Does Francis deserve the benefit of the doubt?

One of the most common statements I’ve heard from Catholics over the past decade is, “We should give the pope the benefit of the doubt.” (…)

Let’s just list a few examples of papal actions that have eroded trust in this pope: 

  • Promoting many clerics, such as Fr. James Martin, who undermine Church teaching on homosexuality.
  • Gutting of the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family
  • Honoring of abortionists
  • Bringing Theodore McCarrick out of retirement into the pope’s inner circle
  • Attacking the traditional Latin Mass, and traditional Catholics in general
  • Suggesting that God wills multiple religions
  • Changing the Catechism to say that the death penalty is against human dignity
  • Allowing Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics

And of course the list could go on, and on, and on. Now some will argue that if we always give Francis the benefit of the doubt, then all of these actions can be explained in an orthodox light. But that’s denying the cumulative effect of doubtful actions. Trust might not be lost in a single doubtful action, but many doubtful actions added together can surely weaken and even break that trust. 

What if a husband continues to tell his wife he’s going to be late from work, over and over, without giving any reason, and then the wife starts to hear from friends that her husband is seen out at restaurants with his secretary? And then when the wife confronts her husband to explain his actions, he just ignores her, or gives a non-answer? Should the wife continue to give the benefit of the doubt to the husband? It’s possible that the husband is innocent of infidelity, but the evidence points in another direction. Eventually the wife’s benefit of the doubt is going to be exhausted, even if absolute proof of infidelity is never produced. 

That’s our situation today with Pope Francis. He’s done a myriad of problematic things, and time and time again makes no effort to clarify them. Sure, one could say that the pope doesn’t have to answer to Catholics (although that’s not being a very good “servant of the Servant of God”), but at the same time, it’s reasonable for Catholics to in turn construct a picture that isn’t favorable to the pope’s intentions due to all the outstanding evidence. 

The pope’s refusal to clarify his doubtful actions contrasts with the actions of Bishop Strickland. One of the biggest criticisms of the former bishop of Tyler is that he read a letter that appeared to espouse sedevacantism last month. So many of his enemies immediately assumed the worst and argued that he was removed for rejecting not only the pope’s authority, but the legitimacy of the Francis pontificate as well. But many of his supporters, including me, were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t agree with all the contents of the letter he read. 

And Bishop Strickland, upon realizing the confusion, clarified that he was not a sedevacantist and that he accepted the pope’s authority. In other words, he understood there was a doubt, and he cleared it up. Pope Francis does not do this. 

All this doesn’t mean we must give the worst interpretations to the pope’s actions. I’ve seen that happen as well, where fed-up Catholics assume that Francis is intent on destroying the Church—that he’s actively working for its downfall in every action he takes. I think that’s unfair, as a more reasonable interpretation is simply that his view of Catholicism is at odds with what the Church has traditionally taught and practiced. To give the worst interpretation of every action and statement of the pope is just as bad as a blanket benefit of the doubt, as both deny reality. 

Catholicism does not require that we check our reason at the door. We don’t have to pretend that an action or statement means something it clearly doesn’t mean. If Pope Francis does something egregious—and the sacking of Bishop Strickland is a perfect example of such an action—we don’t have to assume the best intentions on the part of a pope who has continually fallen short of earning our trust.