This week, Pope Francis finished an apostolic visit to the southeastern African nations of Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius. During in-flight press conferences both from and back to Rome, Francis was asked about right wing Catholics in the U.S. who have worked against him and whether he fears schism. In the first interview, the first pope from the Global South made headlines for saying it was “an honor that Americans are attacking me, referring specifically to his right wing critics. On the return flight, he also spoke about these critics, but offered broader wisdom about criticism, especially regarding his leadership:
“First of all, criticism always helps, always. When someone receives criticism, that persons needs to do a self-critique right away and say: is this true or not? To what point? And I always benefit from criticism. Sometimes it makes you angry…. But there are advantages. . .
“Regarding the case of the Pope: I don’t like this aspect of the Pope, I criticize him, I speak about him, I write an article and ask him to respond, this is fair. To criticize without wanting to hear a response and without getting into dialogue is not to have the good of the Church at heart, it is chasing after a fixed idea, to change the Pope or to create a schism. This is clear: a fair criticism is always well received, at least by me.”
These words should bolster Catholics who seek to renew and reform the church in the vision of Vatican II, and with moving the church forward on LGBTQ issues. First, Pope Francis is affirming the constructive benefits of criticism in the church when it is lodged fairly and respectfully. The church’s tradition is replete with moments when criticism of the hierarchy’s teachings and theologies was suppressed, violently at times. How many theologians just under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI offered respectful criticism, most often on topics of gender and sexuality, and were sanctioned as a result? But Francis is clear that criticism must be an aspect of the church’s life. an aid to help the People of God to thrive.
Second, Francis emphasizes that when offering criticism of the church, we must be willing to not end the discussion there, but to be part of a dialogue. Dialogue is about learning together and walking together as much as possible. Criticism is only constructive when it occurs within this process and always from a place of love for the church.
Beyond these two lessons, we can also learn from the exhortation derived from Pope Francis’ comments. Francis does not reject fair criticism; as pontiff, he says it would “always be well received.” He is willing to subject himself to the dialogue during which, at times, he will be criticized. I bet he expects other church leaders to be likewise ready to engage. It is essential for the good of LGBTQ people, their families, and the People of God that advocates for a just and inclusive church keep offering our loving and respectful, but firm criticisms when the church’s leaders and institutions fail. Indeed, this is what Pope Francis is calling us to do.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 12, 2019