Pope Francis greets the crowd (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

There’s a perception out there—especially in the English-speaking world—that the Catholic Church right now is a simmering cauldron of discontent. The most recent pot-stirrer is Capuchin Fr. Thomas Weinandy, former doctrinal chief of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference. He released to the press a letter he sent to Pope Francis, which faulted him for creating confusion, appointing errant bishops, and demeaning doctrine in general. Earlier this fall, a group of sixty-two clergy and academics published what they termed a “filial correction” of the pope, accusing him of spreading heresy. Their initiative was an attempt to go farther down the road trod by four cardinals, led by Raymond Burke, who wrote the now-famous “dubia” letter that directed sharp questions at Francis after the Synod on the Family. Small wonder that the BBC felt it timely to produce a program titled “Is the Pope Catholic?” while the Guardian discussed “The War Against Pope Francis.”

Those who support Pope Francis’s leadership have tended to keep a fairly low profile by comparison. But that may be changing. Indeed, an outstanding demonstration of public support has arisen in Central Europe in recent weeks. Two highly respected academics, Tomáš Halík in Prague and Paul Michael Zulehner in Vienna, both Roman Catholic priests, wrote an open letter of support for Pope Francis and invited others to sign. As the “filial correction” letter, announced with great fanfare in September, has fizzled, going from 62 signatories to a mere 250, backing for the “Pro Pope Francis” letter has taken off like a rocket. As of this writing, more than fifty thousand people have added their names, either as signatories or supporters.

But it’s not just the number of signatories; it’s who they are as well. Many of them are university professors from German-speaking Europe and the Czech Republic, but eminent leaders from around the world, in public life and the church as well as the academy, also included their names. The philosopher Charles Taylor, South African bishop Kevin Dowling, former Hungarian President László Sólyom, spiritual writer David Steindl-Rast, former German Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse, and Erwin Kräutler, the “legendary bishop of the Xingu”  in the Amazon, have all signed on, along with many others.

Halík and Zulehner’s motivation in writing the letter was not to influence Francis, who they believe is doing just fine. Neither is the letter an attempt to engage the arguments of the pope’s critics—something they believe is better accomplished in other fora. Rather, it is a witness to their confidence in what Francis has done and is trying to do to “reshape the pastoral culture of the Roman Catholic Church in accordance with its origin in Jesus.”

If affirming voices don’t speak up in our public spaces, hostile and fearful messages will predominate.

Tobias Glenz, editor of Katholisch.de, the internet portal of the Catholic Church in Germany, judged the initiative a helpful step toward correcting an imbalance. It is easy to get the mistaken impression online, where the most vehement voices gain the most attention, that opposition to Francis is strong and growing, he wrote. “It would be nice if, in the future and more frequently...the positive voices would speak.”

Others have objected that an open letter of this kind is inappropriate because it ought to be assumed that Catholics support the pope as a matter of course. To think otherwise erodes a basic presumption of Catholic faith. “The Creed is my petition,” Glenz’s colleague Kilian Martin argued in the same issue, as a counterpoint to his view. Petitions and letters do nothing more than “deepen the trenches,” he wrote.

Besides, the fact that people sign a letter does not prove or disprove the validity of the pope’s teaching. “It takes a long-term process to discern shifts in tradition,” church historian Massimo Faggioli observed in La Croix International. He expressed concern that petition campaigns “risk opening the gates to ecclesial populism” and encourage the formation of political parties in the church.

My own feeling, however, is that Glenz has put his finger on a critical point. If affirming voices don’t speak up in our public spaces, hostile and fearful messages will predominate. Many people are alienated from the church precisely because of the kind of fractious and judgmental atmosphere the naysayers evoke. We are all responsible for creating a better atmosphere. What Francis is trying to do in shaping the “pastoral culture of the church” at this moment in history is not an easy task, but it is essential. We need to get behind him. Public statements are part of it.

As I read the testimonials included on the “Pro Pope Francis” website, I found myself inspired—not because I felt that trenches were deepening, but because it seemed that people were climbing out of their trenches. There were no denunciations or attacks, no sense of being locked in a death grip with foes. Although prompted by conflict, the letter has become something better: a testimony of gratitude. We need more of this.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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Published in the December 1, 2017 issue: View Contents
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