Culture of Rebuke Has Taken Hold in Church Discourse

COMMENTARY: The dialogue that Pope Francis often calls for is not actually taking place within the Church.

Inside the synod hall during the meeting of bishops and cardinals on Oct. 14, 2015.
Inside the synod hall during the meeting of bishops and cardinals on Oct. 14, 2015. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

The most recent rebuke — thoughtfully expressed and respectfully made — to the exercise of the magisterium by Pope Francis came from the highly respected Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, who served from 2005 to 2013 as the executive director of the American bishops’ Committee on Doctrine.

So respected is he that Pope Francis appointed him to the International Theological Commission (ITC), the principal advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 2014.

Father Weinandy’s letter to Pope Francis, dated July 31 and made public Nov. 1, rebukes the Holy Father for fostering “chronic confusion” through “ambiguous” teaching, asserting that he “censor[s] and even mock[s]” those who uphold traditional teaching and that he tolerates teaching contrary to the doctrine of the faith. Father Weinandy’s letter is clear and blunt: The Holy Father’s “calumny” of those who follow Church Tradition is “alien to the nature of the Petrine ministry,” which exists “to dispel error, not to foster it.”

Father Weinandy told Crux that he released the letter publicly because “the letter expresses the concerns of many more people than just me, ordinary people who’ve come to me with their questions and apprehensions, and I wanted them to know that I have listened.”

Indeed, there is nothing in Father Weinandy’s letter that journalists do not hear talked about openly among cardinals and bishops, if only off the record.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked Father Weinandy to resign as a consultant to its doctrine committee. It remains to be seen whether the Holy Father will allow Father Weinandy to remain on the ITC or will dismiss him from that role, judging that he has nothing further to offer.


Call for Dialogue and Charity

A noteworthy statement from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, was released on the Weinandy letter. It contains not a word of criticism of Father Weinandy, but calls for “dialogue within the Church” and says that “Christian charity needs to be exercised by all those involved.”

The “all” would apparently include the Holy Father himself and those close to him.

Cardinal DiNardo is now the third cardinal, after Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, to call for authentic dialogue in the Church after public rebukes — one styled a “filial correction” — of the Holy Father.

The implication is clear: The dialogue that Pope Francis often calls for is not actually taking place within the Church.

Indeed, something of a culture of rebuke has taken hold instead.

Cardinal DiNardo quoted St. Ignatius of Loyola on how a “good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.”


Deliberate Pastoral Choice

In that spirit, we might ask what it is that the Holy Father intends to achieve with the culture of rebuke that he has brought to the Church’s life. That it is a deliberate pastoral choice is not in dispute. The question is how the Church should receive it.

Consider only the following major examples of how the Holy Father employs the pastoral strategy of rebuke:

n In an August 2013 interview with Jesuit publications, he chastised some consecrated women as being sterile spiritual “spinsters” and some pastors for being “locked up in small-minded rules.” Later would come the implication that priests make the confessional into a “torture chamber.”

n In his address to the Roman Curia for Christmas 2014, he listed, in detail, 15 spiritual diseases to which those listening to him were prone.

n In a January 2015 airborne news conference, Pope Francis addressed questions of fertility by denouncing a particular woman who was expecting her eighth child, having had seven Caesarian deliveries previously. Pope Francis twice said that, upon meeting her at a Roman parish, he had chastised the woman for being irresponsible. Pope Francis gave enough information that it would be easy for her fellow parishioners to know her identity.

n In the concluding address to the Synod on the Family in October 2015, the Holy Father unleashed a barrage of condemnations upon the cardinals and bishops who did not agree with him, charging them with “a facile repetition of what is obvious or has already been said”; of “burying their heads in the sand”; of “indoctrinating” the Gospel “in dead stones to be hurled at others”; of hiding “behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families”; and of giving into “conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints.”

n In 2016 and 2017, the Holy Father has refused to clarify the ambiguities in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), all the while permitting his close subordinates to launch ad hominem attacks on those who seek clarification according to the Church’s tradition.

n Last month, a personal letter of Pope Francis to Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, on liturgical matters was leaked to the press and then ordered to be sent to every bishops’ conference in the world. The content of the letter publicly corrected Cardinal Sarah’s efforts, and the manner appeared to be designed for maximum publicity.

One enthusiastic commentator noted that the maneuver was “unprecedented. … Certainly not since Vatican II have we seen such a public spanking of a high-ranking prelate.”

Moreover, on several occasions Pope Francis has called for open debate and frank and bold speech, in which members of the Church are not afraid to speak up and even contradict the Holy Father himself. Consequently, the culture of rebuke that Pope Francis favors has now spread throughout the Church.

Hence, there are the events of recent weeks, with public rebukes and corrections of the Holy Father himself. The Catholic commentariat, including bishops and priests, has also ratcheted up its rhetorical denunciations to fevered dimensions.

Fevers aside, this is a feature, not a bug, to borrow a phrase from the software world. The Holy Father believes that in the conflict of ideas, and the clash of personalities, the truth can be clarified. It is an idea borrowed from German philosophy, and Pope Francis is particularly attentive to the priorities and methods of the Church in Germany.


Christ Is the Starting Point

The starting point for understanding Pope Francis’ pastoral preference for denunciation and rebuke is the ministry of the Lord himself. Jesus rebuked, often in vigorous language, many of his listeners. He instructed his disciples to “shake the dust” off their feet against those who would not listen to them.

In the recent life of the Church, those modes of pastoral action have almost entirely disappeared.

It is very difficult to imagine a bishop addressing his priests in the way that the Holy Father has addressed bishops. A parish priest would never point out to the media a particular woman as “irresponsible” in her childbearing decisions. Yet would Jesus do it?

Pope Francis evidently thinks so, that the Church has to recover the denunciations that we find in Jesus’ preaching and teaching.

That is not the whole story, of course, for Pope Francis has spoken about the “tenderness” that marks the Christian and how “harsh language” has no place in the mind and heart and mouth of a pastor.

It is a difficult balance, to be sure. Pope Francis’ daily homilies are laced with harsh language, as he interprets the words of Holy Scripture. He delivers frequent judgments on whole categories of people he finds lacking.

The Holy Father is evidently trying to present a fuller model of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who both carries the sheep and employs the crook and staff to keep them in line.

The culture of rebuke cannot be the only mode of ecclesial discourse, even as we give it greater prominence following the Holy Father’s lead.

It needs to be complemented with dialogue in truth and charity; in the household of faith, the rebukes themselves are to be made in charity.

That is the current challenge and why Cardinal DiNardo invited reflection upon dialogue in the Church after the Father Weinandy letter. Whether it will come remains to be seen.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ aired on EWTN on Good Friday 2023.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ 2023

This year’s meditations by Father Raymond J. de Souza honored the late Cardinal George Pell, including some of his meditations from his ‘Prison Journal.’