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Pope Francis and the Pharisees

Robert Mickens
Pope Francis has been known to make off-colour or politically incorrect jokes from time to time. For example, he has provoked sighs and raised eyebrows with stereotypical mother-in-law asides and occasional references to women as strawberries on the cake.
Then there’s his constant harping about modern-day Pharisees, as he frequently labels those Catholic priests and bishops who are being hypocrites.
Jewish leaders are not at all amused at the reference, to put it mildly. They say the way Pope Francis continuously attributes a negative connotation to the word Pharisee only perpetuates age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes.
Riccardo Di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome, even criticised the pope to his face about this back in 2015. He said Francis replied, “I know very well. I’m a Jesuit and I know the term ‘Jesuitical’ also sounds bad.”
Setting the record straight
Nearly four years later, scholars from the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish traditions are set to look more carefully at Di Segni’s concerns.
They will have gathered at an international conference at the Gregorian University in Rome aimed at setting the record straight about the unflattering, though conventional image of these “doctors of the law.”
Jesus and the Pharisees. An interdisciplinary reappraisal, was scheduled to take place from May 7 to 9 and conclude with a private papal audience. It was jointly sponsored by the university’s Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies and the Jesuit-run Pontifical Biblical Institute, which is marking the 110th year of its existence.
Taking a look at the line-up of speakers and the topics of their lectures, one can only guess that Pope Francis is in for a bit of a reprimand. But, then again, so is Jesus—at least as the gospel writers portray him and his relationship with certain Pharisees.
Small-minded doctors of the law
Whether this will cause the 82-year-old pope to be more careful about his language, however, is quite another matter. One thing it will not do is halt Pope Francis from calling out the hypocrisy among those in the Catholic “ruling class.”
It has been his indirect, but extremely clear way of answering the biting criticism of his fiercest detractors, almost all of them identified with doctrinally rigid or traditionalist sectors of the Church.
When Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Bishop of Rome in 2013 it was not immediately clear that he would become the bane of Church traditionalists.
While he broke tradition by being the first pope ever to take the name Francis, he very publicly extolled the enduring value of popular devotions and other traditional practices.
But his salty language, not so playful jabs at clericalists and his eschewing of the Vatican’s royal court-like protocols, put him on a collision course with semper idem (always the same) and rule-bound Catholics.
Now six years on, it is clear that the ringleaders of the tiny, but very vocal opposition to Pope Francis and his vision for reforming the Church are men in the clerical state.
They began sharpening their knives in the run-up to the first of the two gatherings of the Synod of Bishops that discussed a number of thorny issues regarding marriage and the family.
There were cardinals who warned Pope Francis not to change anything in the way the Church has engaged (or, rather, failed miserably to engage) certain of these issues.
When the Synod finished its two sessions and the pope issued his post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), four of these old birds (two have since died) put Francis to the test by challenging him to answer several of their doubts (dubia) with a simple yes or no.
These “learned idiots” (to borrow a phrase from the man who taught me metaphysics) were like the Pharisees in the gospel who tried endlessly to catch Jesus in a trap. And like the holy man from Nazareth, the pope from Argentina has mostly just ignored them or has refused to take the bait.
The chink in the pope’s armour
A number of politically conservative Catholic media outlets, especially those in English, have been the useful idiots of the learned ones. Increasingly, they have given these embittered and brittle high-ranking clerics a larger forum for their insinuations and, finally, outright attacks against the pope.
That would have been bad enough, but the hacks pretending to be reporters have also become accomplices by actively promoting the deeds Pope Francis’ enemies are carrying out.
This was never more obvious than last summer when these so-called journalists colluded with the former nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, in a strategically planned broadside that actually demanded the pope resign!
Having failed to bring the pope down on the family and marriage dispute, Viganò and his media co-conspirators shamelessly used the sexual abuse crisis—and the pope’s flat-footedness on the issue—as their next opportunity to strike a mortal blow to his pontificate.
Once again they were imitating the hypocritical Pharisees who attacked Jesus. And like Jesus, Pope Francis has responded only with silence.
Enter Joseph Ratzinger, also known as Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
One of the very disturbing aspects of this pathetic spectacle of right-wing Catholic dissent (what else can one call it?) is that the members of this retrodox racket draw inspiration from Pope Francis’ predecessor.
And, sad to have to say it, but Benedict XVI has done nothing—absolutely nothing—to call off these dogs. All the former pope would have to do is issue a short, but firm statement.
It doesn’t even need to be 6,000 words, like his latest essay to protect his crumbling legacy, which he masqueraded as a “contribution” to resolving the abuse crisis.
Benedict must make it very clear that there is one pope and his name is Francis. This is the man to whom the former pope promised his “unconditional reverence and obedience” the day he officially resigned from the papacy.
The emeritus pope should also tell his former aides and sycophants to do the same and to stop opposing Pope Francis. Men like Gerhard Cardinal Müller should be told to shut up.
“In his letter, Benedict has pierced the boil… his text is more intelligent than all the contributions at the Roman ‘Abuse Summit’ and the know-it-all experts at the German Bishops’ Conference,” said the embittered Müller, who is general editor of Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI’s collected writings.
“The nebulous concept of clericalism (as a cause of abuse) is the wrong approach,” the 71-year-old cardinal said in his latest passive-aggressive swipe at Pope Francis who, by the way, gave him his red cardinal’s hat!
Now 19 priests and academics have issued a 20-page open letter to the world’s bishops saying they need to denounce the pope for being a heretic.
“We therefore request that your Lordships urgently address the situation of Pope Francis’ public adherence to heresy,” they say.
Most of the 19 are nobodies. But there is one prominent name among the signatories of the document that should cause alarm—Aidan Nichols.
The 70-year-old English Dominican is a theologian and prolific writer. He has authored at least three books on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI.
Since Benedict was so keen to contribute to the Church’s response to the abuse crisis, he ought not find it too difficult or burdensome to definitively disassociate himself from want-to-be protégés like Nichols who attack Pope Francis.
Unconditional reverence and obedience (Benedict’s own words) demands as much.
UCAN (originally published in La Croix)