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.