The Pope, Touchstone of Faith and Unity

Feb 12 blog pic

Early Sunday morning I watched our Holy Father, Pope Francis, give his Angelus talk – the comments he shares before praying the Angelus with the huge crowd – tens of thousands – gathered in Saint Peter’s Square each Sunday. Here, this enormously popular and revered successor to Peter spoke about the tenderness of Jesus, his loving compassion and at the same time our need to be caring and compassionate to our fellow human beings. The Holy Father clearly is admired not only by the crowds in Saint Peter’s Square but by people around the world. But apparently that admiration is not shared by all.

As I was watching the Holy Father on TV, my inbox was filling with a number of emails including an interview and an article by brother bishops who are less than enthusiastic about Pope Francis. Those emails reminded me of a much, much earlier time in my life when I first experienced dissent from the teaching and practice of a pope. As a young seminarian (20 years old) doing graduate work at The Catholic University of America, I read for the first time the encyclical letter of Saint John XXIII, Mater et magistra. Its teaching was not well received by some. One of the pundits offered the observation that became rather widespread in those circles, “Mater si, Magistra no,” – Latin for “Mother yes, Teacher no.”

Along with a number of my classmates, I remember being so scandalized by this rejection of the encyclical that we spoke to one of the priests at the seminary. He gently chided us for our naivety and pointed out that there has always been a current of dissent in the Church, some of it as high as the College of Cardinals. It was then that I first heard of Cardinal Louis Billot who was less than discrete in his opposition to Pope Pius XI who had condemned the political and religious movement, Action Française, which involved many people who longed for the restoration of the monarchy in France and a stronger role for the Church in civil government. In 1927, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, Cardinal Billot “was persuaded to renounce his cardinalitial dignity.”

Unhappiness with a Pope’s position on issues whether doctrinal, pastoral, canonical or as simple as clerical vesture, seems always to be present in some form. In 1963 Saint John XXIII again became the object of wrath of those who disliked his encyclical Pacem in terris, as did Blessed Paul VI for his encyclical, Populorum progressio in 1967 and certainly for his encyclical Humanae vitae in 1968. Dissent by some priests from the teaching in Humanae vitae led to their departure from priestly ministry.

On a much less important level, there was, nonetheless, considerable dismay among some in 1969 when the Secretary of State of Pope Paul VI issued an instruction concerning the vesture of bishops and cardinals. The effort to streamline and do away with things like the cappa magna (long outer garment of bishops and cardinals with a long, long train) upset some.

Even the short reign of Pope John Paul I was not without critique. Some wrote that they found his smile unbefitting a Pope since it diminished the gravitas (gravity or seriousness) of his office. One commentator lamented that this dear and kind Pope actually waved at people as he processed to celebrate Mass.

Then of course came Saint John Paul II. Everything he wrote had some critic whether it involved his social encyclicals such as Laborem exercens in 1981 or Sollicitudo rei socialis in 1987 or Centesimus annus in 1991 or his encyclical on the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary effort, Redemptoris missio. There were some who continually criticized him for his travels even though he helped in his nearly 27 years as Pope revitalize the Church. Personally, I always found the criticism of Saint John Paul II particularly painful because I have such an affection and admiration for him. In fact, the brand new seminary in this archdiocese that was opened just a few years ago bears his name, Saint John Paul II Seminary.

I will not belabor the point by going through the critiques, challenges, disapproval and dissent that faced so much of what Pope Benedict XVI taught and published during his pontificate. Again, I find myself greatly perplexed at the negative critique of him whom I saw as such a good, brilliant and holy Shepherd of the Church.

Hardly then should we expect that Pope Francis would be immune from what appears to be something that “comes with the territory.”

One of the things I have learned though over all of these years since those early naïve days in 1961 is that on closer examination there is a common thread that runs through all of these dissenters. They disagree with the Pope because he does not agree with them and therefore follow their position.

Dissent is perhaps something we will always have, lamentable as it is, but we will also always have Peter and his successor as the rock and touchstone of both our faith and our unity.

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41 Responses to “The Pope, Touchstone of Faith and Unity”

  1. Johnson says:

    Amen. Your Eminence. Well said.

  2. Bishop Kevin Farrell says:

    Excellent. Thank you.

  3. Sean Murphy says:

    Well written article that has great points, but I wonder if every disagreement with the pope can be considered dissent. To disagree with the pope on removing the cappa magna or even in some prudential reflections on practical moral issues is not always “dissent.”

  4. alessandro says:

    Your Eminence, only a precisation:
    The cappa magna wasn’t abolished by the istruction “ut sive sollicite” of 1969. This document abolish only the fur of the winter cappa.
    The current Caeremoniale Episcoporum (1983) say thath the cappa magna hmust be used for the most solemns days.
    Perdoni il mio pessimo inglese

  5. fr.franklyn mcafee says:

    pope paul vi did not do away with the cappa magna.cadinal wright wore it when he attended the installation of bishop dozier of memphis and cardinal baum wore it into the national shrine after he was created a cardinal. i have seen pictures of cardinal woyjtila wearing one .I asked gammarreli a few years ago if they sold many cappas and he said ,”Oh yes,in africa”.

  6. Kyle B says:

    Very wise words Cardinal Wuerl. God bless Benedict! God bless Francis! God bless our Church!

  7. Now following you, your Eminence. Thank you.

  8. Fr. David J. Kozak says:

    Thank you for a great insight on conditions in our Mother the Church

  9. George says:

    Ad multos Annos Papa Franceso! Many thanks, Cardinal Wuerl for sharing your insights.
    Sending you prayers & Best Wishes.

  10. Michael says:

    Silly. Finallly – the good Cardinal finally speaking out against dissent. How nice after all of these years.

  11. Thomas says:

    “They disagree with the Pope because he does not agree with them and therefore follow their position.”

    Really, is that why you ignore Canon Law and give communion to Catholic politicians who voted for and promote abortion even though Popes John Paul and Benedict said this is a scandal, causes confusion and isn’t to be done.

  12. sacerdos catholicus says:

    It is a lie. Card. Burke represents not his own position but the position of the Church and all true popes.

  13. Thomas says:

    As an aside Pope Paul VI did not “do away” with the cappa magna. He just said it should be used on the most solemn of occassions. Cardinal Pell, a trusted advisor of Pope Francis, has worn the cappa numerous times.

    And it was Pius XII who shortened the length of the cappa and did away with the flabella towards the end of his pontificate and it was John XXIII who restored the length of the cappa and reinstated the flabella.

  14. Allan Deck, SJ says:

    Thank you for hitting the nail on the head! Your leadership on moving forward with reform under Pope Francis’ leadership is so important. May God bless you.

  15. Malcolm Dyer FDP says:

    Thank you Cardinal Wuerl for a mature comment on life in the Church!

  16. A wise, inspired, useful and spiritual perspective. Thank you.

  17. JOE GALLAGHER says:

    I know Bill Buckley of the National Review used approvingly the slogan, “Mother yes; teacher No” but I’m not sure he fashioned it.

  18. Thetimman says:

    Your Eminence,

    Your article is not fair towards those who love the faith and see it undefended at the highest levels of the hierarchy. One may love the Pope precisely by pleasing with him to defend the faith as it has been handed down by the apostles.

    I of course will give you credit for good will and good intentions. But your depiction of the pope as universally revered and loved, one who draws such large crowds, is simply not accurate. It is a soft sell, to say the least. And even if it were true, the love of the world is not the measure of the greatness of a Vicar of Christ.

    I beg you to uphold the teachings of Christ on marriage and communion; in this you will prove the good will and good intentions of hich I give you credit.

    With respect,
    Saint Louis Catholic

  19. St John Cassian says:

    This Pope is a disaster for the Church. Those that have eyes will see. God is punishing us with bad leaders, aside from those such as Cardinal Burke. And these bad leaders are leading souls down a path of destruction. Those that blindly follow the advice of this Cardinal will be duped by the antichrist. If they haven’t lost supernatural Faith by being in a state of mortal sin already. Which no leaders teach anymore. No, the modern Church has dethroned Christ the King in favor of the Masonic principals of liberty, fraternity and ecumenism.
    And now when the Faithful hear it from the lips of a Pontiff and it shakes their Catholic sense they are told…. “don’t be a dissenter”.
    Lord have mercy!!

  20. Respectfully Disagree says:

    The argument presented in this article is supported by fallacious reasoning:

    1. There will always be dissent to what a Pope proposes to be Gospel teaching.
    2. There is currently dissent (by highly educated, theologically accurate) prelates.
    3. [Implied: dissent from a Pope’s suggestions is always unacceptable; false premise]
    4. Therefore, the current dissent from a Pope’s suggestions is unacceptable.

    There is also a false presupposition that “all popes are saints” or “all popes are 100% correct in their theology.” Nobody envies the task of those who may need to resist Pope Francis’ potential theological errors, but the Faithful are thankful for their courageous witness.

  21. Rex Mottram says:

    Thank you so much you Eminence! As all good Catholics know, if the Holy Father said it would rain tomorrow, it certainly would….and if it didn’t that just means it was raining spiritually, only we’d be too sinful to see it.

  22. Taad says:

    So lets drill down into this Cardinal. John Paul II taught something completely different about marriage, and homosexuals than what is being proposed. Something is very wrong. In a short time we are now about to reject what JPII and Benedict and Paul Vi taught. Not to mention Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church over the centuries. Heck, we hold up some saints who died sticking up for marriage. And you want us to say, ok, no problem here? Even the Polish bishops are outraged at the betrayal of JPII. Sorry, but I disagree with you. I am not going to sway with the wind as Pope Benedict said talking about relativism.

  23. Supporter of Athanasius says:

    Your Eminence, there are many who dissent with the Papacy from time to time because of statements that aren’t reflective of the Faith and thus are basic differences in opinion. That happens to all Popes.

    Then there is dissent when the Papacy dissents from what the Faith is. And that has become a more common occurrence since right about when you were in seminary. Why? Because orthodoxy has been challenged by the very princes of the Church that are sworn to protect, defend and pronounce that orthodoxy.

    In that latter situation, the faithful are required to defend orthodoxy against ANYONE who pronounces heresy. Heresy isn’t just in the history books. It is alive and well in the Church today. If you need an example, how about comments made by priests, bishops, and cardinals that Christ isn’t equal to God the Father? There are probably more Arians in the Church than any would care to admit.

    We will continue to pray (and act if necessary) that orthodoxy maintained. That is what the Saints died for and that is what is expected of a follower of Christ. Anything less is not worthy of Him.

  24. Earl Kumfer, PhD says:

    Thanks, Eminence. Those 1961 insights have supported me also through those years. The Spirit stills moves us out of our positions.

  25. Francis P says:

    Your Eminence,

    It appears from this column that you are saying that Catholics are obligated to agree with the Pope on ALL matters, whether doctrinal, pastoral, economical, political, etc. But surely you cannot be saying this, since that is not Catholic teaching (i.e. believing the Pope is ALWAYS right in all matters), and history has shown that popes do err at times (but of course not when teaching authoritatively in an area of faith and morals).

    Perhaps in a future column you could clarify the legitimate times in which a faithful Catholic can disagree with a Pope.

  26. Ron says:

    Thank you! I needed to hear this.

  27. Elizabeth Differ says:

    Your Eminence

    As a lifelong Catholic I give thanks for our Holy Father everyday. Perhaps some of the Cardinals and Bishops feel that his Holiness’ popularity is unbecoming of the office, or perhaps there is a bit of envy. Catholics in the pews are looking for a good holy man to be their Pope, theology/canon law etc. don’t have that much relevance, however the look on the people in Tacloban, standing in a tropical storm listening to every word of Pope Francis for the hope and love he brings to their shattered lives, should be enough for these men of God to accept that Pope Francis is exactly what the Holy Spirit wishes for the flock,
    As a Scottish parishioner following the conclave on EWTN, I must say I was extremely interested in listening to the English speaking Cardinals giving their insight into the Conclave, we in Scotland had no representation this time and it fell to the American Cardinals and Cardinal Pell to in a way represent us and I for one thank you for your good work,

    God bless.

  28. very good explanation…nice article

  29. Fr. Ronald Knott says:

    As always, one of the strongest voices of reason and sanity! Thank you!

  30. Philip Jude Fernandez says:

    Your Eminence thank you! Please speak with the same truthfulness as our church journeys through the grace of God!

  31. Ever mindful says:

    Just as well St Athanasius had a different opinion,otherwise Arianism would have prevailed.

  32. Brian says:

    The world is on fire, and not from global “warming”. Our Christian brothers and sisters are being slaughtered for their faith; wiped out. Our moral consensus is in collapse on every front imaginable. The response to such reality must be firm resistance. Contrast, not compromise. Our Catholic truth is so different from what is now purveyed in the world it will be almost incomprehensible to this morally illiterate generation. And that truth, that healing, starts with repentance from grave sin after CLEAR instruction from brave shepherds and laity.

    Do I disagree with the Pope? Yes. “Who am I to judge?” he asked. The Vicar of Christ, or no one, I thought. The way to Christ is through the narrow gate of conviction and repentance from sin. Nothing else. Like the Baptist making straight the way for the coming Saviour. It is time to sound the warning claxon that Christendom and the Gospel that undergirds it is at risk, and for Christians everywhere to man the walls in its defense.

    With all due respect to the Pope and our shepherds who lead us in these troubled, confusing, dangerous times,

  33. russell snow, PhD says:

    Dear Cardinal: As one who has read Ludwig Pastor’s magnificent 40 vol. History of the Popes, I could agree with you more. While my conservative theological sensibilities were initially perplexed by the Holy Father’s informal style, it appears to me that he is calling Catholics to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, within the life of the Church, and to eliminate those “ideological” aspects of Catholicism, whether those of the traditionalists or those of the progressives which can be and have been, at times, obstacle to Grace. Historical perspective is a beautiful thing. Thank you.

  34. russell snow, PhD says:

    could not agree with you more

  35. Tony de New York says:

    Aint the true!!!

    The successor of Peter is the anointed of GOD almighty.

  36. Mark Dzialo says:

    Cardinal Wuerl is a dud; a pied piper, leading people nowhere, and they are happy to go there, evidently.

    A lot of good people disagree with our new “Pope” because he says thing that are explicitly against Catholic dogma. He says these things practically every week. I wouldn’t even tell my mother, who had seven c-sections what the “Pope” said. Would you? Cardinal Wuerl doesn’t understand, he says. Really, not understand? Well, the writing is on the wall.

  37. Cardinal Wuerl says:

    In reading these comments, my thoughts turn to the remarks given by Pope Francis both at the opening and closing of the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family and to the homily at today’s Mass with the new Cardinals. Last October, our Holy Father encouraged those of us participating to speak our minds and hearts openly, listen with humility and be open to the Spirit. At the end, the Pope thanked us for the active and spirited discussion, which voiced a variety of views, as we have here. This is a testament that people care about the faith. Yet, in that zeal for the faith, the Pope continued, we should guard ourselves against both a hostile inflexibility and a bending with the ways of the world, neglecting the deposit of faith.

    In the midst of all this, we should simply remember that the Church is the one body of Christ and it is good that discussions be animated, but not that they be divisive. Nor do we want to preclude examination of particular issues by declaring, as some do, that even the discussion of such topics should not take place.

    Thank you all for your participation in the work of the Church, one, holy and apostolic.

  38. Dawn Eden says:

    Thank you, Your Eminence, for providing much-needed historical perspective on the present dissent.

  39. Dissent is not so much of a problem, the problem is dissent from WHAT. Dissent from the two thousand year old church teaching regarding marriage, gay “relationships” and communion of people in grave sin must not be tolerable by anyone.

  40. BillyHW says:

    I miss Pope Benedict.

  41. I stand with the Cardinals and the dubia and do not see this as dissent at all. Some things are matters of governance and some are matters of the faith. The matters of faith cannot change.

    The deposit of the faith remains the same. No pope can change it but rather it is his duty to safeguard it. These Cardinals are doing what they are supposed to do when there are issues that need clarification. If the letter to the Argentine Bishops is to be taken as the right interpretation of Francis’ encyclical, then it does go against previous Church teaching.