Following the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February of 2013 for age and health reasons, few observers were anticipating the quick election of 76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as his successor. As the first pontiff from Latin America, the first Jesuit, and the first to take the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, he was a newcomer, a teacher, and a reformer. Francis brought to the Petrine office a fresh perspective, a humble and engaging personality, a simple and clear way of preaching and teaching the Catholic faith, and a frugal lifestyle reflecting Gospel values. With his winning combination of personal warmth, simplicity of life, emphasis on divine mercy, and charitable outreach to the poor and marginalized, he immediately captured the hearts of hundreds of millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike across the globe.
Building upon and continuing the work of his great predecessors Pope Saint Paul VI, Pope Saint John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, Francis has consistently striven to shed the light of the perennial truths of Christ and His Church through the lens of the Second Vatican Council onto the complex situation of the twenty-first century world. Through his homilies, addresses, apostolic exhortations, encyclicals, canon law reforms, pastoral visits, the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Year of Saint Joseph, and the three Synods on the Family, the Amazon, and on Participation, Communion, and Mission, he has strengthened and equipped believers to face contemporary issues with the power of Gospel truth; made official Church business more transparent and accountable; and has summoned the whole Church to listen more carefully and respond more effectively to a great variety of pastoral challenges. Furthermore, he successfully navigated the Church through the unexpected and difficult storm of the COVID-19 pandemic and the initial worldwide lockdown in response to it.
Unfortunately, less than two years after his election, the initial widespread enthusiasm with which Pope Francis was received had dissolved into heated controversy, unfair criticism, inane conspiracy theories, and frank disillusionment regarding his character and intentions among large numbers of people both within and outside of the Church, for opposing reasons. His “progressive” style and emphasis, including his elevation to the Curia of some bishops with incomplete fidelity to Church teaching and his call in Amoris Laetitia for a new pastoral approach to some irregular marital situations, has led many faithful and traditionalist Catholics to view him through a “hermeneutic of rupture” as a wild-eyed radical who is bent on distorting Church doctrine and discipline beyond recognition and who was elected through the machinations of a secret group of cardinals for this very purpose. Meanwhile, many heretics and radical secularists who had expected Francis to remake the Church in their own image were profoundly disappointed to find him upholding traditional Church teachings on abortion, marriage, and the devil and publicly rebuking the wayward German synod.
It’s a shame that influential and otherwise faithful Catholic media outlets such as the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and Inside the Vatican magazine have turned themselves into platforms for slanderous attacks on, and unjust criticisms of, Pope Francis by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano and other chronically negative commentators. By frequently zeroing in on a handful of Francis’ vague or unclear words and actions, magnifying their controversial aspects, and ignoring the larger context while conspicuously failing to recognize his personal holiness and the many remarkable accomplishments of his papacy, they are presenting to hundreds of millions of people a heavily biased, distorted, and inaccurate picture of Francis and his reign, thus harming the Church by fueling confusion and division within her and by alienating large numbers of the faithful from their own shepherd. This is not only irresponsible journalism, it is unjust and uncharitable and a tragic disservice to the truth. No wonder that the Holy Father has publicly referred to such incessant criticism as “the work of the devil”!
Many faithful Catholics now erroneously view Benedict XVI as a good pope loyal to tradition and Francis as a bad pope disloyal to it, conveniently brushing aside the facts that Benedict himself as Pope Emeritus explicitly rejected this narrative on multiple occasions as entirely baseless, remained a close friend and confidant of Francis, and frequently renewed his pledge of fidelity and obedience to the Jesuit pontiff. But even apart from Benedict’s unwavering support for his successor, not to mention the sadly neglected doctrine of papal infallibility, when one looks objectively at the totality of Francis’ public words and actions during his ten years as the Vicar of Christ to date, it becomes abundantly evident that the “hermeneutic of rupture” has no logical foundation whatsoever.
Thankfully, the majority of Catholics worldwide still correctly view Francis as the good, simple, holy, hardworking, Christ-like pope that he has been and appreciate the many blessings and graces God has bestowed on the Church through his generally wise and capable leadership. While there is certainly room for respectful criticism regarding some aspects and decisions of his administration, for the most part Francis has served as an exemplary Successor of Saint Peter. History will probably judge his pontificate favorably, and he will likely be fondly remembered long after his harshest critics have vanished into obscurity. Christ too was misunderstood and criticized by some of the religious leaders of his day for reaching out to those on the margins of society. Yet the Church he founded on Peter and the apostles has endured through two thousand years and has survived many grave problems because he and the Holy Spirit have remained with her and have protected her from teaching error. The self-assured critics of Francis on both sides seem unaware that the Church and the papacy are divine institutions.
Copyright © 2023 Justin D. Soutar.