“The Church’s practice always results from what she receives and contemplates in revelation. Pastoral ministry cannot be detached from doctrine.” ∼Robert Cardinal Sarah, Silent Action of the Heart (July 2015)
In the Path to Rome, Belloc remarked that as one gets older he becomes more concerned with the human side of the supernatural Church. This famous walk took place in 1901 when Leo XIII (1810-1903) was still alive in his nineties. He did not resign. Indeed, Leo was in his late sixties when elected. No one at the time expected him to last twenty-five quite fruitful years.
Recently, in what I read and in what I hear from others, there are increasing numbers Catholics who are genuinely concerned about the integrity of the Church. The one thing that Catholicism had going for it, in the eyes of many, was its consistency, its stability of doctrine and practice, its claim that it retained what was “handed down” in its fullness. What is different, as far as I can judge, is not the old complaint, namely, that Catholicism “claims to be true,” but the new unsettlement that it is acting like it does not think it is true. Joel Osteen, the Houston televangelist, when he met Pope Francis recently, praised him not for any doctrinal stability but for the Pope’s inclusiveness in wanting to bring everyone in.
We have seen almost every mainline Protestant church join the forces of modernity. They have accepted the norms of life from the culture rather than standing against it. This fact has often been the origin of a steady stream of Protestants, especially Protestant clergymen, into the Catholic Church. But the Catholic Church, whose intellectual stature was never higher than under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is now nervously seen by many as “wobbly.” Pope Francis does not consider himself an “intellectual”; he is not overly concerned with intellectual issues. Often, like many of us, he is heard criticizing theologians and academics. He gathers about himself not a few advisors in economics, ecology, or other fields.
A good portion of world opinion, however, expects that the Church, whether it says so or not, now accepts divorce, contraception, abortion, “gay marriage,” and such things, or, if not quite yet, soon will. Francis is their man even when he explicitly denies that he holds these views. What does one say to good people who are troubled about these issues?
The remarkable decline of Catholic numbers in European countries—especially the decline in births—is widely noted. Muslims are asking in Belgium and France to purchase or be given empty Catholic churches. We hear that it is not so bad in Africa or in parts of India. But these churches are now seen, as they were among the liberal Anglicans, as last bastions of orthodox belief. Among Catholics, African bishops are often looked at as the main hope of prevailing against forces within a Church bent on conforming it to the same modernity that controls the culture. This would not be the first time in Church history, of course, that the integrity of the Church depended more on a few bishops than on Rome.
In the light of such upsetting concerns, however one judges their validity, I have seen several approaches. First, for example, take the issues raised by what the Pope Francis has said about capitalism and ecology. His views are wildly popular in socialist, Marxist, community-development, and “human rights” circles. In these areas, the Pope himself has recognized, along with classic Catholic teaching, that neither the Church nor he himself has any particular competence in these areas. The Pope only claims to be calling attention to grave issues of poverty and pollution. What in concrete needs to be done is up to people with direct responsibility and competence.
The oft-discussed issues of earth warming and whether the Qur’an advocates violence are open to diverse interpretations. Pope Francis maintains that earth warming is a dangerous fact, but insists the Qur’an does not advocate violence and war. Experts can be found who panic about earth warming; we can find Muslim scholars who cannot find violence in the Qur’an. So, we might say that the Pope’s positions are backed by scholarly opinions. The only trouble with this approach is that other scholars in both areas find evidence that the opposite views are more persuasive and valid. What disturbs people is not the Pope’s authority for his views but his seeming unawareness of opposing evidence.
In this light, several writers point to what they call the “Galileo” problem as the potential danger the Church can find itself in by backing what are in effect opinions about some facts. This “Galileo problem” was the result of the Church committing to a theory that proved to be dubious. At the time—400 years ago—the arguments against Galileo could and did make sense to many. To be in error on a matter of scientific opinion is, of course, not exactly heresy. It happens every day. Indeed, it is the nature of scientific method of testing and retesting. Likewise, to be wrong (or right) about earth warming is not a matter of faith.
But if the Church takes a position in the matters of, say, evolution, science, or economics that turns out, on further investigation, to be wrong or doubtful, it will seem untrustworthy also in areas over which it does claim competence. However tempting or popular to comment on, there are some things on which the Church should just avoid taking a stand. Let it be discussed freely until there really is an issue of faith involved and reasons to think so.
Thus, we could calmly say to those concerned about the opinion-nature of papal views on ecology or economics that these are not matters of faith. The Church has no technical competence in these areas—so relax. If there is evidence for other views that achieve better the same goals that the Pope seems to be searching for, follow them. Issues that fall in the general area of prudence are important. Judgments must often be made with imperfect knowledge. Even within the Church, things such as selection of popes and bishops, or views on the economy, or the character of the Qur’an are largely issues of prudence and fact.
When it comes to issues of marriage and the family, we deal with several things that are not simply matters of prudence or opinion. Reason can conclude some things—for instance, that children can only be born of a father and a mother. To call the relationship of two men or two women a “marriage” is to speak equivocally about two different realities. There is nothing wrong to talk about some legal contractual arrangement between gays or lesbians. But children cannot come from these arrangements and that is what marriage is about. Pope Francis seems quite clear on these issues, as well as on related ones including abortion and euthanasia. But some of his appointees and advisors do not hold these views to which the Church is committed by revelation and reason to maintain in every culture. Just how we are to read the seeming conflict between what the Pope officially says and the views of those he appoints has never fully been explained.
One way to come to terms with such concerns is by way of the popularity of the Holy Father. The Pope is often most critical of the people whose job it is to work for the Church. He is often quite critical of what seem to be ordinary believers. On the other hand, his popularity among those outside the Church is very high, especially among those who would like to see, in their own terms, the Church to “change” its presumably committed views on divorce, contraception, abortion, “gay marriage,” euthanasia, and experimentation on human beings.
The Pope, as I read him, has a strategy. Basically, he does not want to deal with controversial issues, at least the traditional ones, until after people are back in the Church. He figures—he is an optimist here—that there will be time enough to resolve difficulties later. In this sense, he downplays the importance of life issues not because he contests them but because few will listen to reason about the living issues they raise. He also seems to think that academics and clerics who have very dubious ideas can be dealt with in a similar way: listen to them, let them talk all they want, even let them disturb the good souls of ordinary Catholics. No one will be able to say any longer that the Church did not listen to them.
One of Pope Francis’s heroes is Paul VI, whom he frequently cites. Is there anything in Paul VI that might give us a hint into the papal mind? What was clear late in the life of Paul VI was that the consequences of Vatican II were not working out the way that the conciliar fathers had intended. The Pope realized that he had to make an unpopular decision, one that went against the advice of the learned advisors called to discuss the topic. Paul VI made the right decision even though few expected him to do so. Francis’ present situation is not unlike that of Paul VI. Many of his most out-spoken advisers, whom he himself appointed, are disagreeing with basic Catholic positions. Many suspect that “the spirit of Vatican II” re-appears now as “the spirit of Pope Francis.”
So what do we say to those who worriedly consult us about the “direction” of the Church? At least one plausible view is that Pope Francis will, in the end, repeat Pope Paul’s courage and insight. Only now, those who disagree will not be able to claim that they were not heard. I do not think that there is much doubt that Pope Francis will have to face such a decision at some level. He may still hope that the so-called dissidents will see the proper relation between dogma and practice. The central purpose of the Church is to see that the divine revelation that was handed down is understood and preserved in our time.
The whole world will be looking on. The headlines “Church Changes Doctrine” are, no doubt, already in the “galleys” of many editors’ minds. Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and as such, he is in a unique position that no man in history has ever faced in quite the same way. That is, Jesuits vow obedience to the Pope precisely because Peter’s successor stands for the center of revelation and what it means. Pope Francis is thus, as it were, vowed to himself, to the Lord, to be that rock against which the Gates of Hell shall not prevail.
Are the opinions sketched out here valid? They are opinions that at least provide ways to respond to the many inquirers of those who sense that something is unsettling not outside but inside the Church. That there is also much unsettlement outside the Church is almost too painful to contemplate. Yet, ironically, the common theme in all of Pope Francis’ work thus far has been one of joy. If we combine Pope Francis’ joy with the hope we find in Benedict’s Spe Salvi, we can, I think, relax a bit.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared August 20, 2015 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.