Reframing Pope Francis

Perhaps annus horribilis is too strong to describe Pope Francis’s experience of 2016. But it cannot be far off the mark. Apart from events like refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and flooding into Europe and the pulverisation of Aleppo, there was a drumbeat of criticism in the media after the publication of his document on marriage, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).  
The most entertaining of these was La sacrée semaine: qui changea la face du monde (The Holy Week which changed the world), a novella by an eminent French anthropologist, Marc Augé. This is a fanciful tale about Pope Francis. He steps on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica on Easter morning 2018 (which, as it happens, is April Fool’s day) and announces to an immense crowd: “God is not dead – because God has never existed.” Immediately the cardinals whisk him off to a mental hospital and he submits his resignation the next day.  
Augé is a modern pagan (the more gods, the better) for whom rationalism and relativism are religious dogmas. The point of his jeu d’espirit is not to criticise Pope Francis but to show that the world would be much better off without religion.
More troubling is the stance of Catholic critics who feel that the world would be much better off without Pope Francis. Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times who has been channeling this hostility into the mainstream media, recently wrote that “same-sex couples, polygamists and unmarried straight couples can all reasonably claim that the most liberal interpretation of ‘Amoris’ applies to their situations”.
This is as preposterous as Augé’s novella; as in a failing marriage, Douthat & Co can see almost nothing good in Papa Bergoglio. Vaticanistas and bloggers have been decoding shuffles in the Vatican bureaucracy, doorstop interviews with the media, and appointments of bishops and announcing that they have uncovered a plot to explode the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church.
The latest broadside comes from two highly respected moralists from the English-speaking world, both laymen: Germain Grisez, an American theologian, and John Finnis, an Australian who is an emeritus professor at Oxford. They wrote a letter to the Pope and then published it online in the Catholic journal First Things in early December.
In it they listed eight positions opposed to traditional Catholic teaching which, they say, could be supported by passages in Amoris Laetitia. No doubt this is true. “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” says Shakespeare. In fact, twisting the meaning of church documents has a long history. The first Pope, Peter the Apostle, wrote to his flock in about 65AD that Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
But surely the Pope cannot be held responsible for the misuse of his words. If he can be, shouldn’t his critics consider un-canonising St Pius X, in whose name the most serious schism of the last century took place?
The real point is: did Pope Francis affirm any of these supposed errors? And the answer, thanks to the careful documentation of Grisez and Finnis, is: No, he did not. Despite their best efforts, they failed to catch him in flagrante haeresi.
In any case, Finnis and Grisez’s eighth position is curious: they appear to have created their own dogma and then criticized the Pope for not teaching it. The offending position is: “A Catholic need not believe that many human beings will end in hell.” But the Church has never taught that hell is crowded, only that it exists and that each of us might end up there. There may be standing room only; the hotels may be half-empty. This is one area of Catholic belief which is open to debate. We’ve all heard of fake news; this is fake dogma.
Why are some highly intelligent and faithful Catholics so jaundiced towards Pope Francis that they see heresies everywhere, as if they were playing a theological version of Pokemon Go in the Vatican Gardens?
Perhaps we need a fresh framework to understand him. Francis is not a conventional Bishop of Rome. After 150 years of Popes who have been mostly diplomats or intellectuals, in 2013 the cardinals elected a Latin American Jesuit, a bishop with a profoundly pastoral heart. In John Paul II, the Church had a strikingly original philosopher; in Benedict XVI, one of the world’s finest theologians; and in Francis, a distinguished spiritual director.
The figure of the “spiritual director” is a familiar one in the Catholic Church and the Jesuits are famed for producing them. They are priests (usually) who “direct souls”, that is, give prayerful and practical advice to people one-by-one.
Their role is to help each person reach the heights of Christian life, sometimes by comforting and consoling, sometimes by scolding and berating, always by helping people to be more prayerful and centred on Christ. It’s no accident that the Pope’s Christmas present to the members of the Roman Curia – the officials at the Vatican – was an Italian translation of stern textbook by a 17th Century Jesuit, Industriae ad curandos animae morbos (Curing illnesses of the soul).
The harsh side of Francis as a spiritual director seems to have deeply offended some clergy. “We’ve stuck with the Church through thick and thin, we get paid peanuts, and this guy rips into us for not being holy enough! Just who does he think he is?” But this has always been the reaction of weary clergy in past eras of reform. Just read the lives of the 16th Century Counter-Reformation saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. It’s an understandable complaint, but it’s not holiness.
Sadly, a bit of berating seems to be in order after the world-wide sex abuse scandals, profligacy in the Vatican, and, worst of all, a collapse in the number of church-goers. Francis seems to believe that if there had been more Padre Pios in the pulpits, there would be more Catholics in the pews.
The important thing to remember about a spiritual director—unlike a philosopher or theologian -- is that his advice is imparted personally, soul by soul. It is not delivered in sermons, books, or Facebook groups. It is not an off-the-rack suit but bespoke spiritual tailoring. All of Francis’s advice in Amoris Laetitia is perfectly conventional if viewed through the prism of personal spiritual direction. He is showing the Church how to apply to prodigal sons and daughters the principles of Vatican II and of the two great Popes who implemented its spirit.
There are risks, of course. Francis’s approach will only work if priests (all Catholics, actually) are willing to be shepherds with the smell of the sheep. If too many of them settle for being managers or “collectors of antiques or novelties”, it will fail.
History will be the judge of how effective this will be, but Francis is taking for granted that John Paul II and Benedict XVI had already created a robust intellectual framework for evangelization by producing the Catholic Catechism and their brilliant encyclicals. Now it is time for action, for reaching out, for bringing the Gospel message to a secularized world.
So the critics’ view is topsy-turvy. Instead of contesting traditional Catholic notions like exceptionless moral norms, the indissolubility of marriage, or the possibility of living according to the moral law, Francis assumes them. OK, he is saying, we’ve spent the last 40 years updating the language of traditional moral theology. It’s time to roll this out on the battlefield and set up our field hospitals. That is what he means when he writes in Amoris Laetitia:

this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church. For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it”. These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions”, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours. When a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard (n. 300).
In fact, he insists time and again in this document that only the truth can heal and that priests (working as spiritual directors) must remain faithful to traditional moral teachings. But the path to the truth may be different for each soul. To use a homely analogy, a doctor cannot cure recalcitrant patients by giving them poison or by redefining what it means to be healthy. But he can and should try different treatment programs, some shorter, some longer, to nurse them gradually to health.
It is amazing that the Pope’s critics have seized on Amoris Laetitia like a dog with a bone but ignore his first encyclical, which is the real key to his pontificate, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). When I wrote about it in 2013, shortly after it was published, I was bowled over:
It is a challenge for Christians to scrape back the layers of paint and dust and soot which have darkened the glowing light of the Gospel message. Evangelii Gaudium has a vigorous innocence and freshness about it; it is a young man’s shout to the world that love is possible, justice is possible, anything is possible, if the world would only listen to the plain words of Jesus Christ.  
Critics have every right to insist that Jorge Bergoglio, like every Catholic, must be faithful to the traditional teaching of their Church because these are the teachings of Christ. But doesn’t the traditional teaching include the command “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations”? No one could accuse Pope Francis of not taking the re-evangelisation of the world seriously. Would that the same could be said of all of his critics. Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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