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!

Pope Francis’s Eco-Encyclical Shows How Catholicism Is Neither Right Nor Left

I’m glad that Pope Francis has written an encyclical (Laudato Si) on the importance for humans to care for the environment.

Because, quite simply, God created the natural world and has commanded us to be good stewards of it. That is neither left nor right. It is simply Catholic.

A Thought-Drowning Furor

Unfortunately, a furor has already grown over the very fact that Pope Francis has written the encyclical, before the ink has even dried on it.

Two persons yelling out to each other
Constructive dialogue goes out the window

How we should care for the environment is a deeply politically polarized issue. As such, people get up in arms the instant that anything related to it is mentioned: pollution, emissions, global warming, climate change, climate disruption, and so on.

So it is unsurprising that his encyclical was being lambasted before anyone had even read it. Like many other contentious topics in our society today, the furor drowns out actual thought and respectful dialogue.

The Wisdom of Pope Francis

Pope Francis introduces his encyclical’s theme: care for the environment and responsible development, especially to help the poor:

Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest. Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.

He decries pollution and other well-known problems, but also jumps quickly to affirming man-made global warming:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon.

Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.

I’ll say more on global warming shortly, but regardless of whether it is occurring and caused by humans, the latter statement Pope Francis makes, that we should change our consumerist, throwaway lifestyles, is accurate and urgent.

Pope Francis goes on to write about the importance of water, both its purity, wise use, and access for all people. Then he talks about biodiversity and extinction–all important topics when discussing ecology.

He then expands his focus to include social inequalities and injustices found in inner cities and in the concentration of resources among the wealthy at the exclusion–both physically and socially–of the poor.

I was pleased to see that the Pope discusses how many people push for contraception and lowering the birth-rate as the solution to our problems:

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”.

Obviously for us as Catholics this is problematic in the extreme and cannot be condoned.

In the next section, Pope Francis turns to the theological basis for ecology: the Bible, sacred Tradition, and in particular the words of Jesus. He presents solid Catholic social teaching on the fact that humanity is a communion where the fruits of the earth are for the benefit of everyone.

What I Wished Pope Francis Had Excluded

Global warming and climate change.

Pope Francis wrote about anthropogenic (man-made) climate change, going with the popular consensus that it is a fact.

Firstly, these statements are in the area of science and so are not to be considered dogmas of the the Faith. Pope Francis is going with the popular opinion on these matters to get into the more important aspects of the Church’s teachings on caring for the environment.

I wish that Pope Francis had not included statements about global warming or climate change, because 1) they are not scientifically proven, 2) they are not concerning faith and morals, and 3) they are used by secular ideologues to promote anti-human agendas.

her1Quite frankly, it confuses the faithful when contested scientific opinions are intermixed with the presentation of Church doctrines. Which statements are binding upon Catholics? Which are not?

He could have included everything else he wrote about, without opining on climate change, because whether anthropogenic climate change is happening or not, the bottom line for Catholics is still the same: care for people and the environment in prudent and wise ways.

He could have omitted those opinions, left the controversy to the scientists and public at large, and instead put the spotlight on some examples of ways humans are harming the environment that neither the Left nor the Right pay attention to. Then he could have discussed the innovative ways that people–including Catholics–are solving these problems to improve the environment.

Which brings us to…

What I Wished Pope Francis Had Included

I wished that Pope Francis had delved into actual solutions to the problems facing our world and how we treat it.

He does write in a general way on ecosystems, which comes close to what I was hoping for:

We need only recall how ecosystems interact in dispersing carbon dioxide, purifying water, controlling illnesses and epidemics, forming soil, breaking down waste, and in many other ways which we overlook or simply do not know about. Once they become conscious of this, many people realize that we live and act on the basis of a reality which has previously been given to us, which precedes our existence and our abilities.

The milk stanchion with Miss Cordelia Jane in it
The milk stanchion with Miss Cordelia Jane in it

But I would love to have seen him include detailed paragraphs on permaculture in small-scale farming, for instance, and on decrying the evils of conventional agriculture.

In my book Farm Flop, I describe one of the glaring problems that we saw out in the country, problems that no one talks about:

Neighbors drenched their fields with Grazon, a broad-leaf herbicide that people use on their pasture when they want a pure grass stand. The positive side of it is that it kills off weeds like Silverleaf Nightshade, Pig weed, Dove weed, and Purple Thistle. The bad side is that it kills every other non-grass plant as well, even good ones.

And the scientists at Texas A&M had discovered that Grazon remained the soil for months and months. Even if the grass was cut for hay and baled, the Grazon was still in it—we learned this lesson when we used some Grazon-laden hay as sheet mulch in one garden bed, and all the plants died. It could even pass through the manure of animals intact.

Here in central Texas, rural land should be a healthy mixture of trees, bushes, and grasses, but over the past two hundred years the trees were mostly cut down to make room for tractors to easily go up and down fields, cutting hay or planting and harvesting crops. Ironically, it meant that out in the country we had less birds and squirrels and trees than we did living in the suburbs of Austin!

This line from Pope Benedict, quoted by Pope Francis, is prescient:

“The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”.

Friends of ours in Kansas told us how the wheat farmers there, after cutting the wheat in summer, left the fields bare, without any cover crop, and the hot sun baked the ground, increasing the ambient temperature by over ten degrees after the wheat harvest was taken.

Conventional Agriculture’s Ills

But even these bad practices pale in comparison to how conventional farming is done today.

gm1Farms have centralized in the past fifty years to where relatively few owners own huge tracts of acreage. They buy GMO seeds from the big chemical companies (Monsanto, Dow, etc.) and then douse the plants with herbicide to kill the weeds.

Cows are raised in pasture for the first part of their life but then sent to the feedlot to fatten them up quickly for the sale barn. This makes their manure, which should be an asset, into a pollution and transportation problem, because it is so highly concentrated in one location (the feedlot).

Similar problems exist with CAFO chicken operations and pig lagoons. My family in the Panhandle of Texas fought for years (unsuccessfully) to prevent a big pig corporation from moving in upwind from them. They failed, and the pig lagoons were created, smelling terribly and using up vast amounts of water in an already fast-depleting aquifer.

We Need Another Encyclical

When we are doing such obviously awful things to the environment, an eco-encyclical is a no-brainer. But what Pope Francis cannot do is write the follow-up encyclical that describes in detail how to solve these problems.

matild1We need an encyclical on pastured beef and poultry, one permaculture and guilds, on water systems and keylining and contour farming.

Since he can’t write it, we as the laity need to do so. We need to write books and establish sustainable farms and rebuild agrarian Catholic community like the original Catholic Land Movement attempted to do.

Katie and I tried to play our part in this, but ultimately for various reasons we had to give up on the farming dream. That said, you can take us out of the farm but not the farm out of us. We have created a garden in our suburban lot that is already producing vegetables and fruit, plus making habitat for butterflies, snakes, bees, spiders, and soil life.

Why Isn’t Pope Francis Focusing On Real Threats?

Some friends of mine expressed their concern and frustration that Pope Francis spent so much time on an eco-encyclical, instead of raising awareness and an outcry on weightier matters like abortion, the widespread loss of faith in the world, the plummeting birth rates in the West (including in Europe and in Italy), the horrific rise of radical Islam, and so on.

I can sympathize to a degree with this desire. While the environment is important, 1) writing an eco-encyclical and mentioning anything about man-made climate change plays into the hands of the political Left, whose policies are contrary to the Catholic Church’s is almost every way, and 2) the health of the natural world at this moment is not the gravest threat to people and to the truth of God.

Jesus please rescue her
Jesus please rescue her

When women and girls are being sold as sex slaves by ISIS, is raising the flag about caring for nature the most pressing issue?

No. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t decry both wrongs. It doesn’t mean he can’t or shouldn’t write about the Catholic teachings on people and the environment.

His eco-encyclical is in fact needed, as I have supported with examples in this post. But in our age of sound bites and co-opting of messages, such a work is too easily spun, subverted, and prooftexted for out-of-context passages to seek to line up Pope Francis and the Catholic Church on a particular side, and the side that can do that most readily is the Left, a deadly enemy and persecutor of the Church and her people.

But the bottom line is that Pope Francis is the bishop of Rome, and I am not. I am a Catholic and therefore faithful to him and the Church. He has a greater understanding than I do of the needs of Catholics around the world.

What the Left And Right Should Do

I am glad that Pope Francis wrote this encyclical. I find it helpful and can read it within the rich Catholic tradition from which it springs.

The political Left should read it carefully and seek to understand the healthy and deep perspective from which it comes. They should avoid taking quotes out of context to try to proof-text their own opinions on climate change and what should be done about it.

left-right-politicsThe political Right should, first of all, actually read the encyclical and resist the urge to have a knee-jerk anti-ecology reaction to it. Pope Francis is not a Leftist tree-hugger who prioritizes bald eagle eggs over unborn human babies. Rather, he is a deep thinker and Gospel-believer who infuses environmental concerns with the true understanding of God and the human person, and how we are made to live in this world.

The Right should consider the wisdom given and the extensive Catholic thought on this subject. They should consult their faithful Catholic friends who have given much thought to these areas, especially those who follow the Catholic Land Movement and its principles.

Amid the noise and clamor of the talking heads about Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical, my hope is that some sane voices will rise and be noticed who can speak intelligently and wisely about what he wrote and how we can make practical application of the ideas he shared.

Too much to hope for? Perhaps, but I’m Catholic, so I am always confidently hope-ful!

We can and must care for our world. We have developed sound ways of doing so, that balance economic and technological growth with prudent care of ecosystems. Let’s hope that we can take a big step forward in doing so, beginning one family and community at a time.