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Dr Austen Ivereigh: When criticism crosses the line of communion

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Pope Francis waves as he greets people during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 22 March. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

It is the year 1988. Imagine that the newspaper of a major Catholic diocese marks the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s election by describing his pontificate as a “slough of dysfunction.”

Its article alleges that “papal autocracy has created a miasma of fear,” that the anniversary is “sombre,” and makes a series of rhetorical accusations to support this claim.

You would have assumed, I am guessing, that this was hardly a diocese in communion with the pope, and the newspaper was ignoring John Paul II’s insistence that the Catholic press “promote a correctly-informed and discerning public opinion within the Christian community.”

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Yet The Catholic Weekly published just such an article in its 19 March 2023 issue in the wake of Pope Francis’ 10th anniversary, penned by—ironically—John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel.

After messages of outrage from readers in Sydney, I screen-shotted the article on Twitter and asked: “Is communion with the Pope now optional for bishops?”

The acting editor of The Catholic Weekly challenged me to withdraw the tweet, pointed me to the full coverage given to Francis’ anniversary, and invited me to respond “in good faith” to Dr Weigel’s article.

I see now that the article was among many good and interesting reflections over two editions, which my tweet didn’t take into account. But in respect of that article, I asked the right question. Dr Weigel crossed a line.

This is not about balancing different opinions, or insisting that all coverage of the pontificate be positive. Dr Weigel is entitled—obviously—to be an incessant, querulous, ideological critic of Francis.

There is free speech in the church—and far more so now, yes even in Rome, than 20 years ago. But freedom is not merely licence.

As secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin told Catholic media network EWTN last year: a “spirit of communion with the Bishop of Rome” matters, above all “in a time marked by overly-dramatic debates, also within the Church, which do not even spare the person and the Magisterium of the Pontiff.”

A spirit of communion does not mean being uncritical or adulatory. But it asks us to assume the good faith of the successor of St Peter.

It asks us to listen respectfully to him, to seek to understand him and his intentions. What counters the spirit of communion is casting what he does and says in the worst possible light, as if seizing weapons to use against him.

This Dr Weigel does in every line. He takes Francis’s praise of Benedict’s decision to resign and his recent observation that the papacy is for life as evidence of the pope’s “inconsistencies and contradictions.”

But how is it either? The papacy is ad vitam, not subject to any term limits; but, as Francis has said Benedict showed, a pope can also stand down if mental or physical frailty makes it impossible to carry out the mission as today’s church demands.

Vatican financial reform—one of the obvious successes of the past decade, evident in the approvals by international bodies—is simply dismissed (“incomplete”).

Dr Weigel claims Francis has taken from US bishops the right to provide liturgies for traditionalists, yet Traditionis Custodes returns to all bishops both the need to provide for and the authority to regulate the pre-Vatican II Mass.

Most bizarre of all is Dr Weigel’s unsupported claim of a “dramatic decline” in the Vatican’s standing in international affairs. Speak to any diplomat in Rome and you’ll hear the opposite: how, over the past decade, the Vatican has become a key player again.

Dr Weigel’s main complaint—one he has never been shy about expressing in previous pontificates—is that the Vatican fails to “stand up to” to Cuba, China and other Marxist-totalitarian states.

But he nowhere points out that Francis is no different from his predecessors in believing that public criticism by the pope of such regimes only plays into their narrative of the church as a lackey of the west.

Far more is gained by creating bilateral relationships that can be used to apply pressure sotto voce. From these small cracks of freedom future change springs.

The basis of the Holy See’s 2018 agreement with China over bishops is the fruit of Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to the Chinese people seeking collaboration and dialogue.

The agreement is a first, imperfect step, yet has borne fruit: bishops are all now in communion with Rome, the pope has the last word over episcopal appointments, and Chinese Catholics are far less likely now to be accused of loyalty to a foreign power.

This is the kind of background and understanding you will not get from Dr Weigel. A people of God in communion with Rome deserve better.

Dr Austen Ivereigh is the author of The Great Reformer, Wounded Shepherd and Let Us Dream. Twitter: @austeni

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