The prolific Fr. Longenecker has jumped to the defense of Pope Francis in the wake of the Boston Globe story about the relationship between the Pope and the late Protestant ‘Bishop’ Tony Palmer, who died in a motorcycle accident in England recently. According to the account, Mr. Palmer’s family was Catholic while he remained Protestant.
After years of working with the Cd. Bergoglio Palmer wanted to become Catholic too, but was urged to remain outside the Church by the Pope ‘for the sake of the mission.’ This is a discouraging but not ‘out of the blue’ story and Father’s response is distracting.
My comments in red:
Can you disagree with the Pope? Sure. Last week I posted about some traditionalist Catholics who do nothing but correct the Pope. These extremists correct Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, Pope St John Paul II, Pope Paul VI and Pope St John XXIII. When I said they resemble the liberal cafeteria Catholics they so dislike I also pointed out that there is nothing wrong with questioning or challenging a pope’s personal choices. Extremists? This borrows language from the enemies of the Church. Didn’t he just say that correcting a Pope was ok – Sure, but?
The underlying question is “Do you have a basic trust in the Holy Spirit working through the Body of Christ the Church? Do you have a rock solid belief that the Pope is working for the best of the church and the promulgation of the Catholic faith? Can you listen to him and obey him as your shepherd and as the Vicar of Christ?” Is this our Faith that everything every Pope says must be taken as the work of the Holy Spirit?
If “yes” then criticisms of the pope’s style, his personal choices, his taste and his decisions in pastoral matters are just talking points. It’s like having a good marriage but you can’t stand your wife’s new hairstyle. It’s like loving your husband but you wish he’d give up bringing fish home and gutting them on the kitchen table. It’s like loving your wife but cringing when her mother comes over. (Fr. Longenecker is a married priest. It’s good to remember, and to appreciate the tremendous gift of celibate priests.)
With this in mind, I read with consternation Austen Ivereigh’s article for the Boston Globe which gives more detail about Pope Francis’ relationship with freelance Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer. For those who don’t remember, Palmer met the Pope when he was working in Argentina as a Protestant missionary. Tony Palmer, a South African, was married to an Italian Catholic, and the question of his converting to the Catholic church arose in his conversations with the then Archbishop Bergoglio.
Palmer and Bergoglio had intense discussions about Christian separation, using the analogy of apartheid in South Africa. They found common ground in believing that institutional separation breeds fear and misunderstanding. Bergoglio, whom Palmer called “Father Mario,” acted as a spiritual father to the Protestant cleric, calming him (“he wanted to make me a reformer, not a rebel,” Palmer told me) and encouraging him in his mission to Christian unity. A reformer, rather than rebel is good. Christian unity is good if that means unity with the Church.
At one point, when Palmer was tired of living on the frontier and wanted to become Catholic, Bergoglio advised him against conversion for the sake of the mission.
“We need to have bridge-builders”, the cardinal told him. This is, on its face, not Catholic and not charity.
Should the then Cardinal Bergoglio have advised Tony Palmer to convert to Catholicism? In fact, the more we learn about Tony Palmer, the more interesting the question becomes. He was very involved in joint Catholic-Charismatic renewal and evangelization ministries. Wouldn’t that ministry have been undermined if he became Catholic? Was Cardinal Bergoglio, in this instance, correct in advising him to stay put? This is where Father begins his rationalization.
The doctrinaire would say, “The Catholic Church is the one, true Church. Everyone outside it is going to hell and therefore it was wrong to tell Tony Palmer not to convert!” Unfortunately it’s not always that easy. Sometimes it is better, for all sorts of reasons, for a person to stay where they are. That is a terrible thing to say. ‘Doctrinaire’ means cruel and unbending. Someone who follows the doctrines of the Church is neither. They are called saints. Those of us who work with converts–especially clergy converts–(and I get about two or three emails a month from clergy thinking of converting) realize that for family, faith and financial reasons immediate conversion is not always the answer. If a person is moving towards the Catholic faith we meet the person where they are and walk with them on that journey. It took me twenty years to finally take the step to become a Catholic. Maybe someone should have told Father to wait even longer? Still, the circumstances, background, and timing of this story could certainly be different than the Globe’s account.
Therefore one can’t judge Cardinal Bergoglio’s call with Tony Palmer. This is the essence of Fr. Longenecker’s point. We don’t know the actual situation, so we should not be rash.
However, what about that bit about ‘the sake of the mission?’ It’s the stated reason for the Pope’s direction to Palmer. Is that a reason? Is there ever a reason to refrain from union with the Church of Christ, with the saving Sacraments, and with Heaven? No. There’s not.
Father goes on to make a strong faithful defense of his conversion and those of countless others who have helped the Church with their love, but these facts are not really relevant to the troubling story that appeared in the Boston Globe this weekend about Pope Francis and his late friend, Tony Palmer.