There is an enormous crisis in the Catholic Church. Does it have to do with sexual abuse or something equally terrible? No, far worse. Pope Francis is being sneakily attacked by his predecessor. Obviously, the entire foundation of the Catholic Church is being rocked by this.
This, if more than a few Vatican watchers and commentators on social media are to be believed.
What happened? Today, the upcoming publication of a book was announced. A study of the priesthood amid the challenges of today, co-authored by Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. Each contributing a chapter, both men underline the value of mandatory priestly celibacy and urge Pope Francis not to make it optional for priest in specific parts of the world. I won’t go into the theological reasoning here, as I don’t know enough about that to make a meaningful contribution. But that’s not the point of my blog post, really.
Much of the debate revolves around this fact, that the cardinal and pope emeritus have stated their thoughts about mandatory celibacy, and don’t think there should be exceptions. Critics of the book claim that that is contrary to what Pope Francis wants, and so this book must be an attack against him.
Upon his retirement, the pope emeritus said he wanted to spend the remainder of his life in prayer and solitude. Now that he has made a publication, his critics call him out for breaking his promise to remain hidden and quiet. But, the pope emeritus remains a private person with all his rights, and he is not bound by any law that should keep him quiet. He is free to state his thoughts, and this in itself should never be understood as an attack against anyone. To do so is dishonest and, to be fair, fantastical.
The problems that too many commentators have with the book, which is yet to be published, revolve around the idea that Pope Francis is open to relaxing the rules surrounding priestly celibacy. This contrary to his own statements that he is not. Rather, it was the (presumed) majority of synod fathers in the latest Synod of Bishops assembly on the Amazon, who pushed for the option that certain married men be ordained in areas where priests are largely absent. In his closing remarks, Pope Francis said nothing on the topic, and he is yet to issue any decisions on the matter
I found it striking that the vast majority of critical comments against the thoughts of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah seem to carry an undertone of imagined rivalry: good Pope Francis against sneaky Pope emeritus and cardinal. This despite the fact that the foreword to their book emphasis fidelity to Pope Francis, and nothing in past actions and publications presents any evidence to the contrary. Although to proponents of imagined rivalry it does.
In recent years an unhealthy development has taken place, strictly contrary to the synodality advocated by Pope Francis (whatever form that may ultimately take). Any real or imagined criticism against Pope Francis’ words, writings or actions must be automatically denounced and shut down, and the some goes for the persons doing the criticising. And often there is no criticism at all. Asking questions is not criticism, and neither is the deeper exploration of ideas and practices.
Pope Francis is the pope. He not only deserves our obedience, but we must also assume his good intentions. That’s normal. But that’s something different from frantically attacking anything that may possible be seen as an affront or critique. But that is what is happening. It does a disservice to both Pope Francis and to those who are forced into opposition against him by media and commentators who cling to a simplistic world view of good versus evil, conservative versus liberal. Pope Francis is neither, and nor is the pope emeritus or Cardinal Sarah. Reality is not black and white, and our faith and Church allows for different approaches, thoughts and ideas.
Agree or disagree with Pope Francis, or with the pope emeritus. Fine. But let’s do ourselves, our readers and the leaders of our Church the courtesy of taking them seriously.