The passive-aggressive pontificate continues—and the Synod approaches

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to “Our Sunday Visitor” newspaper, “The Catholic Answer” magazine, “The Imaginative Conservative”, “The Catholic Herald”, “National Catholic Register”, “Chronicles”, and other publications.

Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Antananarivo, Madagascar, to Rome Sept. 10, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Update (Sept. 11, 2019): A full CNA transcript of the in-flight papal press conference from Madagascar is now available.

Almost six years ago, in October 2013, I wrote my first piece critical of Pope Francis—a CWR editorial titled “Pope Francis: The Good, the Baffling, and the Unclear”. Among several other things, I made the following observations:

At times, especially in his interviews and more impromptu remarks, Francis has shown a tendency to use language that is muddled and unclear, even undisciplined. There are also those moments when he seems to have a particular audience or group of people in mind, and yet never makes it evident who they might be, creating an ambiguity that, far from being “challenging”, is simply confusing. …

And what has become even more bothersome to me is the reactionary quality of these sort of statements from the pontiff. As I wrote to one friend as we discussed the two papal interviews, there seems to be a passive-aggressive quality at play which belies the image of the energetic, broad-minded pope who is above the fray of personality clashes and “office politics.” On the contrary, my impression is that he lets his annoyance with certain people or groups—from Argentina? in the Vatican? elsewhere?—dictate comments that are uttered without reasonable clarity or proper context.

I harkened back to those reflections as I’ve pondered some recent remarks by Pope Francis, made both immediately prior and following his week-long visit to three southern African nations.

The first two remarks came on the flight to Africa. After being presented with a copy of book titled How America Wanted to Change the Pope (available only in French at this time), written by Nicolas Seneze, who is a reporter for the progressive French newspaper La Croix, Francis said he considered it “an honor that Americans attack me.” Soon afterward, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni had to clarify, as CNA reported, “that the pope’s remarks were directed at critics, and were not intended to insult American Catholics.” Francis, Bruni insisted, meant to say he “he always considers criticisms an honor…” That’s an understandable bit of spin. But it isn’t convincing in the least.

The news websites of the German and Austrian Bishops’ Conferences reported that Francis also stated, in response to a question about Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the former prefect of CDF: “He has good intentions, he is a good man, the pope likes him, but he is like a child.” That was, even for a pontiff known as a prolific master of colorful insults, rather surprising. One cannot imagine previous pontiffs talking publicly about a cardinal in such a way. After all, it was just this past June that Francis lamented a “culture of insults”.

Cardinal Müller, of course, has been openly critical of various progressive German bishops, telling CWR in a June 26, 2018 interview that in Germany being “popular in public opinion is nowadays the criterion for a supposedly good bishop or priest. We are experiencing conversion to the world…” He also stated in the same interview:

To many bishops, the truth of revelation and of the Catholic profession of faith is just one more variable in intra-ecclesial power politics. Some of them cite individual agreements with Pope Francis and think that his statements in interviews with journalists and public figures who are far from Catholic offer justification even for “watering down” defined, infallible truths of the faith (= dogmas). All told, we are dealing with a blatant process of Protestantizing.

I suppose one could engage with Cardinal Müller’s various statements. Or you could just liken him to a child, while heaping on a bit of condescension—”the pope likes him”—for good measure. Take your pick. Fast forward to earlier today and to Francis’ return to Rome from Africa. It was, in many ways, a repackaging of his greatest clichés, with references to rigidity and ideology, all with a strong hint of the same old passive-aggressive quality that has, alas, become a steady hallmark of this unsteady pontificate:

Referring to a “dry morality” imposed upon “the morality of the People of God,” the pope expressed concern about any ideology that is “so Pelagian” that it leads to rigidity. “Today we have many, many schools of rigidity within the church that are not schisms but are pseudo-schismatic Christian ways.”

Pope Francis concluded: “When you see Christians, bishops, priests [that are] rigid, behind this there are problems. There is not the holiness of the Gospel. For this we must be meek.” Of those who are rigid, he said, “They are going through a problem, and we must accompany them with meekness.”

There is rigidity and there is rigidity—as in the continual and reflexive recourse to tired tropes and broad brushstrokes that tell us very little about Francis’ enemies, real or perceived, and much more about the pontiff. Francis doesn’t help his case with this approach:

Francis also praised those who criticize him to his face, “having the honesty of saying” their objections out loud. “I don’t like it when criticism is done under the table… when they smile and then stick the knife from behind. This is not loyal.”

Criticism, he insisted, can be a constructive tool. When a person issue a criticism that isn’t fair,  the pope said, he or she should be ready for a response and to dialogue about it.

On the other hand, Francis said, a critic who cloaks his or her objections behind a façade is “an arsenic pill, a bit like throwing a stone and hiding your hand. This doesn’t help, and it comes from closed [minded] people who don’t want to hear the answer.”

When it comes to criticizing the pope, he said, “saying what you don’t like, writing an article and asking for a response, this is loyal. This is loving the Church. Instead, voicing a criticism without dialogue [and] without wanting an answer, is not loving the Church … [it’s to want to] change the pope, make a schism.”

First, yes, let’s readily admit that Francis has critics who are outrageous, emotional, strident, and even slanderous. So did his predecessors, even if the current criticism has been amplified because of the internet and social media. Criticism comes with the territory, and being thin-skinned, snarky, and even petty about it is not a good look, especially for a pope.

But, secondly, there have been respectful and reasonable concerns—some expressed in critical but not outrageous ways—that Francis has pointedly ignored. The famous dubia submitted by four cardinals (two of whom now deceased) is an obvious example. The dubia were submitted in writing, the cardinals asked respectfully for a response, and they wanted an answer. None came, and none will, I’m convinced. As I noted in June 2017: “I’ll be shocked—and I don’t use that term lightly—if Francis agrees to meet with the four cardinals, or if he formally responds to the dubia. I believe Francis is content to create the mess that is currently spreading throughout the Church, and even, at times, to encourage it even more by way of dubious assertions.” (For more thoughts on the dubia and Francis’ silence, see my November 2016 essay “The Four Cardinals and the Encyclical in the Room”.)

Thirdly, while Francis makes distinctions between good and bad critics, he and his closest collaborators (not to mention his defenders on Twitter, who are equal parts passive and aggressive) rarely, if ever, really address or consider good criticism in a mature, pastoral manner. In many cases they misrepresent it or attack those who put it forward in good faith. Put another way, Francis and company make it quite clear, in the end, that any and all criticism is motivated by some irrational, ideological, political, and unCatholic hatred of Francis. They would rather stonewall, deflect, and even insult rather than actually dialogue. If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it several dozen times.

Some of the key signs of passive-aggressive attitudes, according to Psychology Today, are the silent treatment (“refusing to answer any questions from the person”), subtle insults, and stubbornness. I hope we can all agree that these are not good qualities for anyone to have; they certainly aren’t what we hope to see in a pope. But I don’t think we will be seeing any changes. The die is cast; rigidly so.

And, unfortunately, matters might even get worse. I have, over the past few years, expressed many serious concerns about what Francis has been trying to achieve through the past Synods (as well as via Amoris Laetitia), and I have the same fears about what he and his German friends hope to accomplish in the coming Synod. And I think this October in Rome could be about as confusing, ugly, and depressing as things can be. I’m certain that I’ll be writing many critical things. In doing so, however, I will continue to be as direct, respectful, and reasonable as I can possibly be, not resorting to insults, innuendos, and passive-aggressive double-speak. Because that, frankly, would be childish.