There is a troubling group of Catholics out there who, while a minority, are quite vocal out there. They are the Catholics who believe that Pope Francis is making a definite break in Catholic teaching, teaching error and needing to be resisted. If they were only a fringe group, we could just dismiss them with a shrug and a shake of the head. But it isn’t merely the lunatic fringe. It is people who equate the Pope with a political view that they don’t like, and don’t think the Church should be teaching on those subjects and that the Pope should focus on subjects they agree with.
The irony of it all is the fact that prior to the pontificate of Pope Francis, there were other Catholics who rejected the teachings of his predecessors, equating them with a political view they disliked and thought that the Church would be better off teaching on subjects they agreed with. Basically, the two groups are guilty of the same behavior but with a different bias. What’s most tragic about this is the fact that both groups seem to condemn the other for doing this, but both are blind to the fact that they are guilty of the very same thing: Having a selective view that is twisted to match political views that justifies themselves and vilifies the others at the expense of obedience to Church teaching.
What’s overlooked is that the predecessors of Pope Francis said pretty much the same thing on issues of social justice that he did, and that Pope Francis has said the same thing as his predecessors on the moral teachings of the Church. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II were not “right wingers” and Pope Francis is not “Left Wing."
So a large part of the judging of popes seems to be ignorance of or ignoring what the Popes have actually taught in favor of a caricature. The problem is, we can’t accurately assess something without knowledge of the facts—facts which the media stories do not supply. Now it may be forgivable for people ignorant of the Catholic faith to not realize that there is more to the story than the media reports. But we Catholics do not have that excuse. If we have faith in God to protect His Church from error when it comes to matters of salvation, there can neither be a case of the Church was right before but wrong now, nor a case of the Church was wrong before but right now. The Holy Spirit didn’t take a nap during Vatican II or the election of Pope Francis. Nor did the Holy Spirit take a nap until Vatican II. There is a continuity in the teaching. It’s just that the ways of expressing the teaching can be done in different ways by different Popes in different ages.
The point is, as the Church faces new circumstances, new attacks, new understandings, teaching develops—but never contradicts former teaching. We’ll never go from saying divorce and remarriage is wrong to saying it is OK. But over time, we have had to answer questions from different sources, and perhaps face situations that the Church in earlier times did not have to address (for example, the widespread rejection of the belief that a valid marriage is permanent that exists today). Pope Francis has to address the problem of a society that has no idea what marriage is really for. When people no longer understand what is the sin, the older methods of explaining the moral truths may be inadequate.
Ultimately, this judging of Popes is based on the idea that the Church should be what the individual wants it to be. When the individual puts himself or herself in opposition to the Church teaching, or when the Church teaches on something the would-be judge thinks is similar to a political view he or she dislikes, the objection is that “God doesn’t care about that,” or that “the Church should be focussing on serious issues.” That’s pride—the belief that *I* can’t be a sinner. If the Church says I am sinning or that my political views are against what following Christ requires, then the Church must be in error.
Mind you, when it comes to being faithful to Church teaching, there are different ways to do it, and two faithful Catholics can have two different views on what the best way to carry it out. So, it’s not being faithless if one would prefer a different approach (in keeping with the teachings, mind you) on doing these things, so long as we recognize exactly who has the authority to decide on what the Church will officially do—whether that concerns the way to carry out a doctrine or what the discipline of the Church is going to be. If one refuses to accept the Church teaching, that makes them disobedient.
For example, take the disputes that have happened concerning the Mass as it exists today (the Ordinary Form), vs. the Mass in the form of the 1962 Missal (the Extraordinary Form). The preference for the Extraordinary Form is not sinful in itself. Some people prefer the Extraordinary Form. I prefer the Ordinary Form. One preference is not right while the other wrong. But it is the Pope who decides what is best for the Church, and if he decides on something that is different than we prefer, he has the authority from Christ to make that decision. Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II were not wrong in mandating the ordinary form. Nor was Pope emeritus Benedict XVI correcting error by expanding permission for the use of the extraordinary form. Those who defied Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II during their pontificates did wrong, and that fact was not changed by the decision of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. It merely meant that those who began to use the extraordinary form of the Mass according to the motu proprio, after permission was given, were not sinning in doing so. Yet a good deal of ink and bandwidth has been expended seeking to portray Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II as teaching error.
That’s what this judging of Popes does. It is an arrogant decision that the individual has the charism of infallibility while the Pope does not. If the Pope teaches differently than I would prefer, it means the Pope is in error. Such a view refuses to accept the possibility of being deceived by the devil through pride. And if we refuse to accept the possibility that we can be wrong, it blocks us from accepting Our Lord’s grace and salvation.
These aren’t minor matters. Those who presume to judge the teachings of the Pope are possibly (I will not judge their culpability) putting their souls in danger. So, when we encounter such people on the internet or in person, at least say a prayer for them that they might come to trust that God is watching over the Church.