Among all the words written about Pope Francis’ effects on the Catholic Church, one picture succinctly illustrates the existential conflict American Catholics face.
The Rev. Joseph Devlin, a pastor in suburban Philadelphia, tweeted a picture of a book in his trash can. The foreword for the book, The Synodal Process is a Pandora’s Box, was written by Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis. Burke, who questions Francis’ theological positions, warned about an upcoming international synod that proposes fundamental changes to historic teaching.
“Where this belongs!” Devlin tweeted. “I stand with and trust Pope Francis.”
American Catholics find themselves caught in the crossfire of a war between those, such as Devlin, who blindly support the pope and those, such as Burke, who legitimately question the direction in which Francis is leading the church.
Burke’s camp includes Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who issued a pastoral letter Aug. 22 on the synod, which plans to address the sacramental status of remarried and divorced Catholics, gender ideology and ecumenism, at least.
“The evil and false message that has entered the church … is that Jesus is only one among many, and that it is not necessary for his message to be shared with all humanity,” Strickland wrote. “This idea must be shunned and refuted at every turn.”
Strickland then briefly presented the historic teaching on the subjects mentioned before declaring that “the surest footing we can find is to remain firmly upon the perennial teachings of the faith,” he wrote.
Before Strickland issued that letter, Francis expressed contempt for his conservative American critics while meeting with Portuguese Jesuits on Aug. 5. Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit magazine edited by the Vatican, printed his remarks Aug. 28, six days after Strickland’s warnings.
“There is a very strong reactionary attitude,” Francis said. “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.
“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.”
The term “faith and morals” holds special significance for Catholics, who believe papal teaching on such subjects is infallible.
So, Francis uses Vincent’s criteria to justify his theological novelty. But what are those criteria and do they apply?
Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th century British convert, popularized and refined Vincent’s criteria in An Essay on the Development of Doctrine. Newman devised seven tests: 1) preserving the type or identity 2) continuity of principles 3) assimilative power 4) logical consequence 5) anticipation of its future 6) conservative action and 7) chronic vigor.
Newman used a biological analogy to explain the first test: “Young birds do not grow into fishes, nor does the child degenerate into the brute (animal), wild or domestic…” Concerning his second test, Newman wrote that “a development, to be faithful, must retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started.”
Assimilative power means that “a living idea becomes many, yet remains one,” Newman wrote. His fourth test determines whether a doctrine “is likely to be a true development, not a corruption, in proportion as it seems to be the logical issue of its original teaching.” Newman’s fifth test involves “early imitations of tendencies which afterwards are fully realized … in accordance with the original idea,” he wrote.
The sixth test requires faithful progress without contradictory change, with Newman directly citing Vincent on that point, while the seventh concerns doctrinal longevity.
The problem is the pope’s subtle yet direct contradiction of Catholic teaching, as FrontPage Magazine often reported. The Rev. Juan R. Velez, a doctor of dogmatic theology and an expert on Newman, used the cardinal’s third test to criticize proposals that open the possibility for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, a possibility that repudiates historic teaching.
“The proposed doctrine seems to assimilate the Christian practice of mercy and forgiveness, but it contradicts others such as justice with regard to the obligations that derive from the nature of marriage,” Velez wrote in Catholic World Report in 2014. “It is doubtful that it can pass the test of assimilative power.”
Two years later, Francis wrote Amoris Laetitia, a papal exhortation that appeared to do what Velez feared. Burke and three other Vatican cardinals formally asked Francis to explain his rationale — and have yet to receive an answer after seven years. Since then, two of the cardinals have died.
When it comes to such subjects as gender ideology and abortion, Francis plays a double game. On the one hand, he offers lip service to historic teaching. But on the other, he appoints and supports Catholics who publicly disown that teaching.
Take gender ideology. As FrontPage Magazine often reported, Francis calls gender theory “ideological colonization” yet appoints such men as the Rev. James Martin and Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich to important positions. Martin, a papal communications advisor, not only uses social media to promote gender ideology, including sexual transition for children. He even criticized biblical condemnations of homosexuality on Twitter.
Hollerich, appointed to Francis’ closest circle of advisors in March, went further. He publicly rejected Catholic teaching on homosexuality.
Or take abortion. As FrontPage Magazine often reported, Francis equates having an abortion to “hiring a hitman,” yet embraces and supports American and European politicians who support legalized abortion. Among them are Joe Biden and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who identify as Catholics.
In 2021, as head of the former Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria discouraged American bishops from applying canon law and withholding communion from such politicians.
The next year, the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Cardinal Vincenzo Paglia, said on Italian television that the Vatican had no interest in opposing a 45-year-old law allowing abortion. Paglia even called the law, “a pillar of our social life.”
In promoting his theological agenda, Francis lets others take the lead — and the immediate risks — while he silently supports them. Once conditions reach critical mass, Francis can embrace the changes as a natural evolution. He demonstrated this exact behavior in 2018 concerning capital punishment.
For centuries, the Catholic Church accepted and defended the death penalty; the Papal States even used it. But in 1995, Pope John Paul II used his encyclical Evangelium Vitae to argue that capital punishment was fundamentally unnecessary. The head of CDF at the time — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI — changed the catechism to reflect that view.
As a result, Catholicism developed a basically abolitionist stance toward the death penalty. In 2018, Francis solidified that stance by calling capital punishment “inadmissible,” or fundamentally immoral. Once again, authorities changed the catechism. But the Rev. John Hardon, a Jesuit scholar, argued in 1975 in his commentary on the catechism:
“Nowhere in the New Testament is capital punishment outlawed. On the contrary, the New Testament not only recognizes the right of the State to exercise authority in the name of God but enjoins obedience to the State in applying the laws of God to its citizens.”
Hardon’s critique decades before its time not only exposes Francis’ careless handling of theology for his own purposes, using Vincent of Lerins as an excuse. It reveals the utter contempt Francis and his allies have for previous teaching, especially doctrines coming from Scripture.
Ironically, in citing Vincent, Francis actually contradicts him. As the fifth-century monk wrote:
“What, if some novel contagion seeks to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? Then it will be his (a Catholic’s) care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.”
But the Catholic bishops who take that advice face fierce opposition from their own. In January, as FrontPage Magazine reported, San Diego Cardinal Robert McElroy — whom Francis appointed — argued for “radical inclusion” of LGBTQ Catholics, regardless of their sexual behavior or their views on Catholic teaching about homosexuality. Within a month, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. called McElroy a heretic unfit for church office.
Yet the conflict between Paprocki and McElroy, like the one between Devlin and Burke, reflects the ominous state of the Catholic Church worldwide.
“The present crisis is probably the worst the church has had for centuries, perhaps from its beginning, in some way or another,” said John Rist, a Catholic scholar in Britain. “It’s more dangerous to the existence of the Church. You can compare the Reformation, but I think it’s even more serious than that.
“In terms of the damage that it now might cause, what might happen to the Church in the future, this is going to cause more trouble, more than anything else we’ve seen before.”