is pope francis guilty of false compassion (part 3)
Updated: Jan 25
In the earlier installments of this post, we discussed how Pope Francis - no doubt with sincerity and good intentions - has sometimes failed to keep in balance the sacred tension between love and truth that is the hallmark of the apostolic faith. In this instalment, we would like to talk a little more about this mysterious tension, but before doing that it is helpful to consider what has motivated the pope to do as he has done.
Clericalism and rigorism are real in the Church
Without going in to his personal history, there can be no doubt that - long before he was elected to the papacy - Jorge Bergoglio had developed a deep distaste for some of the clericalism and rigorism displayed by many in the Vatican’s bureaucracy. Since being elected, his annual Christmas address to the Roman Curia has been characterised by severe criticisms of their alleged deficiencies. Famously, in 2014, he made a scathing denouncement of fifteen ailments that he felt plagued the organisation. The power struggles and scandals that have frequently emanated from the Vatican in recent years indicate that these ailments are very real. Some ordained priests working in the Curia have opulent living conditions that verge on the scandalous, residing in apartments in exclusive districts of Rome and enjoying a lifestyle that the majority of ordinary people would envy. This situation is simply not befitting a minister of the Church ordained for a life of service to the faithful.
No one need doubt the sincerity of the pope’s ire and frustration with the lack of compassion displayed by some in the ordained ministry. He rightly rails against those who quote doctrine and rules without reaching out in concrete ways to those who are marginalised by the same rules. This is surely an example of just anger. Indeed, it is a prophetic anger, and it is essential that the faithful are enflamed with the same zeal as Pope Francis for those in irregular familial situations, who often find themselves at the edges of the Church and society.
The pastoral “innovation” that is the hallmark of Amoris laetitia is motivated by Pope Francis’ desire to push back on the rigorism and clericalism that has often characterised the attitude and actions of some pastors. In October 2014, at the opening Mass for the first synod on the family, he pointedly quoted a condemnation from the gospel of Matthew regarding “evil pastors who lay intolerable burdens on the shoulders of others which they themselves do not lift a finger to move”.
The cure for rigorism and clericalism is not sacramental compromise
We can accept without reservation the sincerity of the pope’s opposition to rigorism and clericalism. The next step is to discern how to treat those in irregular familial situations with true compassion, without a merciless rigorism or a sterile clericalism. Amoris laetitia suggests that couples in second unions undergo a “path of discernment” with their pastor. It has become very clear in the aftermath of the publication of the document (with Pope Francis’ endorsement of the Buenos Aires guidelines) that this path of discernment has a major goal – to readmit couples to the reception of Communion. As discussed in the earlier instalments of this article, the reception of Communion by someone who is in an objective state of adultery (regardless of subjective culpability) has no precedent in the teaching of the Church – a truth brought into stark relief by the fact that a redactor of Amoris laetitia (probably not Pope Francis himself) had to misquote the Second Vatican Council in its desperate quest to claim a precedent.
Various individual bishops, as well as entire episcopal conferences (Malta, Germany and Belgium, among others) have taken the cue and issued guidelines that foresee admittance to Communion by people in second unions. However, the fact that so many pastors have supported this policy of Amoris laetitia is not sufficient to make it authentic teaching of the Church. During the fourth century, a vast number of bishops – at times perhaps the majority –adhered to the Arian doctrine that denied the full divinity of Christ. We can assume that they adhered to the doctrine with sincerity and, in some cases, for pastoral reasons – the Arian understanding of Christ appeared more comprehensible than the mysterious claim that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. It took time - and an almighty battle between faithful and unfaithful pastors - for the Holy Spirit to bring order to the Church and to confirm it in the difficult and profound truth regarding the identity of Christ. We should expect the same with Amoris laetitia. Pope Francis is right to insist that we not treat those in second unions with rigorism or clericalism, but the alternative is not to fracture the Church’s two-thousand-year-old discipline linking the Eucharist and matrimony, a disciple that is grounded in the fundamental understanding of the nature of these two sacraments.
Truth and love: never one without the other
As our age has become ever more relativistic, an ancient characteristic of the apostolic faith has been coming more and more into relief. We defend goods that are often not understood or appreciated by the spirit of the age. In fact, some of these goods may appear to be undesirable, or to be contrary to human “compassion”. Much of Western society is moving towards the view that “pointless” suffering is an evil, and that the humane termination of such life constitutes a good. In places like Holland and Belgium, the complete relativisation of the value of life to particular circumstances has placed these societies on a slippery slope that is gradually developing into a horror story. Children are now being routinely euthanized. Elderly people in alarming numbers, worried that they might be a burden on family and society, feel pressurized into ending their lives. In one highly publicized Dutch case, a woman who appeared to change her mind about euthanasia had to be held down by her daughter and husband while the doctor finished the process.
As time has gone on, one overriding consideration has come to dominate whether an action is deemed “good” or not: if that action displays “compassion”. Prior to the recent legalisation of abortion in Ireland, I spent some months going door to door with a pro-life group. The most common pro-abortion argument we heard was that Ireland needed to show “compassion” to women who were forced to make the arduous journey to Britain for abortion because it was illegal in Ireland. These women were going to abort anyway – the argument went – so why not be compassionate towards them and allow the procedure to be done at home? In 2018, abortion was legalised by an overwhelming majority and there was a general consensus among politicians and media figures that Ireland had now become a more “compassionate” place. In 2019, the first abortions were carried out. When the official figures for the first full year of the abortion regime were released, they showed that the number of babies terminated in Ireland in 2019 was 6,666 – a biblical figure if ever there was one. The previous year, less than half of that number had travelled to Britain to end their pregnancies. Those who had voted to show compassion were now curiously silent about the lives of these innocent children who would not have died if the vote had been different. In September 2020, there was more silence when a new study revealed the harrowing details of babies left to die following botched abortions under Ireland’s new “compassionate” law.
Compassion must stand in the correct relationship to truth
It is no exaggeration to say that St John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendour, has become the most vital bulwark against the relativism of our age. It makes clear that there are certain goods – like the sanctity of life – that must be cherished and defended regardless of particular circumstances. If, in a particularly distressing situation, I come to believe that the most compassionate response is the taking of human life, then, according to VeritatisSplendour and the longstanding teaching of the Church, I am simply wrong, even if my conviction is sincere and well-intentioned. As Christians, we are called to live by faith, to believe in mysteries that go beyond the powerful emotions and feelings of my present situation. These emotions are not to be disparaged, but there is also a transcendent dimension to love. This comes from the fact that true love has its origin in God. To love completely, I must sometimes bow before the transcendent, not following absolutely my own sentiments and emotions, powerful and good as they can be.
Prophetic love is not incompatible with prophetic defence of the truth
Earlier, we spoke of how Pope Francis has consistently displayed a prophetic concern for the poor and marginalised. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope John Paul II took a prophetic stance against false instances of compassion, those that relativize intrinsic goods, like the dignity of human life, to situational considerations. These two prophetic stances are not incompatible with each other, though the implacable spirit of our age would like nothing better than place them in false opposition. We can and must find ways to show compassion to irregular families who have been marginalised, and this can be achieved without compromising on truths that Sacred Tradition indicates are simply non-negotiable.
The Church defends truths that transcend dominant cultural “values”
From the nineteen sixties until 1994, there was an extended and often rancorous debate in the Church regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood. It was clear that women had qualities to offer to the ordained ministry that men often lacked - empathy, tenderness, the capacity to listen. Also, it was simply undeniable that women were in no way inferior to men in intelligence or leadership skills. In 1994, Pope John Paul published a pastoral letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, that clarified that the Church’s inability to ordain women had nothing at all to do with their fitness for ministry. The Church simply does not have the authority to confer priestly ordination upon women because Christ himself did not do so. This is a hard truth, one that does sit easily with the spirit of our age. Our age decrees that unhindered access to certain “goods” is everyone’s right. What is considered “good” is sometimes a matter of whim or desire. It can include the life of the unborn, the termination of my own existence, the right to be an ordained minister, the right to choose my identity, the right to marry whoever I like regardless of their gender.
We must be prepared to suffer with the marginalised
There is a pain that the Church must endure in declining to ordain articulate and compassionate women, in refusing to admit committed same-sex couples to the sacrament of matrimony, in denying the Eucharist to good and devout couples in an objective state of adultery. But instead of seeing this as a suffering that those in authority in the Church inflict on its members, it is really a suffering that we must all enter into together. The Church, in being faithful to her mission, will necessarily clash with society on such important issues, for it does not have the right to pick and choose which truths to maintain from Sacred Tradition. The covenant of matrimony between one man and one woman goes back to the Book of Genesis. It is man and woman together, united in their complementarity, that displays the image and likeness of God. In Ephesians 5, 25-27, St Paul makes clear that the model for marriage is Christ’s total self-giving to his Spouse, the Church. This self-giving is realised sacramentally in the Eucharist. If Christian marriage is patterned on the Eucharist, then it is not surprising that the perennial teaching of the Church has been that those in an objective state of marital infidelity should not present themselves for Communion. Amoris laetitia tries to overturn this practice with a moral argument – the undoubted non-culpability of many people in second unions – but this was never an issue about morality, no more than the refusal to ordain women was ever an issue about equality, no more than the inability of homosexuals to marry sacramentally was ever a matter about human feelings. What is at stake here is the Church’s grave and sacred responsibility to maintain the practice and discipline that it received from the Apostles. If it does not, then fundamental truths about the nature of God’s plan for man and woman, the nature of the Eucharist and the Church, and much else besides, are blurred and diminished.
The compassion of Amoris laetitia with the truth of Veritatis Splendour
We must heed Pope Francis and find ways as a Church to reach out to those in irregular family situations - and we must do so with imagination, compassion and zeal - but the “path of discernment” indicated by the document for reception of the Eucharist is flawed. It goes against the perennial teaching of the Church and is contaminated by the relativism of our times, a relativism in which “compassion” trumps truth. Is it just a coincidence that, in the very epoch in which the clarion call is for unhindered access to everything, Amoris laetitia tries to ditch the previous discipline of the Church and permit access to Communion by those in an objective state of adultery? Many bishops and entire episcopal conferences have adopted the same wrong policy. We have a duty to call them, respectfully, to account.