is pope francis guilty of false compassion (part 2)
Updated: Jan 25
“Compassion” can be used to justify anything
In part one we saw how Amoris laetitia tries, valiantly enough, to take a middle ground between rigorism and laxity. It aims to be pastorally sensitive, compassionate towards those in difficulties and to safeguard (in a way) the Church’s sacramental discipline by requiring that couples undertake a “process of discernment” before receiving Communion. The notion of “compassion” is actually the driving force behind the pastoral strategy of this document. And that in itself is a great thing! As Christians we are called, above all else, to be compassionate, but it is vital that we distinguish between versions that are true and versions that are incomplete. In today’s culture, the notion of “compassion” is often misappropriated and placed at the service of some very questionable actions. The Irish people recently legalised a very liberal regime of abortion (complete with a denial of pain-relief to the child in the womb, and rejection of all life-saving intervention in the case of babies aborted alive) because they wanted to show “compassion” to those women who would otherwise have had to travel to Britain to terminate their pregnancies.
Yes, there is a type of compassion which can only be called “false” or partial, even if the person who manifests it is sincere and well-intentioned. Amoris laetitia tries to justify a revolution in sacramental practice on the basis of compassion, but the real challenge is to show true compassion to couples in irregular situations without subverting the Eucharist. True, tender, self-sacrificial compassion of this sort on the part of pastors and faithful is possible. Granted, it is a more difficult compassion than the one which permits access to the Eucharist. It is a form of compassion that is not readily appreciated by the spirit of our age, a spirit that demands, above all else, unhindered access to whatever I deem to be my right.
Pope Francis has manifested a pattern of defective compassion
There have been various high-profile instances in which Pope Francis – in his genuine concern and care for the marginalised – has manifested a compassion that can only be described as partial. Among these, a case that stands out is that of Juan Carlos Cruz. As a boy he had suffered the horror of clerical sexual abuse in Chile. Francis told Juan Carlos at the Vatican in May 2018 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. This has caused considerable anguish to homosexual people who had been faithfully living chaste lives and who had accepted 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.” . . . 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, then, would Francis say something of this sort? Presumably, because he wished to show compassion to Juan Carlos. Perhaps Francis 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 favour 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."
Pope Francis failed in his sacred responsibility to the truth about human nature
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 as he is, but the earlier affirmation ("God made you like this") represents a failure in his responsibility to the truth. Pope Francis has a way with words and could have found a way to couch the truth in compassionate terms without compromise and without sounding judgemental. It is a pity that he did not do so in this instance. 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, the life that God originally designed for humanity when he created us male and female (in part three, we will discuss a mysterious tension that has often been the theme of theologians and spiritual writers: the tension between truth and love that Amoris laetitia does not sufficiently maintain).
It is not just couples in irregular unions who are cut off from the Eucharist
In 2019, the Pew Research Center published a survey which shows that less than one third of Catholics in the United States believes that the Eucharist is really the body and blood of Christ. Given the relative state of health of the Catholic Church in America, we can assume that the figure would be even lower for many countries here in Europe. As Church teaching makes clear, the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. Christ makes us holy by his sacrifice on the cross, and in the Eucharist we partake physically and spiritually in this sanctifying event. It is a scandal of tragic proportions that a majority of the faithful are clueless about this essential truth. If we do not have a correct understanding of the sublime mystery of the Eucharist, then how can we receive it well? How can our lives become a real participation in the self-sacrificial immolation of Christ? The sad fact is that many Catholics, even if they are not in irregular family situations, are effectively adrift from the Eucharist in mind and heart. In reality, many Catholics could use a “process of discernment” to prepare them for a proper reception of Communion. Even for those of us in regular families, how many times we receive the Lord with serious sin on our soul, or in a distracted and complacent way!
Pope Francis has failed in his sacred responsibility towards the Eucharist
Unfortunately, the concession by Amoris laetitia of granting access to Communion to those in an objective state of adultery only exacerbates our already inadequate appreciation of the significance of the Eucharist, as well as causing confusion about the indissolubility of marriage. If we do not believe that Christ is truly present in a self-sacrificial way in these elements, then how could my marital state matter in the slightest? In this time of pandemic, we have become more aware of the importance of access to the Eucharist, but access is not everything. During the centuries of persecution in Ireland, access to the Eucharist was illegal and almost non-existent, but the fervour with which people yearned for Holy Communion is in marked contrast to the general apathy today.
By admitting people in an objective state of adultery to Communion, Pope Francis fails in his fundamental responsibility to defend the truth about the nature of the Eucharist. This is not to cast harsh judgement on those good and committed couples who find themselves in second unions following a series of circumstances that left them with limited choice. For the good of the Church as a whole, Pope Francis must bear witness to a consistent understanding of the Eucharist which is in line with apostolic tradition. Of course, this is only part of what is needed. All of the faithful need to be renewed in their understanding of this fundamental sacrament, and those in irregular situations must be reached out to with compassion and without judgement.
Is moral rectitude a necessary condition for reception of Communion?
It is understandable if there is some confusion on this question. On the one hand, the consistent practice of the Church since apostolic times has excluded admittance to the Eucharist of those in an objective state of adultery, regardless of their subjective culpability. This seems to imply that moral rectitude is not relevant for the reception of the Eucharist, but that would be a false conclusion. Moral rectitude of a certain sort is a necessary condition before presenting oneself for Communion, but it is not sufficient. Those who are not baptised Catholics, for example, may not be admitted to Communion regardless of their moral integrity. As Amoris laetitia correctly points out, those in an objective state of adultery are often more worthy to receive the Eucharist than many of the faithful, but the document is gravely mistaken in thinking that this worthiness clears the way for reception of Communion - for the deep theological reasons discussed already.
The controversial footnote (351) includes the following: the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” The problem with soundbites like these is that, while they can contain important truths, they can also do much to obscure the question under discussion. The fact is that very few, if any, of us are in a worthy state to receive Communion. That being said, the Church still asks us to prepare for reception with sincere contrition for our faults and frequent recourse to the sacrament of Reconciliation. This is important, because if we present ourselves for Communion in a serious state of sin, then we desecrate the Eucharist. We all need that medicine and nourishment spoken of in footnote 351, but that does not mean that we can approach the sacrament without fulfilling certain conditions. These include a certain moral rectitude (made possible through the sacrament of Reconciliation) AND a state of life (whether marital or otherwise) that is in keeping with reception of the Eucharist.
To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself." Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion. (CCC 1385)
If Pope Francis is in error, what then?
You may have noticed that right-wing militant views seem to be gathering strength in recent years. People who reject the Vatican Council and decry what they consider to be the Church’s accommodation of modernism are often fuelled by what they describe as the heretical views of Pope Francis on a whole host of matters. However, no error of Pope Francis delegitimizes his election or can be used to discredit the second Vatican Council. Popes have often been in personal error. There is reason to believe that some popes (of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for example) lived in states of probable mortal sin and very likely desecrated the Eucharist. The special charism of the Holy Spirit given to the successor of Peter remains with him regardless of his personal choices. With Pope Francis, though, we know that he has an impeccable moral character. If he did not, then we would have learned of it years ago in this era of character-assassination journalism. He has demonstrated a zealous and consistent concern for the poor and the marginalised that can only be described as prophetic. His devotion to Our Lady is deep and profound. There is so much in the personality and actions of this pope that we can rejoice at! The problem, however, remains that he is sometimes blinded by a “compassion” that is contaminated by the spirit of our age. This “compassion” is not in correct tension with some of the difficult and mysterious truths that have been conserved in the deposit of Sacred Tradition. Ironically enough, Pope Francis is supposed to be the principal defender of that deposit.
So how should we respond? Not by denying his legitimacy as the successor of Peter. He is that successor and we must stand by him to the end. Not by blaming Vatican Two, the scapegoat of all scapegoats. That council was a true ecumenical council of the Church and was animated by the Holy Spirit. What we need to do is love our Holy Father, pray and make sacrifices for him. We also need to be respectfully forthright about how some of his policies have been subverted by this incomplete “compassion” – which we can admit to be well-intentioned and sincere. Many bishops and even entire episcopal conferences have followed Francis on this rocky path and they too must be called to account. But, in calling them to account, we must still learn from the zealous compassion of Pope Francis towards the marginalized. It is not simply an either/or situation - sacramental rigour or compassion. We can protect sacramental discipline and still reach out prophetically to those in irregular situations. More on this in part three.