francis says in Amoris Laetitia, “For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace.”

The harm of sin is easy to see. It’s especially easy to see when we think — as we usually do — of categories like “people remarried without annulments” and not actual people. Actual people complicate the narrative.

Most of us don't see those who don't know the moral law because we've presented it so badly or crudely or simple-mindedly. From the outside, they look like people who’d told God to get lost and now suffer the consequences. We don't see those who’ve experienced the Faith as Bad News, not as a Gospel. Or we do see them, but we dismiss them as willful sinners, as people deserving only denunciation, as men and woman refusing to do what God wants them to do.

You see this in all those very popular articles declaring that the real kindness to those in irregular marriages or to homosexual people is to tell them The Truth. I’ve written such articles myself and they say something true, but in context unbalanced and incomplete. The authors declare that we must make sure people hear God's "No!" before they will hear his "Yes." They insist that such people need prophetic confrontation, not accompaniment.

You see it also in the angry reaction to any article that suggests understanding what homosexual people feel and experience before preaching to them. It appears in the inquisitions such writers face about their orthodoxy and the suspicion with which some people read writers like Eve Tushnet, Leah Lebresco Sargeant, and Wesley Hill, much less favorite conservative whipping boy Fr. James Martin.

What the Correctors Don’t See

It’s rubbish, this way of speaking of selected sinners. Six seconds reflection on one's own besetting sins will suggest how often we need to hear sympathy for our pain and perplexity before we can hear a warning about our sins. We need a doctor who promises healing, not a policeman who promises jail — even if we deserve jail. Sometimes we need a moral or spiritual slap, but not very often, and then only from someone of whose love for us we're sure.

Little in what the pope’s many  “correctors” say indicates that they have reflected on this. Worse, they haven’t reflected upon what they lose by speaking the way they do and the way they want Francis to speak. They also takes risks, great risks, with the happiness of others. It may be a question which is the wiser course, which high wire the pope should try to cross. It may be that Francis falls off the high wire he’s chosen and they’ve fallen off theirs. But they don’t seem to see this. Their analysis would matter more if they did.

Further Reading

Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia

The critics’ Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagates and the National Catholic Register’s report on it

David Mills’ Rereading Francis

His Let’s Not Talk About Fr. James Martin, Scott Hahn

His The Bitter Sons Speak of Francis

His Pope Francis: Challenging and Humbling the Faithful