is pope francis guilty of false compassion (part 1)
Updated: Jan 25
Whether or not you are a fan of Pope Francis, there can be no denying that he has sometimes been a divisive figure since his election. Many people, on both sides of the so-called “progressive-conservative” divide, are unsure just what to make of him. For example, Robert Mickens of La Croix International, wrote an article on December 12th last stating that Pope Francis is frustratingly ambiguous on many issues. And this is from a left-leaning journalist writing for a left-leaning paper who clearly expected Francis to deliver on a left-leaning agenda, but who has ended up frustrated – hence his article with the underlying tone of exasperation. And, on the other side, there can be no doubt that many Catholics of a more traditional mindset have felt distressed at times with the pope’s lack of clarity on issues like same-sex civil unions, the reception of communion by the divorced and remarried, and other issues.
Pope Francis’ views on most issues is actually quite clear at this point
However, after almost eight years of this papacy, things are not at all as unclear as Robert Mickens asserts. In fact, there is an awful lot we can say about Pope Francis with complete certainty. Much of it is good, and some of it is problematic, but it is important for the peace of mind of the faithful that we face up to certain things and state them openly. The jury is no longer out on certain issues. The evidence for Pope Francis’ true positions on matters like communion for the divorced and remarried is clear and unambiguous. We don’t need to wring our hands any longer and ask, “What does he really believe?” Even if Pope Francis himself has not always stated his views with clarity, we can state them now ourselves after all these years. The evidence is there, in official writings, in footnotes, in comments to bishops and journalists, in letters to episcopal conferences.
If our pastors are in error, then it becomes our responsibility to defend the truth
If any views of Pope Francis are indeed out of kilter with the magisterium of the Church, it is vital that the faithful be aware of that fact. The alternative is doctrinal confusion and grave difficulties in discernment about everyday issues. People begin to think that the Church’s teaching has changed on crucial matters. It is a short step to conclude that the Church is adapting her doctrines to the spirit of the times.
The observations about Pope Francis in this article are made in a respectful manner. Being loyal to the pope shouldn’t prevent us from civilly examining his errors and misjudgements. Indeed, the contrary is the case. Faults that cause confusion and heartache for the faithful need to be exposed. Canon Law encourages us to do so:
According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, [the faithful] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors . . . Canon 212 §3
Communion for those in second unions
When Amoris laetitia was released in 2016 following the twin Synods on the Family, many people wondered if it would allow communion for those who were living in second unions. Initially, there was some confusion because of the wording of the text itself. In fact, it was only the sentiments expressed in chapter VIII, and, specifically, footnotes 329 and 351, that seemed to endorse the possibility of communion for those objectively living in a situation of adultery. In summary form, the discussion could be simplified as follows:
- The Eucharist cannot be received by someone who is in a state of mortal sin.
- To be in a state of mortal sin requires that the sin be a grave matter, that the person have full knowledge of its gravity, and possess the freedom of the will to refrain from doing it.
- For couples in second unions, the matter is clearly grave, but very often there are mitigating factors which diminish their knowledge of what they are doing, or their freedom to do otherwise.
- Thus, though the situation is objectively sinful, the couple may not be subjectively culpable and may be living in God’s grace, i.e., not in a state of mortal sin.
- Given that the sacraments provide powerful nourishment and medicine for the weak, such persons in objectively adulterous situations could be permitted to receive the sacraments after a process of discernment with their pastor.
Of course, the text in Amoris laetitia does not proceed exactly like this and does not reach such an unambiguous conclusion. The language is more circumspect. However, in the months following its publication, it became crystal clear that the document endorsed exactly this pastoral strategy regarding communion for those in second unions. In September 2016, the bishops of Buenos Aires issued guidelines for priests on the implementation of the document. These included the statement: “If it is recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate liability and guilt, particularly when a person considers that he would fall on a further fault damaging the children of the new union, Amoris laetitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist”. Pope Francis responded immediately to these guidelines, stating in a letter to the bishops: "The writing is very good and explicitly the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris laetitia. There are no other interpretations." Some time later, the Buenos Aires guidelines and Pope Francis' letter of approval were both published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (the official gazette of the Holy See), followed by a statement from the Vatican Secretary of State that Pope Francis had decreed that both documents be promulgated as authentic magisterium.
Magisterium by stealth
In the immediate aftermath of the publication (and before the Pope’s endorsement of the Buenos Aires guidelines), many bishops and theologians did their best to read Amoris laetitia in the light of the previous stable teachings of the Church. The motivation of these commentators was understandable: the Pope wouldn’t try to change the teaching of the Church by means of a footnote, would he? However, it soon emerged that this was exactly his strategy. A few weeks after the publication, Archbishop Bruno Forte held a news conference (May 3rd 2016) in which he let slip a disturbing revelation regarding the two Synods on the Family. Archbishop Forte was special secretary of the synod and had a role in producing the final document (relatio) which was then to form the basis of the post-synodal exhortation (i.e., Amoris laetitia). In the news conference, Archbishop Forte quoted Pope Francis as follows: “If we speak explicitly of communion for the divorced and remarried, then we do not know what a storm the synod fathers could raise. Therefore, let’s not speak of this matter in direct terms; you see to it that the premises are there [in the relatio] and I will draw out the conclusions”.
The archbishop then added with a smile, “Typical Jesuit!” With indiscreet friends like Archbishop Forte, you might conclude that Pope Francis does not need any enemies. The grave point at issue is this, however: Amoris laetitia, for all of the great beauty and compassion with which it describes human love, is at odds with the Church’s previously stated sacramental discipline regarding communion for those in second unions.
Is this just a change in pastoral strategy?
People have argued that Amoris laetitia is not a contradiction of the Church’s previous teaching, but simply a more compassionate application of it. It is, in other words, a sympathetic pastoral deployment of sacramental theology. Pope Francis wants to go out and encounter people where they are, to respect their circumstances and difficulties, without judging them, not trying to apply universal rules in a rigorist fashion. The sections of Amoris laetitia which call for the pastoral accompaniment of families in irregular unions are beautiful and important. We have much to learn from Pope Francis’ pastoral zeal for people in these situations. He is surely right when he says that the Church is not doing enough to reach out to people in their fragility and brokenness.
The absence of mortal sin is not a sufficient condition for receiving the Eucharist
The problem is that the likely absence of mortal sin is not a sufficient condition for presenting oneself for Communion. Take the following example: a woman in a very strained familial situation is pressurized by her partner into having an abortion. The taking of human life is, of course, matter of the gravest sort. But the subjective culpability of the woman is greatly mitigated by her circumstances, causing her pastor to doubt that she is in a state of mortal sin. This fact alone, though, doesn’t entitle her to present herself for Communion. Before doing that, she would still be expected to repent of what she had done, confess to a priest and to pledge sincerely not to repeat the offence.
Amoris laetitia does well to point out that we should not pass judgement on those in second unions and that they should be pastorally accompanied. However, it is simply not in line with the perennial teaching of the Church to state that the likely absence of mortal sin is a sufficient condition for presenting oneself for Communion, regardless of a person’s objective marital state. Of course, Pope Francis is aware that he is introducing a novelty, and it is clear that he sincerely believes that he has sufficient pastoral justification for this revolution. Unfortunately, no pope has the authority to make a change of this sort: it impinges on the Church’s understanding of the marriage bond, a bond that reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church, a bond that has been fractured (whether culpably or not) in the case of people in second unions. The Eucharist is the ultimate act of nuptial self-giving of Christ to the Church. To state that the Church can authorize reception of the Eucharist by those whose nuptial vows have been broken is a counter-sign and counter-witness of monumental proportions. Again, this has nothing to do with the innocence or guilt of the people involved.
The fact that Amoris laetitia tries to justify this pastoral innovation by misquoting the Second Vatican Council only highlights the fact that the innovation has no precedent in previous Church teaching. As Michael Pakaluk has pointed out, footnote 329 completely misconstrues Gaudium et Spes 51 in order to recommend that those in second unions need not refrain from sexual relations in order to be readmitted to Communion (to be fair to the Holy Father, as Michael Pakaluk explains, it would appear that this devious misuse of Gaudium et Spes was the work of one of Pope Francis’ editors, and not of himself).
There are non-negotiables in the life of the Church
The principal error, though, of Amoris laetitia is to presume that an argument can be made solely on moral and pastoral grounds for the reception of Communion. This is to deny the uncomfortable truth that there are certain non-negotiables in the life of the Church, non-negotiables that are sometimes hard to understand, that often go against the spirit of the age, but which must be upheld because no pope or bishop or council has the authority to dispense with them. For moral and pastoral reasons, many feel it would be of great benefit to ordain women, to use foods other than wheat-based bread to confect the Eucharist in regions where wheat is rare, to permit Church blessings on same-sex couples who demonstrate the sort of self-sacrificial fidelity typical of a marriage. However, moral and pastoral reasons are not always enough. On some issues, we must bow to the deposit of truth contained in Sacred Tradition, even if we cannot always justify these truths on purely rational grounds. This is not to say that we should disregard the moral and pastoral aspects of these issues, as unfortunately a lot of “rigorists” have done. Much can be done by the Church for same-sex couples and families in second unions, without making sacramental compromises that strike at the heart of those very sacraments. More on this in the next installment of this article.