The ‘war’ against Pope Francis: where do Irish bishops stand?

Oct 27, 2017 | 9 comments

Cardinal Burke and Pope Francis – opposed on Christian leadership

“The central dispute is between Catholics who believe that the church should set the agenda for the world, and those who think the world must set the agenda for the church.”

So wrote Andrew Brown in the Manchester Guardian on Friday October 27th, 2017 – in an extended attempt to explain what he calls ‘The war against Pope Francis’. Brown calls the first of these camps the ‘introverts’, and the second the ‘extroverts’. Placing, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke in the first camp, and Pope Francis in the second, Brown implies that the pope believes that the world must set the agenda for the church. Though Brown appears to be sympathetic to the pope, no description of the situation could better serve the cause of Cardinal Burke.  For that school of thought ‘the world’ is the church’s greatest threat – an advocate of ‘anything goes’ rather than the teachings of Jesus.  Cardinal Burke’s most outrageous supporters see Francis as a heretic because they too believe that ‘the world’ has taken him over.

What does Christian leadership require today?

Of course it is true that the usual ‘conservative v liberal’ analysis of Catholic differences is trite and misleading. So is ‘reformers v traditionalists’ – by implying that only those who oppose reform are true to the church’s oldest traditions. However, ‘introvert v extrovert’ is worse still, especially as it could imply that Pope Francis, as an ‘extrovert’, is a shallow populist bent on changing everything to please the masses, whereas Cardinal Burke is a stern and deeply thoughtful disciplinarian who stands for timeless truths. This is to turn the real difference on its head. It is the pope who has thought hardest about what timeless truths require of Christian bishops in the present era – and it is the pope who is most truly ‘counter-cultural’.

The central dispute in the church is over the exercise of power and teaching authority, specifically the papal office. As the papacy is a model for all bishops, this dispute has implications for the role of Catholic bishops everywhere.

As revealed by both his behaviour and his writings, Pope Francis believes that Christian leadership has primarily to do with loving accompaniment of always fallible people on their journeys towards ‘the kingdom of God’. For Cardinal Burke on the other hand it is clear that the primary role of the Christian leader is verbally to define Christian obligations and to insist upon adherence to certain of those obligations as a condition of full access to the church’s central sacrament, the Eucharist. For Burke the accompaniment of the sinner can have only secondary importance.

In a sense the dispute is over the proper relationship between ‘teaching’, ‘ruling’ and ‘sanctifying – the three most important duties of a bishop.

Remembering that the word ‘companion’ is derived from the practice of sharing bread together, it would therefore be fairer to both parties in this dispute to describe them as idealising either a ‘companioning’ or ‘rule-making’ relationship with those they wish to lead to the living truth, Jesus the Christ.

How is conscience ‘formed’?

The difference is most clearly stated in article 37 of Amoris Laetitia, where Francis writes:

We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

Formers of conscience rather than replacers of conscience. That is the fork in the road for Francis, and, by implication, for all bishops. To seek simply to legislate, to make up the minds of others by mere magisterial declaration, is, by implication, not necessarily to form conscience – and the Pope and the bishops must – according to the present pope – seek to do the latter.

To spend even half-an-hour contemplating the implications of this teaching is to realise the profound silliness of describing this manner of leading the church as a mere ‘style’. Pope Francis is instead advocating and leading an abandonment by Catholic bishops of the role of sequestered and elevated legalist, imposing rules from above – to take up the role of companion of struggling Everyman, a companion who begins by discerning the drama of that struggle before speaking to it of the risen Lord. Only in that way, he insists, can consciences be formed.

A Change of Era

For Pope Francis “we are not living an era of change but a change of era.” Another way of saying that is: “this is a different time”. Cardinal Burke’s liking for the full panoply of the cardinal’s attire – including the page-borne fifteen-foot silken cloak, the cappa magna, tells us that he tends to idealise the era when cardinals had the social and civil status of the highest nobles at the court of the king. That fits perfectly with his apparent tendency to think that to rule is also to teach and to sanctify.

For the pope, clearly, sanctity demands humility – and bishops should model the latter as well if they are to teach. Companioning was an essential aspect of Jesus’s ‘teaching style’ – he was both persuasive and edifying. Pope Francis’ teaching style therefore represents a return to the earliest teaching tradition of the church – centuries before bishops became aristocrats. Few people today take handed-down edicts – declarations of law – as effective teaching. They simply tune out.

The Irish Experience

It will take just another half-hour to realise that nowhere in the world has the truth of this conclusion been more clearly demonstrated than in Ireland. As distant rule-makers since 1968 Irish bishops have steadily lost the attention of the large majority of Irish people who describe themselves as Catholic. Never persistently trying to convince their people directly of the wisdom of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical banning contraception, they relied on the equivalent of a recorded message to convey this ruling and were proven ineffectual – as they have been on every similar stand taken since.

We are standing in the midst of the ruins that this ‘style’ of leadership has created – especially the bewilderment of unaccompanied younger generations and their incomprehension of key Catholic terms such as ‘sin’, ‘grace’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘priest’. Caught between that elevated legalism and a rapidly changing society, the generation of Irish clergy that welcomed Vatican II was left stranded, disappointed, tongue-tied and hobbled. Already, with congregations dwindling by the week, the closure of some Irish Catholic churches is under discussion.

To be companioned by a convinced Christian like Pope Francis is to be given both a glimpse and a promise of the ‘kingdom of God’ – that kingdom in which rivalry for status has been replaced by mutual love and support – true ‘family’. That is the choice that Francis is presenting to Irish bishops too, especially by his promise to attend the World Meeting of Families next year. Will our bishops be ‘up’ for companioning rather than aloof rule-stating – for the forming rather than the replacing of consciences? The near future of the Irish Church will depend upon their response. Megaphone Irish Catholic leadership, a leadership that considered regular dialogue unnecessary, has had its day. The Irish church is facing extinction because it has been deprived for half-a-century of a true communion of clergy and people.

As for the more distant future, the global popularity of the present pope is surely due to a recognition that his leadership is more closely modelled on that of the church’s founder than on the distant imperial bishops of the medieval church – and that no other ‘style’ can now bear timeless fruit.


  1. Pascal O'Dea

    It would serve ordinary church people well if our Bishops read your article and the many others on the site which distil the issues relating to the ongoing loss of morale afflicting our local church. If by their sitting on the fence in regard to declaring support for Pope Francis the Irish Hierarchy feel they will be best placed to follow a subsequent prevailing church leadership they could take courage in the obvious connection achieved by Pope Francis in his companionship, his conscience forming and his lived Kingdom of God’s message here and now. By their timidity and fence sitting the Irish Hierarchy are spurning the opportunity for regrowth of our church.

  2. Kevin Walters

    “Companioning was an essential aspect of Jesus’s ‘teaching style’

    Yes He is our model the Word of the Son of God as in “Not One iota!”

    “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them”

    Yes absolutely as He did. So “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother (continuing the creative process) and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh”. (The Truth of this statement can be seen in any offspring they may be blessed with) And this visual Truth defines marriage as OPEN to the Creative process in their sexual union, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh”

    His Words of Truth, the essence of Love

    “What God has joined together let no man put asunder”

    This is not a mere ‘rule’ it is His Inviolate Will incorporated into the Church’s on-going teaching of Sexual Morality, as it draws us into harmony with His Love for the benefit of all mankind; to teach anything otherwise (Not hold Inviolate alter ‘One iota,’) is to ‘diminish’ our Fathers Word (Will) before mankind, and steal from innocent children, each ones individual birth right, the love, of two biological parents male and female.

    “For the pope, clearly, sanctity demands humility” – and bishops should model the latter as well if they are to teach”

    Genuine love/compassion is manifest in His divine Mercy and comes from above, and it is never cold, rather it enflames and purifies the heart, as true discernment does not dilute or diminish our conscience, rather it induces humility and in humility (St Bernard a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is abases himself) we remain in true companionship with our fellow man.

    God Himself has given the leadership of the Church the visible means, through the Divine Mercy Image of Broken Man, to bow down before our Father in heaven and amplify the power and the glory of His Word (Will) before mankind, while leading us home to our Fathers house, as we walk sanctified in humility, before Him

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. soconaill

    How, Kevin, does it help the development of conscience to insist that a particular rule is the will of God? Are you not merely repeating the mistake of thinking that the mere verbalisation of an ethic will convey it as a conviction into the mind and heart of someone else? Are you not simply asking us to replace our own convictions with your own?

    My own conscience on the ethics of marriage was formed by the example of my parents, and by other direct experiences of the happiness that e.g. a commitment to fidelity can bring. The same holds for the rest of my Christian convictions: I was never convinced by mere verbal dogma.

    Changing minds – the task of forming conscience – is always a matter of forming trusting relationships to begin with. Verbalising rules doesn’t do that – and declaring those rules to be the will of God is just a wheel-spinning claim to greater wisdom and higher personal authority – the futile piling of words on words.

    • Kevin Walters

      Hi! Sean

      My convictions are based on His inviolate teachings and can be tested as Truth is the essence of love. Jesus is adamant in his opposition to divorce as the marriage bond forms a natural bond with God that incorporates the on-going inherent birthright of each and every new born individual

      “Are you not simply asking us to replace our own convictions with your own?

      I am not asking you, as this innate knowledge given by God is already known to you

      You have been very fortunate Sean in the example that you were given by your parents I assume that their fidelity incorporated the love of God and formed the basis of their love for each other. Although admittedly you do not have to be a Christian to form a loving relationship that incorporates the love and care for any offspring that you may be blessed with, as this desire to protect and nourish them is their Birthright which is innately known by all. Given that you had such a good start in life would you not naturally want this for all children, assuming that the answer is yes, does not the teaching given by Jesus form the rock of our sexual morality that we should all adhere to, for the common good of all of mankind?

      “Changing minds – the task of forming conscience – is always a matter of forming trusting relationships to begin with”

      To have a trusting relationship with others as Christians we ‘firstly’ must form a relationship with Gods unchanging Mind, we do this when we acknowledge and try to live in accordance to His inviolate Word (Will); as this forms the basis of our Christian conscience

      “Verbalising rules doesn’t do that – and declaring those rules to be the will of God is just a wheel-spinning claim to greater wisdom and higher personal authority – the futile piling of words on words”

      His Wisdom is not my wisdom, I do not have or seek the moral high ground this perception is a reflection of your own heart, as I am a badly flawed human being and truly know it.
      kevin your brother
      In Christ

  4. Pascal O'Dea

    The Irish hierarchy need to listen and learn. How can we get the bishops to engage with these issues as called for by Francis? Any suggestions for purposeful interaction during next summer’s conference on the Family? As it stands the Irish Church is a dysfunctional role model of communication required for 21st century Christian families. Is there any chance of relevance to ordinary lives from next summer’s conference or will it be a bland event organised with the least level of controversy its main aim? According to press reports from Pope Francis’ person leading the family life grouping Francis has hope that the Irish missionary spirit will spread the value of Christian Family to Europe and afar, notwithstanding Pope Francis acknowledging the issues challenging the Irish church. How do adults of informed conscience act when parent figures, i.e. church leaders, are unresponsive, and not engaging in dialogue?

    • Kevin Walters

      Pascal in response to your comment:

      “Francis has hope that the Irish missionary spirit will spread the value of Christian Family to Europe and afar”….

      Regrowth relates to the lack of credibility of those who lead and profess to serve Jesus Christ.

      How has the inner Celtic spiritual nature of the romantic and poet in the Irish bishops and clergy become so small and stayed before His vibrating heart of Truth and love?

      Was it stifled, while the best of them, the idealists were succumbed by the rational of the elite and sent to evangelize on far distant shores, who then contributed so much to the missionary spirit?

      Where are the courageous hearts that will come off the fence to confront the reality of this ongoing situation, that is one of abhorrent dishonesty before God and mankind, manifest by the elite colluding with blasphemy In God’s house and on-going unaccountability for scandals emanating from the authority of Rome.

      Can the Irish leadership be a missionary leadership and recapture the dynamism of those idealists who left her shores, and now lead the church forward into a new dawn, and be the catalyst for change?

      Can the zing of the Christian hymn once again sing within Celtic hearts?

      Authority comes with Truth and those who serve it.

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

    • soconaill

      “According to press reports from Pope Francis’ person leading the family life grouping Francis has hope that the Irish missionary spirit will spread the value of Christian Family to Europe and afar.”

      Thanks for this, Pascal – but can you identify this person by name, or any of the sources you mention? I would like to follow that up.

  5. Pascal O'Dea

    it was a recent “Irish Catholic” newspaper piece on the planning for the conference and a piece from the American archbishop /cardinal with an Irish name in his late 50’s early 60’s who is head of a Church grouping on the family who has some role in directing the preperation for the conference, he quoted Francis regarding his respect for Ireland’s historical missionary work, that it would inspire hope for the success of the conference.Sorry I dont have more details, look up the Irish Catholic recent editions.Best wishes.Pascal

    • soconaill

      Thanks, Pascal. I’ll do that.



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