Is the pope Catholic?” For at least a century, this was the way we Anglicans joked about anything that seemed too obvious to state. Now we must ask in seriousness whether the pope is a liberal Protestant.
Early this month, an American theologian resigned under pressure from his post as theological advisor to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. What had Fr. Thomas Weinandy done to deserve this public rebuke? He had made public a July letter to the pope, in which he charged that the Holy Father was causing “chronic confusion.” The pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is “intentionally ambiguous” on grave moral and doctrinal matters. It “risks sinning against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth,” and “demean[s] the importance of Christian doctrine” by inviting changes to traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce. The pope “resents” criticism and “mock[s]” those who have challenged Amoris Laetitia “as Pharisaic stone-throwers.”
As an outsider, I can’t help but wonder whether the pope and the USCCB were particularly provoked by Weinandy’s suggestion that Jesus had allowed this controversy in order “to manifest just how weak is the faith of many within the Church, even among too many of her bishops.” Catholics will have to make up their own minds—but I’ll admit I have questions about the faith of Pope Francis, which seems, if not weak, at least different from that of the Catholic tradition.
Even before the release of Amoris Laetitia in March 2016, Francis had caused many to question his fidelity to that tradition. In 2014, the midterm report of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family recommended that pastors emphasize the “positive aspects” of cohabitation and civil remarriage after divorce. He said that Jesus’s multiplication of bread and fish was really a miracle of sharing, not of multiplying (2013); told a woman in an invalid marriage that she could take Holy Communion (2014); claimed that lost souls do not go to hell (2015); and said that Jesus had begged his parents for forgiveness (2015). In 2016, he said that God had been “unjust with his son,” announced his prayer intention to build a society “that places the human person at the center,” and declared that inequality is “the greatest evil that exists.” In 2017, he joked that “inside the Holy Trinity they’re all arguing behind closed doors, but on the outside they give the picture of unity.” Jesus Christ, he said, “made himself the devil.” “No war is just,” he pronounced. At the end of history, “everything will be saved. Everything.”
Weinandy and other Catholic critics have pointed to alarming statements and suggestions in Amoris Laetitia itself. The exhortation declares, “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” In December 2016, the Catholic philosophers John Finnis and Germain Grisez argued in their “Misuse of Amoris Laetitia” that though this statement reflects a trend among Catholic thinkers stemming from Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, it contradicts the gospels’ clear statements and the Catholic tradition’s teaching that there is “unending punishment” in hell. Finnis and Grisez charge that, according to the logic of Amoris Laetitia, some of the faithful are too weak to keep God’s commandments, and can live in grace while committing ongoing and habitual sins “in grave matter.” Like (Episcopalian) Joseph Fletcher, who taught Situation Ethics in the 1960s, the exhortation suggests that there are exceptions to every moral rule and that there is no such thing as an intrinsically evil act.
I take no pleasure in Rome’s travails. For decades, orthodox Anglicans and other Protestants seeking to resist the apostasies of liberal Christianity have looked to Rome for moral and theological support. Most of us recognized that we were really fighting the sexual revolution, which had coopted and corrupted the Episcopal Church and its parent across the pond. First it was the sanctity of life and euthanasia. Then it was homosexual practice. Now it is gay marriage and transgender ideology. During the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we non-Catholics arguing moral theology could point to learned and compelling arguments coming out of Rome and say, in effect, “The oldest and largest part of the Body of Christ agrees with us, and it does so with remarkable sophistication.”
Those of us who continue to fight for orthodoxy, in dogmatic as well as moral theology, miss those days when there was a clear beacon shining from across the Tiber. For now, it seems, Rome itself has been infiltrated by the sexual revolution. The center is not holding.
Though we are dismayed, we must not despair. For the brave and principled stand made by Tom Weinandy reminds us that God raises up prophetic lights when dark days come to his Church.
Gerald McDermott holds the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School.