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America’s Mistaken History: Division in the Church

In a recent column for America magazine, Mike Lewis, editor of the papal positivist website Where Peter Is, writes to condemn “extreme” voices critical of Pope Francis, who in his view are causing a deep and bitter divide in the Church. This is a tired (if predictable) explanation that seeks to place blame for issues that continue to plague the Catholic Church anywhere but where the responsibility belongs.

Certainly there are individuals who cross the line in their criticisms of the Holy Father. What Mr. Lewis’ essay fails to acknowledge, however, is that critics of Pope Francis often pose fair and important questions that papal defenders leave perpetually unanswered. Instead of proposing reasonable dialogue, his column aims to stifle discussion of these issues. In the thinking of America and Mr. Lewis, it is always the “conservatives’” fault. Sadly, what has really happened in the Catholic Church is that orthodoxy has been smeared with the word “conservative,” and orthodoxy, as America defines it, is…something else. This paints a portrait of those who hold to traditional teachings of the Catholic Church as somehow backwards, old-fashioned, and rigid – false characterizations that might well have come from the mouth of Francis himself. In the minds of progressive Catholics, it is the liberal, the modern thinker, who is always on the right side of history.

The pain and division that the Church and her faithful are experiencing right now are not, in fact, a new phenomenon. In his article, Mr. Lewis paints the picture of Church united under Pope John Paul II that spiraled into chaos and dissension under Pope Francis as the result of the distortions of conservative Catholic media. In reality, the tensions that have exploded since the beginning of Francis’ papacy have been simmering for decades.

In his 1971 book The Decline and Fall of Radical Catholicism, Dr. James Hitchcock highlights the important role the progressive Catholic media played in the years immediately following Vatican II in pushing changes in the Church far beyond what the council actually called for. It is important to note that America played a large role in advocating for these changes, and has been part of a progressive agenda in the Church for decades. Even now, the irony of America — a publication that retains the infamous Fr. James Martin on its editorial board — criticizing others for dissension is rich. From the beginning, the Catholic progressive movement has been about bringing worldly secularism into the Church, not bringing the Church and God’s message to the world.

And therein lies the chief concern of conservative and orthodox-minded Catholics. Mr. Lewis paints a picture in broad strokes of conservative Catholics unwilling to support the Holy Father and his teachings. But Mr. Lewis ignores the valid questions and concerns conservative Catholics have brought to the table about Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ interviews with Eugenio Scalfari, and the Abu Dhabi declaration. There is room for charitable and respectful dialogue and criticism of the Holy Father. It is not unreasonable or sinful to question or criticize a pope. Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church, for example, is well written and respectful, even while questioning some of the Holy Father’s encyclicals and public statements. Douthat makes a compelling argument that Amoris Laetitia was meant to be just vague enough for liberal bishops to allow the divorced and remarried back to communion, while simultaneously being able to say Church teaching had not changed. De facto vs. de jure change, in other words. Ironically, as Douthat points out, conservative Catholics who are painted by progressives as modern day Pharisees for questioning such changes, but it was the Pharisees whom Our Lord was addressing when he spoke authoritatively against divorce in the Gospel of Matthew.

Western Catholic culture has been in an existential crisis for quite some time. The vast majority of Catholics don’t even believe in basic teachings like the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. An even greater majority of Catholics dissent from Pope Paul VI’s teachings on contraception in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. For America and Mr. Lewis to call out conservative Catholics who question anything Pope Francis says or does as the source of division of the Church is borderline comical. The responsibility lies instead with those who are in fact deviating from established teaching – those who would suggest that the Church should reverse course and change many of its ancient doctrines and practices. Division within the mystical body originates largely within the actions of priests like America‘s Fr. Martin, who continuously pushes (and often oversteps) the boundaries of acceptable public statements by a priest in good standing.

While Mr. Lewis may be correct that some public figures cross the line in their discourse on Pope Francis, the portrayal of all of his critics as unfaithful schismatics is far from truthful. Most Catholics who have been publicly critical of Pope Francis are simply tired of the status quo in the Church: leaders who say one thing but seem to accept and believe another – a criticism that applies not just to the pope, but the majority of bishops as well.

I would argue that conservative Catholics are in fact eager to back Pope Francis. They are thirsting for Church leaders to speak God’s truths in an anti-Christian world. They are ready to rally to those who take a stand in today’s gnostic, choose-your-own-gender, speak-your-own-truth, morally relativistic society. Often, progressive factions like America gloss over the fact that Our Lord, while infinitely loving and charitable, had many black and white teachings. Orthodox Catholics simply want some more of that Gospel clarity in today’s Church, while America continues to advocate for shades of gray.

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