In a recent interview with the German paper Die Zeit, Pope Francis declared, “I am a sinner and am fallible.” This followed a conversation with Spain’s El País, in which Francis had underscored the point: “I am not a saint. I am not making any revolution. I am just trying to push the Gospel forward. In an imperfect way, because I make my blunders from time to time.”
Francis was drawing an important distinction between the doctrine of papal infallibility and his personal life and prudential decisions. He even insisted—much to his credit—that concerned Catholics “have the right to think that the path upon which he is leading the Church is dangerous or could bring bad results.”
These are welcome statements. Listening to certain papal commentators, one might think that Francis never makes mistakes, and that he is leading an unstoppable revolution that will bring untold blessings to the Church. Yet many Catholics, including those (like me) who’ve often praised Francis, now believe that his pontificate has produced decidedly mixed results. This past year has been an especially hard one for Francis—and not just because his critics have turned up the heat. The pope’s deepest problems are the result of self-inflicted wounds.
Among the weaknesses and disappointments of this pontificate:
1. Francis has not maintained a clear concept of Christian mercy
Francis has made many statements about Christian mercy, calling it “the beating heart of the Gospel” and complaining that “we put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning.” But while both statements convey Christian teachings, both are incomplete and can be misleading. The heart of the Gospel is not only mercy but what St. John Paul II memorably called “the splendor of truth”—specifically, the truth about Jesus Christ and His teachings, from which all the blessings of Christianity (including mercy) flow.
It is essential to place basic (though not excessive) conditions on mercy, because if mercy is dislodged from Christian truth, it can be used to justify virtually any sin. Venerable Archbishop Sheen warned against this misuse of Christian mercy years ago, in a powerful televised sermon. Francis, in contrast, has increasingly taken to rebuking pastors who follow Sheen’s approach, depicting them as cruel and judgmental, and lacking in Christian love and mercy. But the greatest form of mercy a pastor can offer souls is to tell them the unvarnished truth about the Gospel, and their obligation to embrace it, in word and deed. One need only compare Sheen’s sharp and striking sermon to Francis’s increasingly amorphous and sentimental speeches about the subject, to see how many elements of genuine Christian mercy the pope overlooks.
2. Francis has not emphasized the danger of receiving Holy Communion unworthily
In 2007, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis piloted the Aparecida Document, a Latin American Bishops’ statement that called for “Eucharistic coherence” and warned Catholic politicians that “they cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act or speak against the Commandments” and the teachings of the Church—particularly those pertaining to life, morality, and the family. But a decade later, such warnings have all but vanished from Francis’s ministry as pope. He is better known for his celebrated statement that “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
This is a generous notion, but faithful Catholics are not asking anyone who approaches Holy Communion to be perfect—only first to go to confession and strive to live a life consistent with the Gospel. Anyone who receives Communion unworthily “eateth and drinketh damnation … not discerning the Lord’s Body,” as St. Paul starkly warned. Francis’s admirers, and not just his critics, have expressed concern about this. Writing for Commonweal in a general defense of Amoris Laetitia, Nathan O’Halloran, S.J. concedes: “One would have to have one’s head stuck in theological sand not to recognize the anxiety that pervades much of the reception of Amoris Laetitia—some of which is legitimate. One may fairly ask whether the document gives adequate attention to the formation of conscience, or to the possibility of sacrilege in reception of the Eucharist.” But Francis appears not to want to ask that question, much less answer it.
3. Francis has not explained and defended his own teaching in Amoris Laetitia
After Francis published his apostolic exhortation on the family, many respected theologians, canon lawyers, bishops, and lay Catholics praised it for its many rich insights and inspiring passages. They also stressed that any perceived ambiguous sections can and should be interpreted in an orthodox manner, in line with Holy Scripture and Catholic tradition. That is still the position of many leading Catholics, including the pope’s own head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller. But as soon as Francis had an opportunity to give an authoritative interpretation to Amoris, he declined, saying he couldn’t remember one of its most disputed footnotes, and referred people instead to Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s perspective—as if it weren’t the Vicar of Christ’s responsibility to provide his own.
Seizing upon this, progressive Catholics began arguing, and now maintain, that Amoris fully legitimizes Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried—something the Catechism strictly prohibits—and others in “irregular situations.” In response, prominent cardinals and theologians have appealed to the pope, asking that he address the controversy directly. He has refused, save for a private, non-magisterial letter to his fellow Argentine bishops, which itself has been disputed. The result is a cacophony of conflicting interpretations, with different episcopal conferences issuing different, and sometimes scandalous, guidelines about Amoris, provoking fights among Catholic bishops, not to mention the Catholic laity, throughout the world. How these contentious battles can be considered unifying and part of a healthy “reform” movement has yet to be explained by Francis. His passivity during the crisis is making matters worse.
4. Francis has not checked dissent and heterodoxy in the Church
In an interview with the Jesuit publication La Civilta Cattolica, Francis praised the late theologian Bernard Häring—without mentioning that Häring was one of the most notorious dissenters of the twentieth century, a hero to the wayward Charles Curran, and an arch foe of St. John Paul II’s great encyclical on morality, Veritatis Splendor. Francis’s lax attitude toward modern theology has not gone unnoticed among progressives, causing the National Catholic Reporter to rejoice: “One no longer hears of theologians being investigated and silenced,” no matter how outlandish or deviant their views. Indeed, La Civilta Cattolica, published right under the pope’s windows, recently attempted to undermine the Church’s settled teachings against women priests—a teaching that Francis himself has reaffirmed publicly—without any detectable opposition from the pontiff. Ironically, when Francis praised Blessed Paul VI for issuing Humanae Vitae, he hailed Paul for being an excellent pastor, and for warning “his sheep about the wolves approaching.” But Francis has not exhibited similar courage in resisting today’s theological wolves.
5. Francis has said one thing and done another
In a speech to the U.S. Bishops during his visit to America, Francis said: “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remain truly convincing.” This is a remarkable statement—not because it lacks merit, but because Francis himself has paid so little heed to it. It’s no secret that Francis has a serious problem with name-calling and insults. Even as he affirms their right to do so, he repeatedly accuses those who disagree with him of being “rigid,” “legalists,” “doctors of the law,” suffering from psychological maladies and being inspired by the devil.
Worse yet are the pope’s solemn promises against clergy sexual abuse, compared with his mixed record against this radical evil. As has been widely reported, the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors is now in a state of disarray and has not come close to fulfilling its critical mission. In a devastating critique of Francis’s involvement in this sad affair, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith rightly stated, “We can no longer pretend that the Vatican is getting to grips with the abuse crisis.”
Francis’s inability to consistently and resolutely live up to his own high standards—to practice what he preaches—has become his Achilles heel, and the most serious deficit of his pontificate.
As I stressed in my last column—and many writings before that—Francis has done commendable things as pope that deserve high praise and gratitude. But Catholics do Francis no favors when they try to excuse or rationalize his failures and contradictions. We should instead pray that Francis has the strength and wisdom to amend them—for the sake of the papacy, and the entire Church.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.