Pope Francis speaks during lunch with the poor, refugees and detainees in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, Italy, Oct. 1. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano

Comment: Francis opens the door to ‘cafeteria’ Catholics

By  Fr. Tom Reese
  • October 13, 2017
To call someone “more Catholic than the Pope” used to be a joking reference to conservative Catholics, but these days there truly are some people who think they are more Catholic than Pope Francis.


Four cardinals (two of whom have recently gone to their eternal reward) criticized the Pope publicly in 2016 by issuing what they called a “dubia,” asking the Pope to clarify what they considered his straying from the true faith. Last month, several dozen theologians accused Pope Francis of spreading heresy.

The fuss is over the Pope’s willingness to open the door to the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion, even if they do not have a Church annulment. But it raises a larger question: Who has the right to challenge the Pope’s teachings in the Catholic Church?

These criticisms of Pope Francis put progressive Catholics in an awkward position. Progressives are big fans of Pope Francis, but it would be somewhat hypocritical of them to suddenly become papal absolutists when they clearly had disagreements with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. On the other hand, conservatives who are now critical of Pope Francis accused progressives of being “cafeteria Catholics” when they disagreed with John Paul or Benedict.

All I can say is, “Welcome to the cafeteria.”

The truth is all Catholics are cafeteria Catholics. Conservative Catholics were quite willing to ignore John Paul’s and Benedict’s strong statements on justice and peace, and progressive Catholics are happy to ignore Francis’ opposition to women priests.

Disagreeing with the Pope was not welcomed during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict. Bishops, priests, theologians and Catholic publications were expected to unreservedly cheer any statement that came out of Rome. The open debate that occurred during the Second Vatican Council was closed down.

The atmosphere has changed under Pope Francis. Bishops are being chosen because of their pastoral abilities and identification with the poor. Theologians are free to speak and write what they please. Catholic publications are not subject to censorship. And cardinals and theologians are publicly criticizing the Pope, something that would never have been allowed in earlier papacies.

Pope Francis can only blame himself for this. He asked for it.

At the beginning of the 2016 Synod on the Family, he told the bishops to “Speak clearly. Let no one say, ‘This can’t be said, they will think this or that about me.’ Everything we feel must be said, with parrhesia (boldness).”

The Greek word parrhesia comes from the Acts of the Apostles where Paul takes on Peter, the first pope, in arguing that the Gentile Christians need not be circumcised. Paul won that argument.

Pope Francis remembers how when he was a cardinal at an earlier synod, officials from the Roman Curia told him what subjects could not be brought up. Although the purpose of the Synod of Bishops is to advise the pope, most bishops at earlier synods spent most of their time quoting the pope to himself. It was a silly exercise.

Pope Francis is not afraid of open discussion within the Church.

“Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow,” he said. “That doesn’t frighten me. What’s more, I look for it.”

Well, he got it. Some people would like to see him crack down on those who are dissenting from his teaching, but I rather admire him for his patience and willingness to let people speak their minds. He trusts that the Spirit will guide the Church in the right direction.

Catholics need to grow up and learn to live in a Church where arguments take place, but we should not let disagreements break up the family. We need to understand that people have different viewpoints and that we can learn from one another by having dialogue.

Rather than dividing into partisan factions, we need to model what it means to be a community.

(Fr. Reese, S.J., former editor of America Magazine, is a senior analyst at Religion News Service.)

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