My column here a fortnight ago, 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.

Last week, 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.

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