In Rome, personal attacks are replacing debate

Smoke billows from chimneys in Rome, in front of St Peters' Basilica (AP)

A recent column of mine, looking back at the family synod a year later, earned a rebuke from Fr Thomas Rosica, who called it “truly ridiculous and irresponsible” and declared it time to “call out the nonsense of publications claiming to be Catholic and a herald. Hardly the case!” That “calling out” has been going on for quite some time, in fact, and bears examining.

Fr Rosica is an old friend, about whom a year ago, at the end of the synod, I wrote an appreciative column for The Catholic Register of Toronto. A few weeks back I quoted a reflection of his on gratitude in my parish bulletin, and have been promoting to my parishioners a forthcoming conference he is giving in my own diocese.

So I don’t get bothered by his comments, and am sympathetic to the burden he bears in running a television network entitled Salt and Light. After all, we, if faulty heralds, may no longer be entrusted with important messages. However if salt loses its flavour, it is to be tossed out and trampled underfoot – that’s a lot more pressure!

Of greater interest is how Fr Rosica’s criticism fits into a larger dynamic of pointed attacks upon those who deviate from the official line in Rome. Fr Rosica himself is the English-language attaché of the Holy See Press Office, in daily contact with hundreds of journalists, and at the very least a quasi-official voice of the Vatican.

Earlier this month, an unofficial voice, Andrea Tornielli, favoured recipient of leaks from the inner circle of Pope Francis and papal interlocutor for the book The Name of God is Mercy, wrote an article surveying a global network of “Catholics who are anti-Francis but love Putin”.

The commentary, indicative of the current ethos, did not address the arguments made or questions posed by those, including eminent scholars and scholarly eminences, who have doubts about particular aspects of Pope Francis’s agenda. Instead, there were an assemblage of speculation about motives, assertions of conspiracies and a weird reference to the “mythological idealisation of Vladimir Putin”.

This new mode of Vatican rhetoric is one of the greatest contrasts with the 35 years of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI. While arguments then were vigorously engaged and teachings explained in great detail, persons were rarely attacked. Cardinal Ratzinger, who could be devastatingly biting in his scholarly work, nevertheless refrained from questioning motives and character.

Pope Francis prefers a different approach, which is a challenge for his spokesmen. He has told the American bishops that “harsh speech does not befit the tongue of a pastor”, but nevertheless he advocates frank speech and open debate in a spirit of fraternity. The Holy Father peppers his daily homilies though with severe judgments and frequent condemnations.

That is a challenge then for the papal spokesmen, official, quasi-official and unofficial. How to combine the tenderness and mercy which Pope Francis has placed at the centre of his pastoral approach while remaining true to the bruising rhetorical style of the Holy Father?

“We ‘Catholics’ have turned the Internet into a cesspool of hatred, venom and vitriol, all in the name of defending the faith!” Fr Rosica said last spring, doing his best to imitate the Holy Father’s style. “The character assassination on the internet by those claiming to be Catholic and Christian has turned it into a graveyard of corpses strewn all around. Often times the obsessed, scrupulous, self-appointed, nostalgia-hankering virtual guardians of faith or of liturgical practices are very disturbed, broken and angry individuals, who never found a platform or pulpit in real life and so resort to the Internet and become trolling pontiffs and holy executioners! In reality they are deeply troubled, sad and angry people. We must pray for them, for their healing and conversion!”

Fr Rosica gives as good as he gets on the internet – and much of what he gets is unacceptable from Christian disciples. But when he or others speak as above – or when he castigated us more recently – it seems that they are simply trying to say things the Holy Father would say in the manner in which he would say them. After all, one doesn’t remain an official of the Holy See Press Office for three years if the Pope is not pleased with the approach.

The avoidance of constructive arguments, replaced instead by assertions and ad hominem attacks, is the new style in Rome, implemented by those heralds eager to instruct the rest of us in how to be Catholic.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine