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.”