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  • Edward R. Benet

Is Pope Francis about to make truth secondary to pastoral concerns?

Updated: Jul 12, 2019

Part of the Christian Third Way series


St Peter's Square, Rome

Clericus and Liberalis had had this dispute before. In many ways, it was a typical disagreement between them. A news report from Rome said that Pope Francis was working on a new document that would change the priorities of those who worked in the Roman Curia. According to the rumour doing the rounds, the new priority would be the work of evangelisation, rather than the task of conserving the truth of the faith. Predictably enough, Clericus was furious when he heard this. This was just typical of Pope Francis, he felt. How could the Church negate its duty to preserve the deposit of faith? If we do not cling to the truth as a matter of priority, then what will be the content of our evangelisation? The Church wasn’t just a group of hippies preaching a message of universal fraternity! Look at the secularist model of “fraternity”! Abortion and euthanasia were all compatible with a “fraternity” that was not informed by a robust model of Christian truth grounded in revelation.


Liberalis, by contrast, was pleased to hear of the alleged proposal. This was exactly the change of emphasis that was needed. Many of those guys working in the Roman Curia had just about the most comfortable lifestyles of anyone in the Church. Their jobs in the sacred congregations involved relatively limited contact with ordinary people. Pope Francis was dead right to ask that they give an emphasis to spreading the Gospel! What use was the effort to supposedly “conserve the truth” if these guys weren’t actively living lives of charity and service to those who really needed it? There was plenty of evidence that some of these characters in the Curia were living lives of great self indulgence.


Catholicus met Liberalis and Clericus one day for coffee. Clericus was in a no-nonsense mood. “Beware those who make the truth secondary to pastoral efficacy!” he said. “Remember Jesus when he gave his discourse on the bread of life. Many people walked away because the truth was too difficult for them. Did Jesus call them back and say, ‘Hold on there, people! You don’t need to believe this if it’s too hard for you! Just stay with us and let’s all be brothers and sisters even if we don’t agree on what is the truth!’ But Jesus didn’t call them back! He said the truth even if it wasn’t pastorally effective in the short term. And look at what’s happening in the older Protestant churches! They have no emphasis on truth. Everyone is his own pope and council! Their emphasis is on the pastoral for sure, but they’re emptying the faith of its content!”


“Just a minute, Clericus!” Liberalis cut in. “That is being completely unfair! Pope Francis is not proposing any changes in doctrine. He is not saying that people can deny the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist just for pastoral reasons, nor that we are entitled to change any other tenets of the faith. Anyway, these are all just rumours. We don’t know what this new document is about, but I have no doubt that Francis wants to prioritise the business of speaking to people’s hearts. Remember that line that is sometimes attributed to St Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach the Gospel always, use words if necessary’. Pope Francis wants to shake the Curia out of its self-indulgent complacency. Do you know that some of these guys in the curia have apartments in the most beautiful areas of Rome? It’s right and proper that they be challenged to be pastoral for a change!”


“All very well”, fumed Clericus, “but we can’t subject truth to pastoral concerns just to shake the Curia out of their self-indulgence! It would set a dangerous precedent. A document aimed at the Curia would have implications for the universal Church if it established the principle that pastoral concerns were to be set ahead of the concern to preserve the truth. Soon we’d have bishops in Germany saying that euthanasia was ok in certain circumstances if it had good pastoral consequences. You name any doctrinal or moral position of the Church. If we make pastoral concerns primary, no belief would be stand for very long. Look at the mire the Protestants are in!”


“Leave the Protestants be!” said Liberalis. He looked over at Catholicus. “What’s up with you today, Catholicus? You’re there drinking your double chocolate mocha and saying absolutely nothing. By the way, how do you drink that stuff? Every time we meet, Clericus has his espresso, I have a herbal tea, but you always get the largest and most calorie-laden drink on offer! Why don’t you tell us what you think? But before doing that, can you wipe some of that foam off your mouth?"


Catholicus put down his mug and wiped the creamy moustache from his upper lip. He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m listening to what you have to say, guys, but it’s the usual story, I’m afraid. As usual, both of you have your hearts in the right place and are concerned about things that genuinely matter, but you both need to see the fuller picture”.


“Fuller picture!” exclaimed Clericus. “It’s the truth and the whole truth that I’m concerned about! What could be fuller than that?”


“It’s love that we need to put first!” bellowed Liberalis. “If Scripture is clear about one thing, it’s the primacy of love over sacrifice, over everything!”


“The Church must keep love and truth, evangelisation and conservation of the faith in constant balance,” Catholicus replied. “We can’t emphasize one to the detriment of the other. If we wish to be true pastors then we have to love the other person and transmit the truth to them.”


“Exactly!” roared Clericus. “But according to these rumours, Pope Francis wants to make the conservation of the truth secondary to evangelisation!”


“We can’t say that just yet”, Catholicus said quietly. “What is more likely is that he intends to redress a certain imbalance that prevails in the attitudes of many in the Roman Curia. I think the best way to understand this controversy is to look at the way the Catholic Church had always held both Peter and Paul up as models for the two principal charisms of the Church. Sure, Peter is the rock and was given the keys of the Kingdom. The Pope has a role that is absolutely fundamental in the conservation, preservation and strengthening of the faith. But the iconography of the churches in Rome all emphasize the fundamental role of Paul as well. Everywhere you go, if there is a statue, fresco, or mosaic of Peter, then you will find a corresponding statue, fresco or mosaic of Paul not too far away.


“In St Peter’s Square, in front of the basilica, on the left, there is a massive statue of Peter with the keys, and an equally massive statue of Paul with the sword on the right. The same scene is repeated countless times in other places. One of the most beautiful examples is the central door of St Paul’s outside the walls. The panels on the left have scenes from the life of St Peter, his calling, his mission, his martyrdom, and the panels on the right have corresponding scenes from the life of St Paul. The message is clear. Both Peter and Paul are pillars of the church. By the grace of God, they both represent something that is absolutely fundamental in the life of the Church.


“What do they represent? You, Clericus, embody something of what Peter stands for. His role, in part, is to preserve the faith in its integrity, passing it on courageously and without compromise to all future generations. And you, Liberalis, have something of Paul’s charism. He is the Apostle to the Gentiles with the mission to go out to others relentlessly so that all might be saved.


“Pope Francis is the successor of St Peter. But he also inherits the charism of St Paul. He must work to preserve the deposit of the faith, and also preach the Gospel fearlessly to the ends of the earth. In fact, Pope Francis often uses the expression ‘to bring the Gospel to the peripheries’”.


Clericus looked bewildered. “But if he is to be true to Paul and Peter, how can he place evangelisation above truth?”


“No, he won’t do that”, replied Catholicus. “No successor of Peter can produce an official document in which evangelisation and the preservation of truth are put in opposition to each other! We can’t be ‘pastoral’ by telling lies, or saying things that people want to hear! I might make someone feel better by telling them that God approves of their second union, but I do that person a great disservice if I say something that is not true. Since when did ‘love’ consist in saying things that are comforting or palatable to people? Surely real love involves being honest in a charitable sort of way, even if such honesty is difficult for me or makes me unpopular?”


“Exactly!” enthused Clericus. “This is exactly my position! Let’s proclaim the truth from the housetops, even if people don’t like what we have to say! So you think Pope Francis is not going to produce this outrageous document that has been rumoured?”


“I don’t know what is coming,” replied Catholicus. “But I think Pope Francis might well be on the point of writing a document that you are not going to like, Clericus! If evangelisation and the conservation of the truth are to be held in the correct balance, then our task is not simply about shouting difficult truths from the housetops. The truth must be preached in love, and the fundamental truth is that God loves us and has died for us. The Church can’t be content with simply defending its dogmas against all comers. It must be pastorally active, bringing the love of God in a tangible way to those on the edge of society. Of course, when it brings the Gospel to others, it shouldn’t water it down, trying to make it more palatable or less challenging. But the priority is to show love, not argue points. We can stick to our guns completely, but still make love and service our priority”.


“Isn’t that what Mother Teresa did?” said Liberalis.


“Precisely!” replied Catholicus. “Mother Teresa loved and served the poorest of the poor, most of whom did not subscribe to the same worldview that she subscribed to. She didn’t argue with the sick and the dying about theological truths! She just loved them! But she didn’t dilute the truth to make it more comforting for people, Liberalis! You won’t find a saint who was more doctrinally and morally orthodox! When she received the Nobel Peace Prize, her entire address was about the evils of abortion. And you know, I think Pope Francis’ new document is going to be something that would be very much welcomed by Mother Teresa. She too would have a word to say to the guys in the Curia who live in the comfortable apartments but never get their hands dirty with real pastoral work. Let’s not put truth and love in false opposition! I think Pope Francis is going to exhort the Curia to preach the Gospel as a matter of priority. This involves both truth and love. What we preach is the truth, and we must do it with love.”

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