Did Pope Francis know? Was he told, five years before the world found out, that the powerful Cardinal McCarrick was a serial sexual abuser? The diplomat who claims to have informed the pope, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, names two dates on which he raised the matter with Francis: June 23 and October 10, 2013. But the Holy Father, in a new interview with Valentina Alazraki, says he simply can’t remember. “When [Viganò] says he spoke to me that day, he came ... I do not remember if he told me about this. If it is true or not. No idea.”
This is not the only gap in the papal memory. Alazraki asked Francis about a February speech that described persistent critics of the Church as “relatives of the devil.” The pope replied: “I do not remember the text but no, no. I do not feel that way.” What about the headline-making 2014 phone call in which the pope allegedly encouraged a woman to ignore Church teaching on Communion and divorce? Also a blank: “What I said to that woman I do not remember.”
Francis is also unsure about his famously ambiguous footnote on Communion for those in “irregular relationships”: “I don’t remember the footnote,” he told the press in 2016. The Holy Father is an eighty-two-year-old man with a lot on his plate. But the impression of all these forgettings is—and it hurts to say this—of a teacher who often speaks without much reflection, before or after. While that may not be the greatest of imperfections, in a pope it can be catastrophic.
Because of those forgotten statements about Communion, dioceses and even a national bishops’ conference have permitted Communion for the sexually-active divorced and remarried. In so doing, they have discarded the teaching of Jesus Christ about marriage, the Eucharist, Confession, and divine grace, and endangered many souls. At the parish level, the evidence is necessarily more anecdotal, but it is disturbing enough. From Normandy to northern Argentina, the pope’s words are treated as a green light for Communion for the remarried. Eric Sammons, who spent five years as director of evangelization for the Diocese of Venice in Florida, saw widespread confusion on this and other matters. “I saw Catholics engaged in adultery receive Holy Communion... ‘because Pope Francis.’ I saw Catholics assert that it was wrong to evangelize... ‘because Pope Francis.’ I saw Catholics denigrate big families... ‘because Pope Francis.’” Such stories are common.
Like the majority of Francis’s critics, Sammons was reluctant to make his concerns public. The pope is not just a superior to whom we owe submission, but a father to whom we owe our love. Yet the Church permits criticism of popes in some circumstances—especially when the truths of the Faith are at stake.
We are regularly assured that what Francis really said or meant, when you look at his statements from the right angle and put them into the proper context, was plainly orthodox. He has supposedly been misrepresented by hostile or uncomprehending journalists. But those who offer such explanations eventually run into difficulties. The diligent and thoughtful apologist Jimmy Akin has become a byword for this approach. But last month, he acknowledged in passing that the pope has made “any number of poorly phrased statements that need proper clarification.” In other words, it’s not just the media’s fault. Another layman, Tom Hoopes, went so far as to write a book called What Pope Francis Really Said. It was a chastening experience. “I spent a year reading Pope Francis,” Hoopes has recalled, “and it was the hardest year of my life.”
By the way, I’m not mocking Akin and Hoopes. For years I used to tell myself and others that Francis had been misread by intemperate bloggers and ignorant reporters. But the more you do this, the more you start to realize two things.
First, that practically any statement can be reconciled with Church teaching, if you try hard enough. Give me a minute, and I can probably explain why a papal remark such as “States must be secular” or (of some cohabiting couples) “they have the grace of a real marriage” can be given an orthodox interpretation. Indeed—to move from real examples into a thought experiment—“Jesus Christ is not the son of God” could be given an orthodox interpretation if you really want one. (It all depends on the meaning of “son”…)
But the mere possibility of an orthodox reading is not the only thing that matters. This is the second thing you realize: It also matters whether the words mislead people. And the pope’s words—combined with his actions and his conspicuous silences—are frequently, needlessly, seriously misleading about Catholic doctrine. Some of the most glaring examples relate to contraception, hell, and the theoretical legitimacy of the death penalty, but the list grows practically every month.
The Vatican’s liturgy chief, Cardinal Robert Sarah, recently observed: “Every day I receive calls for help from everywhere from those who no longer know what they are to believe. Every day in Rome, I receive discouraged and suffering priests. The Church is going through the dark night.” Cardinal Sarah points the finger at “high-ranking prelates” rather than the pope himself. Nevertheless, his image will resonate with the many Catholics who feel that darkness has descended on the Church, and that they can scarcely see more than a few steps ahead.
Now, what you are meant to do in a dark night, if I have understood the spiritual writers correctly, is to persevere. To resist the temptations—to anger, to despair, to rash actions, to apostasy—which may press upon you. To keep to your ordinary duties, and hand on Christ’s teaching to others. To pray and offer up your sufferings, not least for any churchmen who have challenged your faith. And to remember the Church’s previous crises—including the darkest of dark nights, many centuries ago, when hope itself seemed utterly dead and buried.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.