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Criticizing the Pope: Be Courageous and Also Charitable

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:20–21). “For all the gods of the Gentiles are devils; but the Lord made the heavens” (Psalm 96:5). Recently, these verses were cited in a homily by a priest at my local parish. He spoke out against idols and focused on making an idol of the Earth. He pointed out that we should pray and work for the conversion of those outside the fold, rather than putting forward a false unity between Catholics and those of other faiths. After exhorting us in this way, he urged us to pray for, love, and revere the pope, as he holds a dignified office and is thus the greatest target of demonic temptation. He said these principles are relevant in our time. We all knew what he was talking about.

The homily was a valiant fight against idolatry. It was at once a restrained and a courageous sermon. No names of current prelates were mentioned, and no specific events were directly referenced. Yet we all understood what he was speaking of when he said God wants to save us from our sin; He does not want to save the Earth from us. We knew whom he was speaking of when he explained that regardless of the intention, idolatry is a grave evil and is spiritual adultery. Though I was impressed and encouraged by his bold message, what was most poignant was that he did not feel comfortable saying all that he might have said.

There are grave scandals in our Church. Those who commit them are powerful enough to put holy men on their guard. Bishop Athanasius Schneider is one of the only prelates still in the public square who is speaking directly on these things. Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Raymond Burke are as well, but they are less active in public. Some speak about idolatry and environmentalism without directly mentioning specific events. Others, like Archbishop Viganò, are specific but have gone into hiding. Why are some priests courageous yet indirect? Why is it that Viganò is in hiding? Is idolatry a major point of contention? Is Scripture taboo?

These men are concerned for their welfare. Faithful priests under the auspices of a diocese could be reprimanded or practically exiled for defending the truth. Bishops are no exception if Viganò is any indication. Those who direct the Church are involved in terrible things, and the faithful priests below them are not certain of their safety. What would happen to Archbishop Viganò if his location were disclosed? We cannot be sure, but we know he considers himself in danger.

Meanwhile, Bishop Athanasius Schneider continues to defend the Catholic Faith publicly and treat his fellow bishops respectfully in private. Perhaps his ministry in Kazakhstan seems insignificant. Perhaps his simple life of prayer, fasting, and charity is not a threat to his heterodox brethren. Or maybe his status as an active bishop protects him. He might expect to be disciplined by Pope Francis, but reprimanding and driving out a non-retired bishop is a spectacle. Instead, he, along with Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller, is slandered. But he speaks without fear and seems not to worry about his welfare. Somehow, he is able to speak out without fear of consequences.

The same is true of the two cardinals. Though they are not as public or active as Bishop Schneider and are thus easy targets, they are still cardinals, unlike Viganò. He too speaks out, but he must do so from hiding. His exile is not without precedent in the history of the Church. Holy bishops like Saint Athanasius prayed and fasted in secret, continuing to preach the Catholic faith.

Exile is not the worst punishment for defending the truth. Father Paul Kalchik was reasonably concerned about being institutionalized, arrested, or killed after burning a rainbow flag in his parish. Perhaps even our bishops feel threatened by these same things.

What is the proper response to the scandalous infidelity in the Church? Faithful priests and bishops take a variety of angles: silence, abstract language, direct language, fraternal correction, direct criticism, demonstrations, invective. Those priests and bishops who stay silent, dance around the real issues, or remain abstract are not at risk of harm because they are not defending the Faith. Those who are more direct are at greater risk. The more public and direct they get, the more severe the retaliation they can expect. Anonymous corrections allow the writers to remain safe, but burning a rainbow flag or implicating the supreme pontiff in scandal means exile. Even so, the exile comes with a larger platform. The tribulations of Father Kalchik and Archbishop Viganò cause us to listen more closely to what they have to say. Though some might not think them courageous for fleeing, they had legitimate reasons for going into hiding and continue to defend the Faith from their exile.

On the other hand, shepherds like Schneider, Burke, and Brandmuller speak out yet remain safe. Their safety does not call into question their integrity and holiness, and we listen to them as eagerly as to Archbishop Viganò. It does not matter if they have not been forced into hiding. What matters is that they speak boldly and clearly, calling out error and juxtaposing it with the true Catholic faith.

It is one thing to boldly defend the Catholic Faith and another to do it respectfully. Bishop Schneider and Cardinal Burke are both courageous and respectful, careful not to disrespect Pope Francis while correcting him. They keep the moral high ground both by remaining on the side of orthodoxy and by loving their enemies. Their opponents can slander them, but it will not make a difference to those who know their charity. Idolatry, environmental obsession, and false fraternity are condemned without bitterness. This way, the enemies of Christ cannot level any true criticism against His soldiers.

The difference between my parish priest and our holy prelates is that my parish priest is under the authority of a bishop. Perhaps this is why he felt the need to avoid specifically mentioning the Pachamama idols or the House of the Abrahamic Family by name in public. Regardless, what they and the other holy priests have in common is that they speak the truth directly and call out errors boldly. They refuse to compromise and refuse to remain abstract. They have chosen to charitably and courageously fight the pernicious lies being spread abroad. They speak without fearing the consequences. In this way, they serve as a model for the rest of us to follow. We are to speak the truth in charity, retaining the moral high ground and refusing to abandon the battle.

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