Papal Style: Caring for Souls while Leaving Doctrinal Exposition to Others

On the plane, on the way back from Brazil, the journalist Gianguido Vecchi, of Corriere della Sera asked Pope Francis the following question.

“Holy Father, during this visit … you have frequently spoken of mercy. With regard to the reception of the sacraments by the divorced and remarried, is there the possibility of a change in the Church’s discipline?” That elicited the following response:

This is an issue which frequently comes up. Mercy is something much larger than the one case you raised. I believe that this is the season of mercy. This new era we have entered, and the many problems in the Church—like the poor witness given by some priests, problems of corruption in the Church, the problem of clericalism for example—have left so many people hurt, left so much hurt. The Church is a mother: she has to go out to heal those who are hurting, with mercy. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we have no other choice than this: first of all, to care for those who are hurting. The Church is a mother, and she must travel this path of mercy. And find a form of mercy for all.

That was by no means all he said: but it was all many people listened to: including, it seems, not merely journalists, but also some liberal diocesan authorities, for whom it was an open invitation to jettison the Church’s disciplines. As the website of the German paper Der Spiegel related it, “The archdiocese of Freiburg recently signalled a willingness to allow remarried divorcées to receive communion. While far from revolutionary, the move reflects a desire to change doctrine long considered out of touch with reality.” Was that what Pope Francis was getting at? Was Catholic teaching really about to get “in touch with [secular] reality”?

Well, no. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the person of Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller immediately disassociated itself from the Freiburg proposal. In a letter dated October 21 Archbishop Müller dismissed the whole idea. Last June, Müller had written a lengthy article in the German paper Tagespost which was firmly against any potential softening of the Church’s stance on remarried divorcees. The article was picked up by L’Osservatore Romano, whence it hit the mainstream.

The Prefect’s recent letter was addressed to the German Episcopal Conference. In it, Müller recognized that the Freiburg proposal contained valid pastoral teaching, but said that it was unclear in its terminology and did not correspond with the Church’s Magisterium on two points. The most important regarded the possibility for couples who have remarried after divorce to “responsibly reach” a “decision of conscience” to receive communion. According to the Freiburg proposal the parish priests and the community should respect this decision. Müller stressed, on the contrary, that remarried divorcees must be encouraged to participate in Church life but insisted that they cannot be admitted to the Eucharist. To give them this right, he said, “would cause confusion among the faithful about the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

So: is there a conflict between Pope Francis and the CDF? Well, no, actually. According to Tagespost, Müller’s article was republished “after the Holy Father was consulted.” So what, exactly, is going on?

One key to understanding Pope Francis is that he works within his own limitations. He is not a theologian: Sandro Magister, as others have, repeats the Pope’s insistence—“The view of the Church is known and I am a son of the Church”—that he accepts the teachings of the Church in their entirety: and he did after all renew the appointment of the Ratzingerian Archbishop Müller as Prefect of the CDF. Quite simply, Pope Francis keeps others to do doctrine for him: he himself believes the time has come for a different, twofold emphasis. “Just as,” suggests Sandro Magister, “in the Gospel Jesus is very demanding in the commandments but turns to individual sinners with mercy, so also Pope Francis wants to be. On disputed questions, on birth, on death, on procreation, he is of undisputed doctrinal orthodoxy: [as] he bluntly stated in the interview with La Civiltà Cattolica.

“But he leaves the exposition of doctrine to others, and reserves for himself the merciful style of the care of souls.” Archbishop Muller’s firm response to the Freiburg proposal, says Magister, was only the “most striking example of this joint action.” But striking or not, “The inauguration of this twofold communicative register—in this case, of the pope and of his guardian of doctrine—almost entirely escaped the notice of the media, still dazzled by the presumed ‘openness’ of the former. But it is likely to be repeated with other issues.”

The last time I attempted to write reassuringly about the current confusion over Pope Francis’s pontifical strategy, insisting that nothing had changed, that it wasn’t back to the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II,” one of my more intelligent regular commentators pointed to “the Christian Science Monitor suggesting that Catholic Illinois politicians on a ratio of 2:1 changed their position against Same-Sex Marriage [allowing the bill to be passed] using the equivocation of Pope Francis’s ‘Who am I to Judge’ [on homosexuality].” He pointed to a general atmosphere of resurgent Catholic liberalism, with “everyone re-creating Pope Francis in their own image as the exemplary freedom-fighter for their own particular cause … because he’s so lovely and he cares so much and he is not constricted by anachronistic, intolerant, uncharitable legalism….”

“It’s never,” he concluded, “been those outside the Church about whom we need to worry. It’s never been Pope Francis ‘being conservative in the fundamentals’ that’s been a problem. It’s the plain and simple fact that despite his claims to simple ‘all-embracing’ worldly wisdom and his portrayal of spontaneity, Pope Francis is playing a VERY dangerous game.”

Actually “dangerous”? Well, possibly; risky?—certainly. All the same, my own confident feeling is that anxieties of this kind, as the pontificate unfolds, will become progressively calmer and then fade away. I think the Holy Father will pull it off.

But we cannot actually KNOW. Not yet. Time for us to fall to our prayers.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared November 14, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: Luca Zennaro / EPA)


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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