Criticism of Pope Francis rooted in misunderstanding of Vatican II

Pope Paul VI presides over a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in 1963. (CNS photo/Catholic Press Photo)

Pope Paul VI presides over a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in 1963. (CNS photo/Catholic Press Photo)

by Michael Sean Winters

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Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series discussing the theologies of the papacies of Pope Francis and Pope Paul VI.

The opposition to Pope Francis is unprecedented. There have been disagreements in the life of the church before: How could there not be? And, in recent times, we have even seen some cardinals voice disappointment or even disagreement with directives coming from Rome. For example, Belgian Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens was not shy in voicing his concern about the manner in which the first synods of bishops after the Second Vatican Council were conducted. But claiming an apostolic exhortation is not magisterial? Publishing detailed challenges to the pope's teaching? This is uncharted territory.

I believe that the opposition to Francis is rooted in a flawed understanding of the post-conciliar era and, more specifically, where we are in the process of receiving the council. Francis, just last month, in an interview with Italian daily Avvenire, noted that it takes about 100 years to fully receive a council, and he is right. Some people thought that process was completed, and that they had mastered all the riddles of the Catholic faith in the post-conciliar age. They are very upset that their assumptions and some of their conclusions have been challenged.

Last week marked the 51st anniversary of the close of Vatican II. In the past four years, we marked the opening of the council, commemorated the promulgation of key conciliar texts, held conferences to explore the meaning of the documents, and appropriately so, because Vatican II remains the most determinative event in the life of the Catholic church in our living memory.

This year, there is no great anniversary to commemorate; we are just one more year into the process of receiving the council, of learning more about how the doctrines and insights articulated at the council challenge us as Catholics to deepen our faith. When you hit 30 or 50, you have a big party because it is a milestone. At 31 or 54, you are just getting older. So it is with the church: The 51st anniversary may lack fireworks, but the sense of continued growth and of normalcy is welcome. Milestones can distort, focusing on what happened then. Continued growth requires us to focus as well on what is happening now. Of all the different ways of assessing the pontificate of Francis, one of the most important is that he is attending to some of the unfinished business of Vatican II.

In this three-part series, I wish to examine how the opposition to Francis is rooted in a misinterpretation of both the council itself and, even more, of the significance of the popes who have, like Francis, overseen the implementation of the council.

One of the principal narratives that Francis has overturned is the idea that St. Pope John Paul II delivered the final, definitive interpretations on all the key issues that the council addressed. This narrative minimizes what went before and what followed the Polish pope.

Certainly John Paul II.png

Fr. Lou Cameli of the Chicago archdiocese, who serves as the archbishop's delegate for formation and mission, explained the narrative drawn by right wing critics of Francis this way:

They draw battle lines which are clear but false. The commentators in this camp read the conciliar and post-conciliar history as a movement from clarity, a robust assertiveness, and a demanding discipleship to hazy convictions, uncritical accommodation with an unfriendly world, and a generally and culturally inspired shallow discipleship. In this narrative, the seeds of weakness began in the ambiguous stances taken by Paul VI, and it has flowered today in a hollow version of Christianity proposed by Francis.

In between these two pontiffs, John Paul II tried valiantly to reclaim a robust and clear Christianity, and Benedict XVI aimed for greater theological precision. Even the positive developments fostered by John Paul II and Benedict XVI are threatened today by a kind of soft populist leadership exemplified by Francis, who is disparaged and dismissed as an ecclesiastical Peronista.

He is quick to add: "I believe that this narrative is not only incorrect but also very unfair" and that he thinks the narrative is being used to discredit Francis.

Certainly John Paul II achieved much in terms of implementing the council. But the idea that one pontificate could achieve what historians and theologians mean by "receiving a council" is a mistaken idea. It is no less common for being mistaken. When you hear a priest describe himself as a "John Paul II priest," he is usually informing you he is not a fan of the current pope. A professor who taught seminarians told me that if he wanted to get their attention, it was better to start with a document of John Paul II's than with a conciliar text or even a verse of Scripture. Whenever someone refers to the late Polish pontiff as "John Paul the Great," my alarm bells go off. All the popes since the council have played a role in the reception of it, and many more popes, bishops, theologians and lay faithful will continue to do so.

Relatedly, some would have you believe that John Paul II was essentially an American neo-conservative, so if you want to know what the Catholic church is really about, you should subscribe to First Things and read the National Catholic Register. The latter organ, especially, has been downright nasty about Pope Francis, especially their Rome correspondent Edward Pentin. They not only believe John Paul II delivered the last word, but they insist that their interpretation of John Paul II's teaching is the only valid interpretation. When Pope Francis highlights something they ignored, such as the church's teaching on the role of conscience, they go ballistic.

The Register is owned by EWTN, and they, too, have not been shy about challenging Francis. Regularly, they feature critics of the pope in their programming, yet they have bishops doing advertisements for them, and they get big checks from the Knights of Columbus, indicating that the opposition is not limited to a couple of media outlets.

The American neo-conservatives were always unwilling or unable to wrap their heads around the degree to which John Paul II was influenced by Communio theology, which sought to reintegrate the profound insight of the church fathers that the church is a communion of persons, not a quasi-political organization, into contemporary theology. They thought that the distinction between grace and nature had been overdrawn in the intervening years and that Christian theology had lost the sense of wonder that the early Christians possessed. They emphasized the communion of persons in the church, more than the stale articulation of doctrine, and they also were suspicious of certain liberalizing tendencies in the church, specifically the sloppy way theology and social science were fixed in together after the council. The neo-conservatives clung to natural law theories that sit uneasily with the theology of Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar and others in the Communio school.

In his book, What Happened at Vatican II, Jesuit Fr. John W. O'Malley wrote of Eastern Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh, a leading voice at Vatican II: "He was most daringly progressive because he was the most radically conservative. His interventions consistently invoked ancient traditions of the church to challenge the status quo, and he thus opened up for the council fathers a new breadth in the choices they had to make."

The same could be said of the Communio theologians, but for the neo-cons, any challenge to the status quo had to stop well before it got to any questioning of the market, and they were not really interested in opening up a breadth of choices. Just so, they failed to grasp the real significance of John Paul II's theological footprint.

In addition to the teaching on conscience and the influence of Communio theology, Catholic neo-conservatives offer a tendentious reading of Catholic social doctrine. They argue that the really important social encyclical of the post-conciliar era was John Paul II's 1991 encyclical on social issues, Centesimus Annus, and they direct you to the two or three paragraphs therein that they really like. They acknowledge John Paul II's 1981 first social encyclical, Laborem Exercens, very little, and his third encyclical on social issues, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), is neglected entirely.

When confronted with Pope Benedict XVI's social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, famously suggested reading the text with red and gold pens to demarcate what was genuinely penned by the pope, which should be believed, from what had been proffered by the bureaucracy and could be ignored. Weigel was sure he knew which was which.

More remarkable than Weigel's lack of enthusiasm for Benedict was the lengths to which he was willing to disparage the pontificate of Blessed Pope Paul VI in order to make his hero John Paul II shine all the more. In his biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, he allowed that Pope Paul VI, or Papa Montini as the Italians are wont to designate popes by their surnames, compiled "an impressive record" but the rest of his summation of Paul VI's papacy is highly negative.

"Paul VI's intelligence led him to see every side of a question simultaneously, and the tension between the certainties in which he was intellectually formed and the ambiguities he had learned from life and from widespread reading frequently led him into a tar-pit of uncertainty," Wiegel writes. Tar-pit? Some of us know that tension between certainty of faith and ambiguity of life as adulthood.

Weigel concludes his treatment of Montini with these damning observations:

In another historical moment, he might have been a man who could have bent history to his purposes. In the time in which he was destined to be pope, he became the kind of man who is consumed by history. … The fifteen-year pontificate of Giovanni Battista Montini raised a hitherto unthought question. Could anyone — and particularly anyone formed in the typical pattern of post-Reformation popes — do this job in the extraordinary internal and external circumstances of late twentieth-century Catholicism?

Apart from the limits of the "great man of history" approach which Weigel obviously adopts, is religious leadership really about bending history to our purposes? And that italicized "anyone" suggests that Montini was not up to the job, but we know who Weigel thinks would be!

This is nonsense. Montini was a giant, and that is the thread I shall pick up tomorrow.

Part 2: "Pope Paul VI's greatness lies in his church leadership after Vatican II."

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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