The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 11:43:15

A critique of Fr. Weinandy’s letter to the Pope

Katie van Schaijik, Nov 01, 2017

I began this critique before word came that the author had been asked to resign from his post as theological consultant to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. I'm going to publish it anyway, at the risk of seeming to kick a man when he's down, because I hear Catholic friends speaking of his firing as if it were ominous—proof that "darkness is taking over," that "truth is being suppressed."  

We shouldn't forget that Fr. Weinandy's opinion isn't Truth; it's just his opinion, and it hasn't been suppressed. Rather, it's been deemed incompatible with his position as a theological consultant to the USCCB. 

Of course it has. The US Bishops can't employ as a theological consultant a priest who publicly berates the Pope—accusing him of fostering sin and error—anymore than they can employ a theological consultant who openly dissents from the teaching of the Church.

Maybe a closer examination of the contents of the letter will make the point clearer.

Fr. Weinandy begins by professing his respect for the Pope's office, and immediately a red flag goes up for me. The reverence (which is something more than respect) we owe the Pope is not to his office—not to a position or a set of functions—but to a person, the person of the Holy Father.

Then he slips in a kind of elision. "The Church turns to you in a spirit of faith, with the hope that you will guide her in love," discretely suggesting—as I read it—that the Pope has disappointed the hopes of the faithful on that score.

Next, he gets more explicit, blaming the Pope for causing "chronic confusion" and "growing unease" among the faithful. But when I look around it seems to me that it's not the faithful generally who are confused and uneasy, but only a particular (and very small) set of the faithful, vis. the doctrinely-focused conservative set. They seem to be upset that the Pope is not conforming to their preferred style of papal leadership. He is not ratifying their mode and their views. Rather, unsettlingly (intolerably?), he seems to be calling them into question. The great majority of Catholics seem perfectly happy with Pope Francis. He reminds them of Jesus.

Fr. Weinandy's first concrete charge is that Amoris Laetitia Chapter 8 appears to be "intentionally ambiguous"—framed to foster error, rather than dispel it. (!) Yet, as I have pointed out elsewhere, Jesus, too, was not infrequently "intentionally ambiguous." Ambiguity has its crucial religious uses.

Suppose, for instance, that among the particular "errors" the Pope is concerned with in that section of the exhortation is one that is not doctrinal in nature, but moral. Suppose that he wants to address the problem of legalism in our approach to messy human situations. Can he "dispel" a legalistic tendency by a minute clarification of the law? No. On the contrary, to clarify the law at the insistence of legalists would only serve to  increase the bad spiritual tendency afflicting them. It would confirm them in their habits of thinking that 1) the issue at hand can be settled on the level of the law, and 2) they are on the side of truth and right, when in fact, they are thinking and behaving like pharisees.

I'll quote the next paragraph in full:

Second, too often your manner seems to demean the importance of Church doctrine. Again and again you portray doctrine as dead and bookish, and far from the pastoral concerns of everyday life. Your critics have been accused, in your own words, of making doctrine an ideology. But it is precisely Christian doctrine – including the fine distinctions made with regard to central beliefs like the Trinitarian nature of God; the nature and purpose of the Church; the Incarnation; the Redemption; and the sacraments – that frees people from worldly ideologies and assures that they are actually preaching and teaching the authentic, life-giving Gospel. Those who devalue the doctrines of the Church separate themselves from Jesus, the author of truth. What they then possess, and can only possess, is an ideology – one that conforms to the world of sin and death.

Setting aside its shocking brazenness (who is he to lecture the Vicar of Christ?!), is this a just criticism? It doesn't seem so to me. I don't hear Pope Francis demeaning doctrine, only rebuking the doctrinaire. He chastises those who treat Catholic doctrine in a dead, bookish way, as well as those who treat our faith as if it were primarily a matter of preserving and expounding correct doctrine. Would Fr. Weinandy deny that Catholics can be doctrinaire? Would he deny that it's even something like an occupational hazard among scholars and a negative tendency among conservatives generally, in the same way laxity is a negative tendency among liberals? 

I think it obviously is. Further, I think Fr. Weinandy provides an example of the hazard and tendency in this very paragraph, when he asserts that it is "precisely Christian doctrine" that "frees us from worldly ideologies." Maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but I find the formulation odd and telling. It's not doctrine that frees us, it's the Holy Spirit—a person, not a set of teachings. We're not redeemed by true ideas; we're redeemed by a personal encounter with grace. Of course lived faith  entails the profession of sound doctrine, but it's not mainly that, never mind reducible to it. Faith is not not an intellectual assent to truth, but a personal surrender—an entrusting of our selves to God. (Jules here reminds me of Newman's stress on the fact that the truths of our faith are given to us and to be received by us not as dead letter, but exactly via the living authority of the Pope in union with the bishops. I'm hoping he'll draw out the point and give us the reference in the comments below.)

As a matter of fact, orthodox doctrine can be held and taught in an ideological way, as anyone with familiar with, say, the Legion of Christ or Covenant Communities or arch traditionalists can attest. Throughout the Church, alas, can be found many individuals and groups who—just as the Holy Father says—wield doctrine like a weapon, using it not to liberate and "build up" others, but to "puff up" self—to burden and diminish and control others, for the sake of advancing their own power and prestige. And these are destructive in a particular way exactly because their doctrine is sound, so that pious people trust them and fall into their hands. 

Moreover, and importantly, ideologizing doctrine isn't something only conmen and villains ever do. Rather, it's a perennial temptation for the faithful, just like selfishness and self-righteousness and pride are. It's a tendency we have to be on guard against in ourselves—something especially teachers of the faith need to examine our consciences over and purify ourselves of. Experts in law and doctrine are naturally inclined to exaggerate the importance of doctrine and law. They are inclined to become disengaged from the concrete and individual and to prefer the abstract and general. It's a widespread, deep and serious problem; the Holy Father is right to warn us against it.

Let me press the point further: it's not only flagrant hypocrites in the Church who are susceptible to the lure of legalism. Even good Catholics who mean well can and do fall into it. The case could be made (I mean to attempt it myself one day) that Vatican II—which Pope Benedict called the central gift and achievement of the Church in our day—was all about correcting an excessively objectivistic, legalistic and externalistic tendency in Catholic life and ethos. 

Pope Francis has said that it takes about 100 years for the Church to fully assimilate a council like Vatican II; we are only halfway there. I think he's right. One reason I think he's right is that I find that cosmic drama of our times recapitulated in my own spiritual journey.

I have been a faithful, practicing Catholic all my life, and a staunchly conservative one at least since I studied theology as an undergraduate at FUS. I'm also a student of Christian personalism, who has, across three decades now, developed a growing conviction that the "turn toward subjectivity" is the key to understanding the Church in the modern world. And, in very recent years, I have come to recognize with deep mortification what a shocking grip the pharisaical tendency has had on my own soul.

Five key things have brought it to light and taught me to address it in myself:

1) Extremely painful personal experience of my powerlessness over the effects of sin in my life (my own and others' against me), notwithstanding all my head knowledge of saving Truth.

2) Participation in a 12-step program which has taught me what non-judgmentalism really means and how it serves to bless and heal, so that now when I hear the Holy Father speak of "gradualism," my heart leaps with recognition and joy, and I understand exactly what he is and isn't saying.

3) Reading scores of books and articles about recovery from trauma and narcissistic abuse, and developing a profound sense of solidarity with the the particular struggles of our time and culture, and a humble appreciation for the practical wisdom to be found in the field of psychology—something I used to dismiss with contempt.

4) The personalist teaching of John Paul II, which I have studied closely and come to love and understand and admire more and more.

5) The words and witness of Pope Francis, which, for me, draws it all together.

I'm not going to go any further in my critique of Fr. Weinandy's letter. I saw this morning that one of his predecessors has done maybe as much as needs doing on that front. I'll just say this:

When I read it, my main thought wasn't "How dare a priest criticize the Holy Father!" rather it was, "Fr. Weinandy has completely misunderstood Pope Francis, and he's hurting the Church by publicizing his misunderstanding."

Attacks like his do harm because they foster fear and mistrust; they prevent us opening our hearts and minds to what "the Spirit is saying to the churches" through the person of our Holy Father. And the Church really, really needs that message.

I hope he repents.