God bless Jim Towey and the work of his school, Ave Maria University. I am confident that he is confused, and we should pray for clarity.
I’m talking about his recent series of letters and clarifications regarding how Catholics should express their obedience to the pope. Jim is partially right and partially off base.
What Jim Towey Gets Right
Jim is right that that conservative Catholics need to be very gracious and obedient when they challenge the pope’s formal teaching on matters like the death penalty. The church’s teaching authority comes directly from Jesus Christ. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
When Mr. Towey admonishes Catholics to heed the pope’s teachings, he is absolutely right. Which is why I wrote this blog post about the change to church teaching on the death penalty.
Moreover, Mr. Towey is right to call our attention to Donum Veritatus, a 1990 instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That letter cautioned Catholics to avoid theological debates with the Magisterium in the press. When Catholics disagree with church teaching, they should do it inside the church, not in public.
What Jim Towey Gets Wrong
Mr. Towey errs in extending the admonitions in Donum Veritatus to administrative functions of the church. Writing about Archbishop Vigano’s testimony about what Pope Francis knew and when he knew it, Towey writes (according to Catholic News Agency):
“What was said in the context of commentary on magisterial documents seems to apply as well as to the public criticisms of the Holy Father and his actions,” Towey wrote. “The Archbishop here publicly accused the Pope of ‘grave, disconcerting and sinful conduct’ and called for him to resign. In my view, this conduct crossed the line, and a defense of the Holy Father was merited.”
I assume Mr. Towey is referring, specifically, to this passage from Dorum Veritatis:
For this same reason, magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful.
Cardinal Josef Ratzinger presumably authored this paper, which was directed at theologians, not lay people or archbishops like Vigano. (It is a wonderful document that every Catholic should read.) I am not sure, but I believe it was in response to the reactions of some liberal theologians to Pope John Paul II’s ex-communication of an order of nuns who attempted to ordain themselves as priests. The liberal theologians, of course, sided with the wayward nuns, claiming theological justification for their unjustifiable actions. In this case, the disciplinary action and the behavior that demanded the pope’s response were wholly theological and within the church. No crime was committed. The only innocent victims were Catholics who were scandalized by the nuns’ actions and by the theologians who supported the nuns and criticized the pope. And, of course, Jesus Christ who is the innocent victim of all our sins.
In the case of Cardinal McCarrick, however, we’re talking about a felony. And if Archbishop Vigano is telling the truth, the pope aided the commission of the crime and put the public at risk by returning the dangerous cardinal to public life in the church. To claim Catholics must keep this information in-house is to encourage the problem to continue. I cannot believe that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had that end in mind when he wrote Donum Veritatis.
But Towey’s error becomes more egregious the closer we examine his assertion that the magisterial document applies to “public criticisms of the Holy Father and his actions.” By Towey’s reasoning, Catholics must keep mum on anything the pope does, including violent crime or acting as an accessory after the fact of a violent crime. His reasoning is absurd.
Making Towey’s error even worse is the way his reasoning must apply to the rest of the church hierarchy. Bishops and cardinals are local representatives of the pope, as is made clear in Donum Veritatis:
Within the particular Churches, it is the bishop’s responsibility to guard and interpret the Word of God and to make authoritative judgments as to what is or is not in conformity with it. The teaching of each bishop, taken individually, is exercised in communion with the Roman Pontiff, Pastor of the universal Church, and with the other bishops dispersed throughout the world or gathered in an ecumenical council. Such communion is a condition for its authenticity.
If Catholics are enjoined from publicly criticizing the pope’s actions, we must be enjoined from criticizing the actions of bishops and cardinals. Therefore, according to Towey’s confused interpretation of Donum Veritatis, Catholics must not criticize Cardinal McCarrick’s actions, including the act of masturbating a 13-year-old boy against the boy’s will.
Further, according to Towey’s reasoning, Catholics were wrong to continue to push for justice in Chile after Pope Francis declared the accused bishop innocent and his victims in “calumny” to slander the bishop and the church, via CBC Canada:
The AP subsequently reported that Francis had received a letter in 2015 from one of Karadima’s accusers detailing Barros’s misdeeds. That letter undercut Francis’s claim to have never heard from victims about Barros.
Francis further drew rebuke when, during a January trip to Chile, he said the accusations against Barros were “calumny” and said he was “certain” he was innocent.
Francis was wrong and only continued public outcry drove him to admit just wrong he was. Will Towey criticize the victims of Bishop Barros?
Jim Towey must be wrong.
Catholics and all Christians are called to fight injustice, whether the injustice is perpetrated by the pope, a common criminal, or Mother Teresa. If Archbishop Vigano’s testimony is truthful regarding what the pope knew and when he knew it, reasonable people must conclude that the current pope is an unfit steward of Christ’s church. And they are required to say so.
Mr. Towey surely does believe in moral relativism, but his arguments on the Vigano letter look like moral relativism. Dorum Veritatis was directed at theologians demanding change to doctrine and dogma. Vigano’s letter demands the church practice its doctrine and dogma. In other words, Vigano simply wants the pope to practice what he preaches. Surely, Cardinal Ratzinger would not want his document used as justification for hypocrisy and silence at injustices and crimes committed by high and visible church officials.
I believe Mr. Towey is truthful in wanting to “defend Peter, not simply Francis.” What he seems to be missing is that, if Francis did what Vigano’s alleges, then it is Francis who is attacking Peter, not Vigano.
And if Vigano had not published his testimony publicly, the injustices revealed in his letter would never be resolved. I can’t believe that’s what Mr. Towey wants. Nor can I believe that Mr. Towey trusts the church hierarchy to right its own wrongs in private. The church has had 30 years to fix this problem and remove the tumor that caused it, but the hierarchy has failed miserably.
But Jim Towey Is Still Partly Right
Again, it’s important to remember that Mr. Towey is right when it comes to the church’s teachings. Just because Towey is wrong to extend the instructions of Donum Veritatis to administrative actions does not mean Catholics should publicly criticize church teachings on matters like abortion, the ordination of women, sex outside of marriage, artificial birth control, or capital punishment. These are matters where we must trust the Holy Spirit to guide the church to teach what Jesus wants us to learn.
When the pope or any bishop’s action prolong an injustice, cover up a crime, or drive souls away from Jesus, his actions are open to criticism. And, if Vigano is right, much criticism is due unto Francis.
Finally, Pope Francis, the US Catholic Bishops, and bishops the world over have called for openness and transparency regarding the sex abuse scandal that has been in the headlines since the 1980s. Mr. Towey should recognize that Archbishop Vigano and all the Catholics outraged by his letter are only doing what the church hierarchy has instructed us to do: if you see something, say something.
I pray for Jim Towey who is only trying to defend the faith, for Pope Francis, and for the many innocent victims of predatory priests and bishops. May God have mercy on us and on the whole world.