Pope Francis famously downplays law and doctrinal formulations, which he often associates with Pharisaism, in favor of “discernment,” which seems to involve the direct application of ultimate considerations to particular situations. As he put the matter in his address at the conclusion of the Synod on the Family, “The true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit.”
Discernment of some sort is always needed, so the Holy Father is right to note its importance. A true musician does more than play the notes on page one after another. But he does play the notes, and it seems that a true defender of doctrine would uphold the doctrines themselves as well as their spirit. Many Catholics are therefore concerned that Francis fails to balance his denunciations of legalism with warnings of lawlessness—a tendency that seems a far greater problem in today’s Church.
There’s a personal background to the Holy Father’s outlook. He’s a Jesuit, and Jesuit training famously emphasizes discernment. And he took his papal name from Francis of Assisi, showing his admiration for an unconventional man whose very personal discernment of the needs of the Church has benefited us all immensely.
But legitimate discernment is never open-ended. Saint Francis insisted on strict acceptance of Church authority, and Jesuit training emphasizes obedience and abandonment of ambition for ecclesiastical preferment. In the Holy Father’s case nothing substitutes for these limitations: he sits in the chair of Peter, is judged by no one, and has full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church. That suggests problems.
Rulers don’t perform all functions. They do not usually—for example—write poetry or speak prophetically. When they claim to do so it’s usually a bad sign. Nor are rulers often saints. The use of power isn’t evil, but effective governance usually requires a liking for it, and it brings with it temptations to pride and the sacrifice of principle to expediency. That’s one reason most popes haven’t been canonized; most canonized popes were in the early Church, and most of them were martyrs.
The Holy Father is the ruler of an ancient worldwide institution. His office depends on an elaborate structure of doctrine, and its most fundamental purpose is the defense of that doctrine—in the words of the First Vatican Council—“inviolably keep[ing] and faithfully expound[ing] the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles.” He performs this and his other duties with the aid of an extensive hierarchy and bureaucracy and the voluntary cooperation of 1,300,000,000 Catholics. Those people rarely know him or much about him, and therefore he won’t be able to work with them effectively unless what he says and does makes sense by reference to the structure as a whole.
A one-sided emphasis on discernment at the expense of law and tradition is radically at odds with the pope’s role in the Church. By their fruits you shall know them. The new emphasis on discernment has meant contention and confusion. It has also meant easier annulments, and opened the door to authorized reception of the Eucharist by people in adulterous second unions—and eventually (it seems reasonable to expect) by sexually active homosexuals and single people. However, this will make perennial Church teaching on family life a dead letter. That won’t be good for anyone. How will it help people on the margins if family life disintegrates further for lack of binding standards? And will people form their lives on Catholic teachings if their significance depends on the election returns from the College of Cardinals?
There’s also another side to the question. The papacy is a principle of unity in the Church. Open-ended discernment not limited by higher authority is a principle of dissolution. The things people do on their own seem good to them, and they’ve thought them over in whatever way they think about things. If their discernment trumps law and tradition, the Church becomes an aggregation of people pursuing whatever they think make sense for whatever reasons seem persuasive to them. In other words, it disappears.
When discernment becomes the highest standard, the Church will hold together only if the pope’s discernment trumps other people’s discernment. Similarly, bishops’ discernment will have to trump the discernment of priests, and priests’ that of laymen. In this way, we end up with a system of truly radical clericalism, with the pope as dictator over a hierarchy of petty dictators.
When a ruler’s discernment trumps law he becomes a lawless ruler. The Holy Father has blamed sexual abuse by clerics on clericalism, and that’s certainly part of it. But theologian John Lamont points out that the understanding of clerical authority that led bishops to believe they could simply ignore canon law, and so led to recent scandals, is one that emphasizes obedience to the will of superiors—to their personal discernment of the needs of the situation—rather than the law. He notes that such an understanding is found in its most extreme form among the Jesuits.
These problems are not merely theoretical. Opinions differ regarding the recent book denouncing Francis as The Dictator Pope, but it’s unquestionable that many of his prominent supporters present Francis as a dictator.
Thus, Father Thomas Rosica tells us that Pope Francis intends to transform the Church as he sees fit from time to time. As he puts it, Francis has a “commitment to a ‘conversion’ of the papacy as well as the entire church … [but] not even he is sure where the spirit will lead.” To that end the Holy Father
breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is “free from disordered attachments.” Our Church has indeed entered a new phase: with the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.
In other words, Francis does what he chooses and recognizes no limits on what he can do. Father Rosica thinks that’s good.
Father Antonio Spadaro seems to agree. The publisher’s description of his new collection of interviews with the Holy Father, which Father Spadaro presumably approved, tells us that Francis
has turned the Catholic Church upside-down, flung open the windows of the Vatican and purged the Augean stables of corruption, simony, nepotism and financial skulduggery.… The Franciscan revolution is under way and in spite of his vehement critics the revolution will roll on and new horizons will be opened for the one and a half billion Catholics in the world today.
The factual claims are dubious, but the vision of Francis as a unstoppable transformative force not bound by anything external to his will is similar to Father Rosica’s.
And Austen Ivereigh suggests, in connection with the pope’s silence in the face of Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, that we can’t judge his actions by ordinary standards:
[Christ’s silence during the Passion] is a very different kind of silence from, say, the silence of complicity or the silence of inaction faced with evidence of evil, as we have seen too often in the case of sexual abuse of minors.
The purpose of Christ’s self-emptying silence—his meekness faced with ferocious hostility—is to create space for God to act.…
Could it be that behind Francis’ silence is not guilt or evasion, but hope?
It seems that in the case of Francis we should liken the silence of an immensely powerful man in the face of a subordinate’s accusation, joined by the silence of his collaborators, and by supporters’ attacks on the subordinate’s motivations and character, to the humble silence of Christ before Pilate.
But why should Francis be judged so differently from other men? Apparently, it’s because he stands on an entirely different plane of being. Father Spadaro presents him as a sort of unmoved mover:
The Pope draws energy from conflict and sees that his actions upset them as a sign. The driving force of the pontificate of #PopeFrancis manifests itself precisely in the paroxysm of the backlash that it generates and that is thrown at him, crossing over him without moving him.
And Bishop Gustavo Carrara, whom Francis recently appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, speaks directly of the pope as a divine manifestation:
I believe, this is a great moment: God’s spirit is embodying itself in Francis’s spirit, but not many comprehend this dimension.
Such statements are appalling. How can people in responsible positions, including a successor to the Apostles, possibly speak in these ways about a man who has as many human limitations as others, and whose fundamental role is to pass down what he has received? Much more can be said on the sources and implications of these attitudes, but space grows short so further discussion will have to wait.
(Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez / CNA)