EDWARD R. BENET
Before beginning, it is important to emphasize that, as a faithful Catholic website, we acknowledge Pope Francis to be the Vicar of Christ and we believe that he has been given a special charism of the Holy Spirit by virtue of his unique role as successor of Peter. You won't read any denials of the legitimacy of his election here. We pray for our Holy Father daily and trust that the Lord will bring us all to a better place, despite the confusion of these dark times.
A Pattern of Controversial Remarks
Recently, there has been controversy over Pope Francis's remarks in favour of civil unions between homosexuals. Many people in the media and elsewhere responded favourably to these remarks, whilst there was widespread dismay and confusion among Catholics of a more conservative disposition. This is not the first time that this sort of thing has happened. Perhaps the most dramatic instance was in April 2016 when Amoris Laetitia (by means of humble footnote 351) opened the way to communion for those who are divorced and in a second union. This development was welcomed in many areas, even prompting the bishops of Malta and other places to publish new norms allowing the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist. In others quarters, there was a strong backlash against this reversal of the Church's perennial teaching on marriage and the Eucharist. Cardinal Burke and three other cardinals presented a five-question dubia to the Pope, with the aim of clarifying whether or not previous teaching remained in force. Though Amoris Laetitia has been the most significant instance of controversy, there have been plenty of others too: capital punishment, just war theory, the existence of Satan, the wording of the Our Father, the pachamama debacle, to name a few.
Perhaps the thing that upsets conservative Catholics the most is the identity of those who are cheering loudest for Pope Francis whenever one of these controversies erupts. The loudest cheers tend to come from people who actively campaign for the Church to change its teaching on marriage and the Eucharist. For example, Fr James Martin, in a tweeted response to the Pope's recently-aired comments on civil unions, stated that Pope Francis' contribution was a strong signal for countries who continued to oppose such unions. We are all aware that there has been constant pressure on the Church for many decades now to conform its teaching to the spirit of the times. Many of us are struggling to hold a firm traditional line in our families and workplaces. We desire that our beliefs and actions be informed by timeless truths and values, instead of "truths" and values being determined by the volatile times we live in. It is very unsettling to see Pope Francis being cheered on by those very people who attack the Church's views on marriage, sexuality and the worthy reception of the sacraments.
How should a Catholic respond to a Pope who doesn't teach Church teaching?
There are various ways in which the faithful Catholic might respond. The first level of response is often to re-interpret what Pope Francis has just said. Did he really advocate a change in Church teaching, or were his remarks taken out of context by unscrupulous people in the media? In the case of the recently-aired comment on same-sex unions, it has been revealed that the Pope's words were dramatically lifted out of context and spliced onto comments he made about how a family should welcome a child with homosexual tendencies. The way that the splicing was done made it appear that Francis was saying that couples in same-sex unions have a right to a family, when in actual fact he was saying that this boy who had been rejected by his parents had a right to a family. There is a world of difference here, especially because it touches on the Church's traditional teaching that same-sex couples do not have a God-given right to adopt children.
Often, the first level of response (i.e., re-interpreting the spin that has been put on Pope Francis' remarks by the media) fails. That is because we are sometimes left with the sinking feeling that the spin is actually in line with the Pope's own views. In the recent controversy over same-sex unions, many people suspect that Francis may really be in favour of full legal rights to same-sex unions, including the right to adopt. If the Vatican does not issue any corrective to the mainstream media frenzy, this only helps to confirm the suspicion (however, in recent days, the Vatican Secretariat of State has issued a clarification which confirms that the Pope's comments were taken out of context).
The next level of response from the faithful Catholic is to try to explain, in a charitable way, why Pope Francis might speak in favour of something that the Church has previously frowned upon. Tim Gray, the president of the wonderful Augustine Institute, responded in this manner a few days ago in a video presentation on his Formed media platform. Tim told us quite plainly that the Pope cannot change the Church's teaching with a casual comment made in the context of a documentary of that sort. Then he went on to offer an explanation for why Pope Francis might make a comment that clashes with Church teaching. Pope Francis believes in empathy, Tim said. He wants to present the face of the Church as being merciful and welcoming, not judgemental. Therefore, when he meets people, he tends to say things like these which are full of empathy. Such comments cannot be taken as official positions of the Church.
Is "compassion" a good enough reason for the Pope doing what he's doing?
Tim's interpretation of events rings true, and seems to fit many of the other cases where controversy erupted. However, is Pope Francis justified in allowing empathy or compassion to influence the way he presents Church teaching? And this is what is at stake here. The world in general, and the media in particular, are unable to distinguish between throwaway remarks of Pope Francis and the official teaching of the Catholic Church. If Pope Francis says that civil unions are ok, then, as far as the media is concerned, this marks a change in Church teaching, or at least a definite move in that direction.
Let us ask the question again: is compassion a good enough reason for Pope Francis to plunge the Church into confusion or division? The plain answer to this question is "Yes!" God is love, and therefore compassion is the greatest reason in the world for doing anything, come what may. However, the Church has always believed that real compassion cannot be separated from truth. In the past week we have had St Paul tell us in the first reading of Mass that "speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4,15). Compassion is a good enough reason for saying or doing anything, so long as we remain truthful. Is Pope Francis always being truthful when he makes those "compassionate" remarks that lead to controversy? If he is not being truthful, then he is not being truly compassionate either.
One example where Pope Francis seems to have failed in his responsibility to the truth
As stated in the beginning of this article, we have no wish to be disloyal to Pope Francis. On this website, in fact, we are willing to die for the successor of Peter. We would not accuse him of being deliberately untruthful. However, in at least one celebrated instance, perhaps unknowingly, he did not fulfil his sacred responsibility to the truth to the level that we would expect of the primary defender of the deposit of faith. Juan Carlos Cruz had been a victim of clerical sexual abuse in Chile. Francis told Juan Carlos at the Vatican that "God has made you like this and loves you like this". This has prompted many people in the media, including papal biographer, Austen Ivereigh, to conclude that Pope Francis believes that homosexuality is a sexual orientation created and bestowed by God.
Such a view, of course, would contradict the teaching of the Church as summarized in the Catechism: Basing itself on Sacred Scripture . . tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Persona humana, 8). They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved. (CCC 2357)
We can be confident that Pope Francis accepts this teaching of the Church. If he did not, and if he really believed that homosexual orientation was created by God, then on what grounds could he have opposed same-sex marriage so strongly as he did in Argentina before his election to the papacy? Since his election, he has also made it clear on numerous occasions that marriage is a covenant of the Lord between one man and one woman only.
Why would Pope Francis put love before truth?
Why, then, would Francis say something of this sort to Juan Carlos Cruz: "God has made you like this and loves you like this"? Tim Gray's response seems convincing. Pope Francis wished to show empathy to Juan Carlos. He wished to emphasize that God loved him. Perhaps he wanted to say that God had created him with certain tendencies and dispositions, those characteristics that are often more noticeable in homosexual men: sensitivity, gentleness, capacity to communicate. Perhaps in his zeal to affirm and console Juan Carlos he was not careful enough with his words. Let's face it, the "official" Catholic line doesn't sound all that compassionate: "God made you with certain fine dispositions and characteristics that were good in themselves, but these dispositions could also create a tendency towards homosexuality in a situation like yours where you were abused by evil men. This abuse and the terrible suffering you endured caused confusion and disorder in your affective life. You are not responsible for this disorder and God loves you."
Instead of this long-winded and academic-sounding declaration, Pope Francis simply said "God made you like this and loves you like this". The Holy Father was certainly right to say that God loves Juan Carlos, but the earlier affirmation ("God made you like this") represents a failure in his responsibility to the truth. The fact is that we can still express love without ditching the truth. Pope Francis has a way with words and could find a way to couch the truth in compassionate terms without sounding judgemental. It is a pity that he did not do it in this instance. Surely it was a great opportunity to show the more "rigid" types in the Church how things of this sort should be done! Francis could have really emphasized the unconditional love of Christ for Juan Carlos, and added that this love entails that Jesus wants him to live life to the full, live the life that God originally designed for humanity when he created us male and female.
Are controversies of this sort part of a strategy to make the Church more compassionate?
Maybe Pope Francis has a wider strategy in making remarks of this sort. A day or two ago, an article on the left-leaning Catholic newspaper, La Croix International, began with the words: "Like Jesus before him, the pope is shaking us up and challenging us to be merciful". We all know that the Holy Father is against clericalism, where clericalism refers to a modus operandi of the Church in which impersonal procedure and regulations take precedence over service. For Pope Francis, clericalism is a major obstacle to the proper functioning of the Church, which should be like a field hospital taking care of the most needy and vulnerable. All of Francis' controversies has involved reaching out to people on the peripheries of parish life, such as the gay community and the divorced and remarried. If mercy is the Holy Father's first priority, then should we make allowances if he has a few clashes here and there with previous Church teaching? In other words, he may indeed be failing in his responsibility to the truth, but maybe being pernickety about these truths is less important than the overall message of his papacy, which is that God is merciful and loves everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, marital state, etc.?
However, in the next instalment, we will argue that God's mercy is never fruitfully served by closing one eye to the truth. We accept that Pope Francis has beautiful and eminently laudable intentions, but the Gospel has a dual message: God loves you, and, repent and be saved. If we only preach the first, then our irresponsibility to the truth will sow seeds of division in the Church. More over the coming days! May the Lord bless Pope Francis!
How should an orthodox Catholic respond to some of the perplexing things Pope Francis says? (Part 2)
Once again, before beginning, we would like to reiterate that these articles are written in a spirit of obedience and fidelity to the successor of Peter. May God bless Pope Francis, protect him and keep him faithful to his mission!
Is Pope Francis trying to perform a delicate balancing act?
In Part I, we discussed how Pope Francis may have very good reasons for some of the perplexing things that he says. Tim Gray of the Augustine Institute is surely right when he says that our Holy Father wishes to show empathy towards people; he wishes to show the merciful face of the Church, especially to those who feel marginalised. We have to admit that sometimes people in the Church have committed the scandal of not being merciful, of putting procedure and protocol before love. Shortly after his election, Francis gave a good example of this, and his words were welcomed by most Catholics. He was referring to the practice in some places where priests refuse to baptize a child unless the parents are regular Mass-goers. Pope Francis railed against this practice, saying that these parents were good enough to bring their child into the world in a culture in which abortion is so prevalent. The child, according to Pope Francis, ought not be deprived of the inestimable grace of baptism, and especially not as part of a strategy to pressurize parents into going to Mass.
We must be honest. There are plenty of unmerciful attitudes to be found in certain areas of the Church. If you do a quick survey of blogs and websites that have negative things to say about Pope Francis, you will find that many of these posts manifest the very "rigidity" that the Holy Father has been complaining about. By "rigidity" we don't mean a simple conformity to the moral teaching of the Church. The problem arises when we present the moral teaching in terms of admonitions, warnings and reproaches, rather than as invitations to grace. In Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), the Holy Father emphasized that the Good News must be presented in an attractive and joyful way. There can be little doubt that he considers some prelates to be guilty of presenting the Gospel in a joyless manner, too focussed on externals, with too little emphasis on the unconditional mercy of God.
Do love and truth sometimes need to be balanced for pastoral reasons?
The word "pastoral" is mentioned a lot when these controversies involving Pope Francis arise. We all agree that the Church needs to be more pastoral than clerical. Sometimes, we are told, in order to be "pastoral", it is necessary to accept people without passing judgement on them or their behaviour. The priority is to welcome them with the love and mercy of Christ. Is this what Pope Francis is doing when he talks positively of civil unions and communion for those in second unions? Is he making that first step of showing these people the compassionate face of Christ, with the intention, later on, of leading them to conform their lives more closely to Christ? In other words, this interpretation would say that Pope Francis' only "error" is that he has unlimited confidence in the grace of God. If we show people unconditional love and acceptance, then that will eventually lead them to conform their lives to Church teaching. If we jump the gun and start admonishing them to follow the moral precepts of the Church, then this could have the opposite effect. Show them the love of Christ and grace will do the rest.
If we cloud the truth then we damage the Gospel
It goes without saying that the Gospel must be presented in an attractive and positive manner. It also goes without saying that people must be welcomed and received with courtesy, respect and full consciousness of their infinite dignity as children of God. In preaching or speaking, ministers of the Gospel have a duty to show the merciful face of Christ as an absolute priority. However, it is simply a false dichotomy to claim that compassion trumps truth, or that pastoral priorities trump moral considerations. Even a cursory look at the Gospel will show that Christ's ministry has a twofold character: he shows them mercy and asks them to repent and change their lives. But, you know, this is not really a twofold thing at all. Christ shows us his mercy because he wants us to live life to the full, and living life to the full means turning away from an existence that is not compatible with his original plan for us. If Pope Francis is indeed of the opinion that pastoral considerations entail closing our eyes to certain moral truths, then he needs our prayers more than ever! We do no service to love if we do not tell the truth! Take the case of sexual activity outside of marriage. It is vital that we present to the world the Christian image of chaste love. The Lord intended our bodies to be given only to the spouse to whom we have made a lifelong commitment of fidelity in marriage. This is probably a relatively uncontroversial moral precept and we know how important it is for the Church to present it clearly and attractively to the faithful. But the Church has an equal duty to present other more counter-cultural precepts to the world, such as the intrinsic disorder of homosexual acts. If we do not speak clearly on these matters, then we damage the Gospel. The Gospel cannot be reduced to: "God loves you"; it must also add: "and he wants you to be changed into the likeness of his Son".
Pope Francis is capable of showing love whilst telling the truth
Speaking personally, what upsets me the most about these controversies is the fact that our beloved Holy Father is well capable of showing love whilst telling the truth, or, to put it another way, presenting the truth with love. John Paul II gave his entire ministry to the mission of proclaiming the mercy of God. When he canonised Sister Faustina, the apostle of Divine Mercy, on Mercy Sunday 2000, he said afterwards that he had completed the most important act of his pontificate. John Paul could proclaim the mercy of God and still be forthright about the way in which God wants us to change our lives. Pope Francis has the common touch and is well capable of emulating John Paul in this regard. Why then does he sometimes show reticence in defending "traditional" teaching?
The Lord in his providence can bring good from these controversies
The reasons for Pope Francis' behaviour are no doubt complex. The fact that he is a Jesuit guarantees a certain complexity in the process of discernment employed by our Holy Father! Pope Francis may have a pastoral strategy in talking to the people he talks to, saying the things that he is saying, and the manner in which he says them. He may not be entirely justified in his motives. He may have failed in his responsibility to the truth. He may have lacked courage at times to stand up to the pressures of our culture. He may have given in to the temptation to say and do things that win him attention or popular support. But, be that as it may, we have no reason to doubt his overall intentions. I believe that he is fundamentally committed to presenting the compassionate face of Christ, even if he has made errors of judgement in the process. The good Lord, however, can utilize all things to the good, even a Pope who may have slipped into error. In our next instalment, we will consider how these controversies have brought much confusion and soul-searching, but also a positive reaction from Catholic lay people.
How should an orthodox Catholic respond to some of the perplexing things Pope Francis says? (Part 3)
Possible explanations for Pope Francis' apparent contradictions of Church teaching.
Here is a summary of some explanations for the apparent willingness of Pope Francis to disregard or contradict Church teaching now and then. As we know, every time this happens there is a media storm, especially among those commentators who are most anxious that the Church "get with the times".
1) He simply disagrees with the manner in which some traditional teachings of the Church have been couched. He would say that these teachings represents ideals to be aspired to, not absolutes that must be observed in every situation. In normal circumstances, he would say, people in second unions cannot present themselves for Holy Communion, but in other circumstances, having undergone a process of discernment with their confessor, Communion might be possible, indeed desirable, because it is a badly needed source of grace for someone already wounded. Similarly, according to this interpretation, Pope Francis disagrees with the previous Church teaching on same-sex civil unions. Such unions afford essential legal protection to people in these circumstances and therefore can be supported by the Church, so long as we are clear that they are not even analogous to the sacrament of matrimony.
2. Alternatively, perhaps Pope Francis actually agrees with Church teaching, but is concerned that the Church prioritize the presentation of the mercy and welcome of Christ for sinners. Therefore, moral teachings should temporarily be placed on the back burner until we do the more important business of preaching the Good News that Christ has died for us, regardless of our sins. Once we preach the Good News and draw people into the life of the Church, then they will be naturally challenged later to conform their behaviour to the life of Christ.
3. In another interpretation, Pope Francis is trying to provide balance in how the Church is portrayed in the world. As we know, there has been a media-driven campaign for many decades to present the Church as a medieval institution, dominated by men, hopelessly bogged down in obsolete practices, hung-up on sexual morality and morbidly committed to making life miserable for everyone. Pope Francis wants to show that the Church is all about preaching the Good News, not controlling people's behaviour. So he tries to swing the balance in the opposite direction. As he sees it, so this interpretation goes, there is already no shortage of Church teachings about morality, worthy reception of Communion, the disordered nature of homosexual behaviour, etc.. It is high time, he might say, to present the compassionate face of the Church.
Are any of these reasons acceptable?
In the Church we must hold up our hands and acknowledge that we have often failed to preach the Good News with the positivity and joy that Pope Francis calls for. Parish life is often dogged by clericalism, stagnation, and little enough outreach to people on the margins. Nevertheless, the response to these problems cannot be to water down or deny the moral component of Church teaching. Certainly, the Good News of Christ's self-giving for each one of us, no matter how sinful we are, must be preached a matter of priority. Once this message is received, however, the natural question is, "What must I do in order to be saved?" The only answer possible is "Follow Jesus", and following Jesus involves abandoning our lives into his hands daily through prayer and reflection, turning away from sin, accepting the model of Christian discipleship held up by the Church.
The problem with being careless about the Church's teaching is that it causes great confusion among the faithful and non-faithful alike:
- If I have homosexual desires and I come to believe that Pope Francis has asserted that these desires are bestowed on me by God, then I might be less inclined to live the kind of chastity that is demanded of me as a Christian.
- If I live in an indigenous community in which some people worship a goddess of fertility, and I hear that Pope Francis is permitting these fertility figures to be placed in positions of honour in Roman churches, then I might be inclined to spend some of my prayer time invoking the protection of this goddess instead of worshipping the one true God.
- If I am in to new age spiritual practices and I hear that the Pope has participated in a ritual with a fertility goddess in the Vatican gardens, then I might feel confirmed in my practices and feel confident in passing them on to my children.
- If I am separated from my spouse but trying to remain chaste so that I can still participate fully in the Mass, and then I hear that Pope Francis will permit me to receive communion in a second union after a period of discernment, then that might encourage me to go ahead and get into a second union.
Clarity in Church teaching is essential and it is the minimum we expect from the successor of Peter. Such clarity builds up the Church, strengthens the faithful, banishes confusion and creates unity. With full respect and love for Pope Francis, it seems clear that he has failed to some degree in his duty to clarify teaching and unify the faithful. We accept that his intentions have been motivated by the overriding desire to show Christ's compassion to the marginalised, but assert that abundant compassion can still be shown without obscuring the truth of the full Christian view of the human person created by God.
Negative fall-out of these controversies
These controversies have brought much confusion and soul-searching to faithful Catholics. Some Catholic internet platforms have felt the need to re-assert Church's teaching on same-sex unions (this was before the Vatican itself eventually issued a clarification on Pope Francis' recently-aired remarks). A few well-known Catholic bloggers have expressed frustration that, once again, they have to clarify Church teaching on matters that should already be settled. The Washington Post used Pope Francis' comments as an opportunity to comment on a case coming before the Supreme Court about whether or not a Catholic social services agency is entitled to continue receiving public funds if it refuses to place children in foster care with same-sex couples. The Post went on to say: "Is the church’s position in that case consistent with the pope’s humane assessment that all people are entitled to enjoy the blessings of family life?” In Venezuela, President Maduro asked his government to consider a same-sex marriage bill, citing the words of the pope. The Vatican's belated clarification of the context of Pope Francis comments will do little to dampen the willingness of people like Maduro to use these words as a stepping stone to amplified LGBT rights.
Pope Francis is an upright man
Our beloved Holy Father is a man of undoubted honour. There are few enough leaders on the world stage that have a copybook as unblemished as his when it comes to integrity of character. There are no hints of corruption in his past, sexual deviance or exploitation of others. He is a man of God, committed to prayer and committed to preaching the Good News. At this website, we accept that his shortcomings in clarifying and upholding particular Church teachings may have been motivated by the desire to put compassion to the forefront. The end-goal of this compassionate pastoral strategy, of course, is to lead sinners to the life of discipleship, to the glory of the children of God. At times, we believe, this strategy has caused such confusion as to lead people away from authentic discipleship. The very goal of any pastoral strategy is to liberate people from sin, but if our preaching only conforms to the spirit of our age, then it will not free people from sin at all, but only confirm them in their sins. The manner in which Francis spoke to Juan Carlos Cruz had this very effect of confirming Juan Carlos and countless others in a possible lifestyle of sin. Francis could and should have told Juan Carlos how precious he is in the eyes of God, but still pointed out that the Christian view of human sexuality, made in the image and likeness of the Creator, calls us to pursue a style of life that does not conform to the spirit of our age.
Positive fall-out of these controversies
On a more positive note, the response of many faithful Catholics to these media storms has been heartening. In general, prominent Catholics, both priests and laypeople, have taken these opportunities to re-iterate traditional Catholic teachings about the worthy reception of Holy Communion, the Christian view of marriage between one man and one woman, etc.. Some commentators have expressed frustration at Pope Francis, but still made clear that they remain loyal to the successor of Peter and respect his office. The threat of schism in the face of these issues seems minimal. Ironically, it is the German Church, which seems to have embraced the spirit of the times in a far more radical manner than Pope Francis, that seems most at risk of schism, but that is another story.
In past epochs, there have been instances of corrupt popes, incompetent popes and cowardly popes. During some of these papacies, it was the very deficiencies of the man on the chair of Peter that prompted laypeople and clergy to step up to the plate. Consider how St Catherine of Siena was challenged to stand up to the scandal of an absentee bishop of Rome, who had placed himself in the pocket of the French monarch. In the sixteenth century, a humble Dominican friar, Antonio Ghislieri, confronted the nepotism of Pope Pius IV, who wished to make his thirteen-year old nephew a cardinal. Ghislieri was kicked out of the papal court as a result, but when Pius IV died, the college of cardinals - on the advice of Charles Borromeo - made Ghislieri the new pope. Pius V was a great reformer and led the rosary crusade that decided the epic Battle of Lepanto. He would one day be canonised.
These are just a few examples. In periods of history when the successors of Peter have fallen short, the Lord has risen up Catholic laypeople and clergy that have steadied the barque of the Church. In the end, it is the providence of the Lord that is in control of everything. We must trust that good will come of these controversies. Pope Francis is not corrupt. If he has caused some confusion with regard to Church teaching, it will not prevent the Lord from welcoming him into His Kingdom with open arms at the end of his life. "Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me . . Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25, 34-40). Pope Francis has shown an incredibly consistent and impressive care for the marginalised throughout his ministry. He has been a wonderful example to the Church in this regard. We should value this example and perhaps not despair at the negative consequences of his ambiguous teachings. The Lord will compensate for any lack with the beautiful and forthright teaching of committed laypeople and clergy! Lord, we entrust Pope Francis to your protection. Keep him faithful to his mission and bless him forever.