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There’s no question that much of the criticism of Pope Francis in recent years – in particular, criticism of his “mercy” approach to pastoral problems and his downplaying of doctrinal rules – has come from the United States, where conservative bishops have sometimes gone public with their objections.

In an August encounter just made public, Pope Francis addressed such antagonism in his usual direct fashion, decrying what he called a “strong reactionary attitude” among some U.S. pastors, and saying it reflects a “backward” attitude based more on ideology than faith.

The pope argued that doctrine is not a static reality but evolves. The church’s teaching on slavery is one example, he said, but not the only one: “Today it is a sin to possess atomic bombs; the death penalty is a sin.”

“Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves. Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies. When you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war,” he said.

The pope made the remarks in a Q and A session with fellow Jesuits in Portugal. A transcript in English was published by the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.

Here is the exchange on the situation in the United States:

Q. Pope Francis, I would like to ask you a question as a religious brother. I am Francisco. Last year I spent a sabbatical year in the United States. There was one thing that made a great impression on me there, and at times made me suffer. I saw many, even bishops, criticizing your leadership of the Church. And many even accuse the Jesuits, who are usually a kind of critical resource of the pope, of not being so now. They would even like the Jesuits to criticize you explicitly. Do you miss the criticism that the Jesuits used to make of the pope, the Magisterium, the Vatican?
A. You have seen that in the United States the situation is not easy: there is a very strong reactionary attitude. It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally. I would like to remind those people that indietrismo (being backward-looking) is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals as long as we follow the three criteria that Vincent of Lérins already indicated in the fifth century: doctrine evolves ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate. In other words, doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing. Change develops from the roots upward, growing in accord with these three criteria.
Let us get to specifics. Today it is a sin to possess atomic bombs; the death penalty is a sin. You cannot employ it, but it was not so before. As for slavery, some pontiffs before me tolerated it, but things are different today. So you change, you change, but with the criteria just mentioned. I like to use the “upward” image, that is, ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate. Always on this path, starting from the root with sap that flows up and up, and that is why change is necessary.
Vincent of Lérins makes the comparison between human biological development and the transmission from one age to another of the depositum fidei, which grows and is consolidated with the passage of time. Here, our understanding of the human person changes with time, and our consciousness also deepens. The other sciences and their evolution also help the Church in this growth in understanding. The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.
But some people opt out; they go backward; they are what I call “indietristi.” When you go backward, you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the Church and you lose the sap of revelation. If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change. And the effects on morality are devastating. The problems that moralists have to examine today are very serious, and to deal with them they have to take the risk of making changes, but in the direction I was saying.
You have been to the United States and you say you have felt a climate of closure. Yes, this climate can be experienced in some situations. And there you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.
I want to pay tribute to Arrupe’s courage. When he became superior general, he found a Society of Jesus that was, so to speak, bogged down. General Ledóchowski had drafted the Epitome – do you young people know what the Epitome is? No? Nothing remains of the Epitome! It was a selection of the Constitutions and Rules, all mixed up. But Ledóchowski, who was very orderly, with the mentality of the time, said, “I am compiling it so that the Jesuits will be fully clear about everything they have to do.” And the first specimen he sent to a Benedictine abbot in Rome, a great friend of his, who replied with a note: “You have killed the Society with this.”
In other words, the Society of the Epitome was formed, the Society that I experienced in the novitiate, albeit with great teachers who were of great help, but some taught certain things that fossilized the Society. That was the spirituality that Arrupe received, and he had the courage to set it moving again. Somethings got out of hand, as is inevitable, such as the question of the Marxist analysis of reality. Then he had to clarify some matters, but he was a man who was able to look forward. And with what tools did Arrupe confront reality? With the Spiritual Exercises. In 1969 he founded the Ignatian Center for Spirituality. The secretary of this center, Fr. Luís Gonzalez Hernandez, was given the tasks of traveling around the world to give the Exercises and to open this new panorama.
You younger ones have not experienced these tensions, but what you say about some sectors in the United States reminds me of what we have already experienced with the Epitome, which generated a mentality that was all rigid and contorted. Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves. Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies. When you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war.

A potentially divisive Synod of Bishops is fast approaching, and Pope Francis appears to be concerned about how the October assembly will be treated by the world’s press.

On Aug. 26 he gave a brief talk to a group of Italian journalists, who were at the Vatican to present the pope with an award for his contributions to dialogue and peace. The pope noted that he’s made it a policy to decline such accolades, but was making an exception – probably because he had a message to get across.

He began with a plea to avoid the “sins of journalism,” which in the pope’s catechism include disinformation, slander, defamation and “the love of scandal.” That last one is difficult, he added, because “scandal sells.”

The pope said the upcoming synod will focus on “listening to each other … in a mature way.” He asked journalists to respect that process, rather than look for conflict among participants:

"We have opened our doors, we have offered everyone the opportunity to participate, we have taken into account everyone's needs and suggestions. We want to contribute together to build the Church where everyone feels at home, where no-one is excluded.


Therefore I dare to ask you, the experts of journalism, for help: help me to narrate this process for what it really is, leaving behind the logic of slogans and pre-packaged stories."

Previous editions of the Synod of Bishops under Pope Francis have witnessed unusually open expression of opinions and occasional disputes, to a degree not seen since the synod was established in 1965.

All signs point to another lively assembly this fall, when the synod takes up the question of “synodality” itself – a topic that will probably include debate over the decision-making process in the church, clericalism, and the role of laity. Given the nature of the church and the make-up of the assembly, I expect the prevailing climate to be one of harmony. Given the nature of journalism, I expect reporters to focus on areas of disagreement.

Having covered the Vatican for more than 40 years, I learned long ago that about half of Vatican “news” can be filed under déjà vu.

The internal debate over the Vatican’s China policies. Failures of accountability in sex abuse cases. Ongoing Vatican financial scandals, despite reforms. Tensions over use of the Tridentine rite. All these and more have been perennial issues over the last three pontificates, periodically stepping into the media spotlight.

The latest example of déjà vu arose this week, when U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke weighed in on the upcoming Synod of Bishops. He argued that the synodal vision of the church espoused by Pope Francis – that is, a church that listens before it teaches – is a dangerous “slogan” that is leading Catholics astray:

“Synodality and its adjective, synodal, have become slogans behind which a revolution is at work to change radically the Church’s self-understanding, in accord with a contemporary ideology which denies much of what the Church has always taught and practiced.
It is not a purely theoretical matter, for the ideology has already, for some years, been put into practice in the Church in Germany, spreading widely confusion and error and their fruit, division – indeed schism, to the grave harm of many souls. With the imminent Synod on Synodality, it is rightly to be feared that the same confusion and error and division will be visited upon the universal Church. In fact, it has already begun to happen through the preparation of the Synod at the local level.”

Cardinal Burke’s comments, predictably described as a “bombshell,” came in a foreword to a just-published book titled, The Synodal Process is a Pandora’s Box. If all this sounds familiar, it should. Back in 2014, Cardinal Burke was among a handful of cardinals who warned against doctrinal concessions in that year’s Synod on the Family. The critique came in a book published shortly before the start of the assembly.

Whether these warnings affect the outcome of synods is a debatable question. I think they represent a minority view among cardinals and bishops, but it’s a minority that seems to have an outsized influence. Synods try to operate through consensus, and even a few participants pumping the brakes can slow things down considerably.

So far, the 75-year-old Cardinal Burke, a canon lawyer who once headed the Vatican's highest tribunal, has not been listed as a participant in this fall’s synod. But a few like-minded prelates will be inside the synod hall, including German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who has described the synodal process as part of a “hostile takeover” of the church. It should be an interesting event.

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