Pope Francis, Please Pontificate!

I’ve been quietly observing Pope Francis’s papacy over these past years, not saying much because quite honestly I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Like many, I’ve been bewildered with the variety of his off-the-cuff remarks, quoted and sometimes misquoted interviews, and the controversies now escalating around his exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

Here’s my apologist’s take on what is happening with Pope Francis and what, if anything, we as lay Catholics can do about it.

The Controversy

First, what is the controversy around his exhortation?

Quite simply, Pope Francis’s ambiguous statements in the exhortation regarding communion for divorced and remarried Catholics have now led to different bishops and bishops’ conferences issuing contradictory guidelines about the topic (which is a discipline and not doctrine per se, but which affects the perception of the doctrine among the faithful).

See for instance the Maltese bishops who have said if a couple feels at peace with God they can receive the Eucharist, even if they are divorced and remarried (without an annulment).

The confusion around the exhortation began quietly but has slowly grown. Last year, privately, four cardinals, including Raymond Cardinal Burke sent Pope Francis a dubia–a set of five questions seeking clarification about communion for divorced and remarried Catholics–but Pope Francis did not respond.

The cardinals eventually made their questions public, but Pope Francis has still refused to respond. Recall that one of the key benefits of being Catholic is that the Church can continually clarify her doctrines and disciplines. Pope Francis in this situation is refusing to clarify his teachings, and so the faithful are left in confusion.

The Sensus Fidelium Stirs

We are now seeing an unprecedented stirring among orthodox Catholics demanding that Pope Francis address the alleged errors and confusion in Amoris Laetitia.

Leaders are speaking out–respectfully yet insistently–from stalwart Catholic organizations like Catholic Answers, EWTN, Ignatius Press, and Catholic World Report.

Prior to Pope Francis, during the pontificates of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, this was unheard of. The only voices that were yelling in opposition were from groups like the National Catholic Reporter.

These orthodox voices are speaking out, calling attention to the problematic ghost writing in the exhortation, the insanity of attempting stealth changes to the Church’s discipline and doctrine, and the crisis that is now forming due to his lack of clarification.

These voices are not demanding novelties, unheard of in the past 2,000 years, but rather pointing out that Pope Francis’s statements are at best inconsistent with previous papal teachings, and at worst contradictory to them (see, for instance, the question of whether a man and woman are capable of living together as brother and sister or not).

I see these lay voices, joined with many proven orthodox bishops and priests, as an expression of the sensus fidelium, the sense of faith of the whole people of God, from laity to episcopate, expressing universal consent on the unchanging truths of the Faith.

Why Has It Taken So Long?

Thomas Peters of American Papist and now Catholic Vote fame, made a call for “JPII and Pope Benedict-loving” Catholics to end their silence and stand together to ask Pope Francis for clarity.

It’s taken a long time for those of us whose first Pope was John Paul II to recognize and accept what is happening. With Popes John Paul II and Benedict, this kind of crisis never happened. So we have never had to make such a request of the pope.

Further, I know for me there’s a question of protocol: how does one make such a request of the bishop of Rome? Is it right to do so? How does one do it in a respectful and obedient way?

Of course, saints of the past like Catherine of Siena did just that. But, she’s a saint and I wouldn’t set my holiness next to hers in comparison. So this is uncharted territory for us.

What we are seeing now is a building groundswell of faithful voices, not condemning Pope Francis or contradicting him, but instead exhorting him to clarify his exhortation.

Liberius, Honorius, Francis?

Is Pope Francis setting himself up to go down in history as another Liberius or Honorius, popes who in some way failed to clearly and strongly uphold the unchanging truths of the Catholic Faith?

That’s question Dr. Ed Feser takes up in very incisive article:

“Honorius… did not, as became the Apostolic authority, extinguish the flame of heretical teaching in its first beginning, but fostered it by his negligence.”

It is uncontroversial that Honorius was (as the second quote indicates) at the very least guilty of failing to reaffirm orthodoxy in the face of the Monothelite heresy, and it is commonly held that, at least materially even if not formally, he was guilty of the heresy himself.

Neither Liberius or Honorius falsify papal infallibility, and I don’t believe that Pope Francis will either, but they came close enough that countless Catholics through the ages have had to explain to others how their actions did not prove infallibility false.

I don’t think that Pope Francis is overly concerned with doctrine. Hence, these ambiguities arise, not out of malice, but out of a good desire to reach out to people in a pastoral way.

If doctrine and current disciplines get in the way of what, in his view, would help more people receive the mercy and grace of God, then he wants to circumvent those disciplines and doctrines. Not necessarily change them, let alone overturn them, just, well, ignore them.

So none of the demands for clarification imply that Pope Francis is a heretic or that what he has written is heretical. Nor has what he written substantially changed Catholic doctrine. Papal infallibility is intact. But in his ambivalence for doctrine he is confusing the bishops and thus the faithful on an important matter, one that could undermine the doctrine of the Eucharist itself.

An Apologist’s Nightmare

All of this makes for a scary dream for Catholic apologists, whose mission it is to defend the Church and explain the Faith.

I’ve told people one benefit of being Catholic is the continual clarification by the Magisterium of doctrines on faith and morals. Now, the pope himself is muddying the waters. What are people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, supposed to think? It can be a stumbling block to people entering the Church. It can cause the faithful to doubt their faith.

My belief in the Church’s infallibility is strong. But that is not the case for everyone. And non-Catholic polemicists can make hay out of all this and cause fear, uncertainty, and doubt to grow in the hearts of Catholics weaker in their faith.

Pontificate, Pope Francis!

Quite simply, we need the Pope to pontificate. I think he would like all this swept under the rug, and quietly have bishops across the world interpreting his words in the exhortation in their own way, but the voices demanding him to respond and clarify are swelling, and I don’t think he’ll be able to ignore them.

We’ve been blessed recently with popes who were theologians and philosophers, orthodox and careful. But God never promised the Church that every pope would be as sagacious.

What Do We Do?

I plan to continue to pray for the pope, everyday, especially through the Rosary. I plan to continue to give him the benefit of the doubt and be respectful of him. I also plan to join my voices to the many others asking him to resolve his problematic statements.

My hope is that he sees the crisis growing in the Church, especially among the bishops, and that he will act to clarify or even correct what he wrote in Amoris Laetitia. That would show great humility, a virtue he has shown many times during his pontificate.

This post on Pope Francis has been brought to you by Pray: the Catholic Novena app. Concerned about Amoris Laetitia? Start praying a novena today!

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17 thoughts on “Pope Francis, Please Pontificate!”

  1. Good read! I guess I too would like to sweep this under the rug and not deal with it. I kept hoping it was more ‘misquoting’. But no… 🙁
    I love our Pope. I love that he just seems to want to love on everyone.
    But boyyyy! I feel like I’ve had to explain ‘what he meant’ so many times. As if I actually know!
    This one is a tough one.
    Yes, please. A little clarification would be highly appreciated.

  2. Taylor, is there a place we as the laity can go to sign a respectful, reverent petition on line that would be delivered to Pope Francis? I love our Papa! I am a convert to the CC and I pray for him at every Mass and during my rosaries, too. I hate the bashing of him going on in the Church among so many “ultra” trads but yet I understand the initial concerns. I am ‘confused’ (but not freaking out) I trust the Holy Spirit, and I know the Church will survive. Maybe this is for a reason, to drive us all to our knees, especially those of us who have never known anything tantamount to this. We have been “spoiled” and our faith has been ‘easy’ in comparison to others in war-torn regions. Thanks. God bless.

  3. Good post, Devin! Thank you for writing this and giving us all hope in these times. I must confess that I’ve felt angry at Pope Francis for not clarifying his language in the exhortation and being reluctant to answer the dubia that have put forward. I love our Holy Father and will continue to pray for him in these difficult times and that God forgive me for feeling this way about the successor of St. Peter. The bishop of Rome is one of Christ’s gifts to the Church and the principium unitatis, the touchstone of orthodoxy. Communion with Peter is communion with Christ and His Father.

    Devin, some time ago Bryan Cross wrote the following over at called to communion (this is an excerpt from that post) and I feel that it fits in perfectly with what you’ve said here.

    “As for Amoris Laetitia, the helpful way to look at this is not myopically, within a thin time slice. When you study Church history, as I presume you know, you find that there have been controversies throughout Church history. And usually these are not instantly resolved. Sometimes it takes some time to resolve them. (Think of the Western Schism!) But because of the Magisterium, even with its political human dimension and political drama, these disagreements can be resolved, even definitively if necessary. And eventually, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they will always be resolved in accordance with the truth. That last part is itself part of the Catholic faith, namely, that the Holy Spirit will always be with the Church guiding her and protecting her from doctrinal error. That doesn’t mean that all a pope’s statements are clear or true. Think of Honorius. The Catholic faith, and its teaching about itself, is compatible with an event of Honorius magnitude. That helps situate the current Amoris Laetitia controversy in a more accurate conceptual context with regard to the Catholic faith.”

    Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis!

  4. When we label people as “divorced and remarried”, we need to recognize the diversity of situations which fall under this category. For instance,

    1. Of practicing Catholics, a great many divorced and remarried people like myself have in fact had their second marriage validated by the Church. (either by annulment or some other mechanism).

    2. Another large practicing group of divorced and remarried people have in fact separated from the second union, and they are striving to live chastely while receiving the sacraments.

    3. A third group of divorced and remarried people remain together for the sake of the children or some other grave reason, but they striving to live chastely and avoid scandal while receiving the sacraments.

    4. A fourth group of divorced and remarried people are attending mass but not receiving the sacraments because they do not know a way out of their situation. Even though the Church cannot recognize their marriage as a sacramental marriage, they have a promise to their (civilly married) spouse, and they feel they cannot break this promise. Some in this category are seeking an annulment. Some have the religious cooperation of their spouse, some don’t. Many do not know about the option to live chastely. Some know about this option but feel it would break their marriage vows.

    5. A fifth group of divorced and remarried people are receiving the sacraments and are at the same time invincibly ignorant of the gravity of their situation.

    6. A sixth group of divorced and remarried people (probably mostly in the U.S.) are receiving the sacraments because they have not been taught that faithful Catholics should inform their conscience according to church teaching.

    … and I bet I’m missing even more situations.

    Given the complex landscape here, it’s no surprise that we find ambiguous teachings that generalize too much. Orthodox Catholics (including myself) are also guilty of imprecise talk. We easily mention divorced and remarried people as if all these people are living in grave sin and that none should receive the sacraments. Although the Maltese bishops statement is confusing (perhaps intentionally?), the fact is that there are situations in which divorced and remarried people can validly receive the sacraments, even without an annulment. This goes to show how difficult it is to make a precise statement about this matter. If we want precision, we need to go to the canon law of the Church.

    As a matter of giving my pontiff the benefit of the doubt, I want to point out that Pope Francis has publicly affirmed the indissolubility of Christian marriage on multiple occasions. This public clarification does not have the weight of an apostolic exhortation or even of a “dubium”, but I think it shows what he is intending to teach.

    Rather than clarifying or repeating canon law (which I think is complex but pretty clear), what I would love to see is that Pope Francis issue a document on the beauty of Christian marriage. Better yet, he could just re-issue Familiaris Consortio and be done with it.

    1. Jonathan yes that is true. But I think the widespread understanding of their usage of divorced and remarried is case #4 in particular above that you mention.

      1. Case #4 is certainly the most difficult case. Lord, have mercy on these, your people! Mary, help untie these difficult knots!

  5. Devin….. I was wondering , since you mentioned Catholic Answers, have any of the Caholic Answers folks like: Karl Keating, Jimmy Akin, Tim Staples, Karlo Brossard or Trent Horn opined on this matter? Thank you for addressing it.

  6. Regarding the “dubia”, it too seems imprecise to my layman ears:

    ‘Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?’

    Problem #1: Although the paragraph mentions divorced person who have obtained an annulment, the question itself does not exclude this case, so couldn’t the pope easily answer “yes” without clarifying anything?

    Problem #2: what is meant by “continue to live more uxorio”? Do they mean persons who _intend_ to continue to live unchastely? Or are they asking priests to _predict_ whether such persons will live unchastely in the future? Or are they asking about persons who have confessed unchastity more than once? Or are they asking about persons who have been unchaste without realizing it?

    IMO, all bishops and canon lawyers should be required to do a bit of coding in a compiled programming language in order to develop more precision in what they write.

  7. I believe he is a good man but he’s a worry. I don’t think he has the self discipline that should be required of a pope. For example he tends to speak first and think later.
    He should stick to spiritual matters and not make pronouncements on science. The last time a pope did this was in the time of Galileo and of course he was hopelessly wrong. Catholic apologists are still trying to explain that one way. Francis has done the same thing with his climate change pronouncements…..another Galileo moment.

  8. In your informative essay, regarding Amoris laetitias, you mention discipline and dogma. Would you clarify the discipline of which you speak? Christ pronounced marriage as insoluble making it dogma, right?

    1. Certainly Birgit, but the statements in Amoris Laetitia concern whether a divorced and remarried person could receive the Eucharist in spite of not having received an annulment.

        1. Birgit, it is. However, in orthodox Catholic minds it would be extremely imprudent to change that discipline, as it would undermine the doctrines surrounding the indissolubility of marriage and what it means to receive the Eucharist (i.e. that one is in full communion with the Church and not living in objective sin).

  9. Devin,

    Thank you for suggesting to pray the rosary for the pope. I will start with a daily decade during my daily walk. Prayer is indeed the strongest tool we have, yet we often use it as our last resource, because we think we can resolve the issue on our own. How prideful of us.

    I also think that we have better communication tools that St. Catherine had in her time and we should use them. I wonder if the pope is truly aware of this controversy. It is likely not on the night news in Italy and properly not in the newspaper. I also doubt that he reads his email or letters before the are sorted by somebody else. So, maybe the best tool is still the old fashioned hand written letter. Many of them… If we could mobilize tens of thousands of hand written letters delivered to the Vatican and a local newspaper (Osservatore Romano) within a very short period of time, that may raise the attention level.
    I am also surprised that the US bishops have not made an official statement about it yet. All of this contributes to the confusion and doubts (word that comes from “dubium”/”dubia”)

    In Christ,

    Enrico

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