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.
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.
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