April 5, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) ― While listening to portions of Fr. Larry Richards’ homilies this week, I was struck by his use of such phrases as “go against” and “starts with.” As a student of theology, I was instructed to be very precise in my speech. However, when articulating what he deems to be slights to Pope Francis or himself, Fr. Richards is not at all precise.

To recap, on April 19, 2017, EWTN’s Fr. Richards told an anecdote about LifeSiteNews’ Steve Jalsevac in which he claimed that our co-founder had “started with” him.  

Describing the end of a recent parish mission, Richards said, “A man came there and he started with me. And I’m standin’ there, like ‘What? And then I turn around and he starts at me some more.”

Hitting the pause button for a moment, what do “started with” and “starts at” mean? What was it that Steve started doing? Steve says he smiled and introduced himself. Fr. Richards’ anecdote doesn’t contest that. However, the pastor’s own “start” seems to have been of a much more aggressive nature:

“And then I sat there and — O’ course, I’m more of a Hosanna-type person, so I start back with him, right? And I start yellin’ ‘cause he’s the co-founder of a website … that goes against Pope Francis almost every day.”

To hit pause again, was Richards sitting or was he standing? Also, I have no idea what a “Hosanna-type person” is, although he certainly sounds as manly as Fr. Richards’ dropped Gs. More important, however, I don’t know what Fr. Richards means when he says this website “goes against Pope Francis.”

As we will later address, the question of opposition to a reigning pontiff requires a precise and nuanced answer. “Going against” a pope suggests too many possibilities, ranging from waging war against Vatican City to attacking the Pope physically to refusing another glass of wine at the Casa Santa Marta. (“No, I’ve really had enough, Holy Father, and now I’m going to bed.”)

Apparently, it is important to our physical safety to understand what Fr. Richards means by “going against Pope Francis.” For in his manly, ungrammatical fashion, he uses it as an excuse to punch journalists.

“I says, ‘You stop pickin’ on the Holy Father and then I’ll talk to you. And he says, ‘I will not.’ (Steve contests this.) And I said, ‘Yes, you will’ and I started and he started and I said, ‘Git away from me’ … and they had to pull me away from him because I was going to hit him.” (Steve does not contest this.)

For the words “hit him,” Father’s manly growl was here replaced by a feminine squeak, and his congregation laughed merrily.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to get all the men I know to start going against this place and show him no one goes against the Holy Father,’” Fr. Richards continued, growling again.

“We are gonna protect the Holy Father. And that’s the way I would have been with Jesus. I just know it. I would have been, ‘No one’s gonna touch Jesus. Are you kidding me?’ ”

Sure thing. No cock crowing thrice for Fr. Richards. But putting aside the comparative unmanliness of St. Peter for a moment, it seems that the priest has conflated LifeSiteNews’  reportage with the crucifixion of our Lord. That’s not only irresponsible, it’s intellectually bankrupt.

The bluff and hearty Fr. Richards doesn’t often present himself an intellectual, but he took a stab at it this past Sunday when he accused some parishioners of “going against” both him and the successor of Peter.

Warning these rebels that their souls were in danger of eternal damnation, Fr. Richards read his congregation snippets from the third chapter of Pastor Aeternus, one of the two documents produced by the First Vatican Council.

This Council, convened by Pius IX in 1869, sought to address new philosophical challenges to the Christian faith, to assert the primacy of the papacy, and to define its limits.

The most hotly contested question at the Council was that of papal infallibility. Although there were indeed those who longed for the pope to tell them infallibly what to think on every subject, the ultimate definition was comparatively narrow:

“We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex-cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.” Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 4. 

To put this into perspective, there have been only two ex-cathedra papal pronouncements: the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (by Pius IX in 1854) and the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (by Pius XII in 1950).

Fr. Richards did not read from Chapter 4 of Pastor Aeternus, however. Instead, he read two sentences from Chapter 3, a text underscoring that the Roman Pontiff is the supreme pastor and teacher of the Christian faithful, to suggest that any form of “going against” the Holy Father could land them in hell.

“To him, (in) blessed Peter, full power has been given by our Lord Jesus Christ to tend, to rule and to govern the universal Church,” Fr. Richards read, and then skipped down to “This is the teaching of the Catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.”

“That means if you go against the Pope publicly, you endanger your faith and your salvation, so I as your pastor must tell you your soul is in danger of eternal damnation if you go against the Holy Father of the Church,” he stated.

No, it doesn’t mean that. It means that if you deny that the Roman Pontiff is the supreme pastor of the Christian faithful, you “endanger” your “faith and salvation.” It does not mean that you must pretend everything a given pope says or does is correct.

Through his imprecision, Fr. Richards has misled his congregation about the teachings of the First Dogmatic Constitution of the Church of Christ. Through his imprecision, Fr. Richards has falsely presented Steve Jalsevac as a hothead who approached him aggressively. Through his imprecision, Fr. Larry Richards is teaching Catholics that they must accept unthinkingly what could be merely the erroneous opinions of a pope speaking as a private theologian.

That’s just wrong. No Catholic theologian, let alone a Doctor of the Church, believes that Catholics owe religious submission to every opinion of a reigning pope. During this pontificate, many Catholic theologians, including cardinals, have pleaded with Pope Francis to express his most controversial opinions in words more in concert with the perennial doctrine of the Church. They do this not because they are “starting with” or “going against” the Holy Father in an aggressive macho way, but because they love both the Church and the Roman Pontiff.

Fr. Richards purports to fear for his parishioners’ souls. Learned Catholic men and women fear for Francis’ soul and seek to help him as his loyal children. That’s not “going against.” That’s fighting for. For the sake of truth, I hope Fr. Richards learns to fight for more precision in his speech.   

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and novelist. She earned an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and an M.Div./S.T.B. from Toronto’s Regis College. She was a columnist for the Toronto Catholic Register for nine years and has contributed to Catholic World Report. Her first book, Seraphic Singles,  was published by Novalis (2010) in Canada, Liguori in the USA, and Homo Dei in Poland. Her second, Ceremony of Innocence, was published by Ignatius Press (2013). Dorothy lives near Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband.