… This post is for any fellow Catholic lay people who have been feeling a certain anxiety about the controversies involving Pope Francis over the last few years. For me, it’s a bit like a child hearing adults arguing about things beyond ones understanding. Below I explain how I have tried to make peace with it and lay down my worry. I plead guilty in advance to any accusations of childish naivete.
The tenure of every Pope of which any significant written record is available seems to reflect some level of conflict. My impression is that these are mostly fall into one of two categories: criticisms arising largely outside the Church about its doctrines and traditions, or commentary about the supervision of its members and management of its resources.
With Pope Francis, matters seems different. Every few months there seems to be a new controversy about statements regarding Church doctrine, tradition, discipline, etc. Many Catholics seem concerned that he is improperly questioning or changing long-standing teachings. The volume and tone of the concern expressed is different from what I remember from the two prior pontificates.
I am not qualified to offer an opinion on the Pope’s statements, or the criticisms offered by others in response.
However, in mulling this over I have found comfort in the example we have of our first Pope, Saint Peter. No man in the Gospels was more notorious for verbal miscues and being criticized, and by the Lord himself no less. According to various theologians and other scholars I have read, the blooper reel includes:
Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.
Luke 5:8. – Here we have Peter apparently setting limits on the mercy of God. Jesus tells him to “fear not.”
From that time on Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke him. “Far be from You, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to You!” But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me. For you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Matthew 16:21-23. Peter’s vision is of a worldly kingdom, from which he must be disabused.
“Lord,” said Peter, “I am ready to go with You even to prison and to death.” But Jesus replied, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me.”
Luke 22:33-34. Peter professes his loyalty, while Jesus warns of his denial.
“Never shall you wash my feet!” Peter told him. Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part of me.”
John 13:8. Peter initially rejects Jesus’ washing of his feet before the Last Supper, and is rebuked. His lack of trust is on full display.
“But wait!”, you say, all these happened before the Resurrection, arguably before Peter’s commission. However, the correction doesn’t stop with the Resurrection. Peter’s beach breakfast commission, laid out in John 21:15-17, is followed by yet another rebuke.
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’
There seems to be scholarly disagreement about what this was about. I liked Adrienne Von Speyr’s take on this one, which she finds to be a caution or reprimand of a sort:
He (Peter) has asked his question out of a sense of responsibility. And yet the Lord, who desires to see him grow, reprimands him as if he had allowed himself too much. He rejects the questions, even though it was not out of place, even though it was more than justified; he wants to show that there will always be conflicts between office and love, that he, the Lord, can do things that the Church can never completely investigate.
John, Volume IV: The Birth of the Church.
… So, the lessons never end. And our fraternal, protestant allies would probably quote a certain passage from Galatians too.
Despite all these apparent gaffes and mistakes, Jesus gives him (and never withdraws) the the mantle of leadership of the infant Church. Jesus had to ruthlessly hollow out Peter of any pride before he was ready to assume a leadership role.
Has Pope Francis ever misspoken about or contradicted doctrine in any of his public statements? Beyond my competence. If he has, will he do so again? I have no idea. But if by chance he has, let us lay people take comfort from the example of Saint Peter and trust that the Lord has great things in store for both him and us. If grace abounds where sin is present, one would think it is ever more present where it involves mistakes or imprecision in communication. And pray for the Pope of course!