Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Year In: Reading Pope Francis on Moral Matters

I want to say that I have been reluctant to post blog entries in recent times because I have not been sufficiently certain about how I should approach it.  I think I have made the mistake of making too much of some of the reported statements of Pope Francis on moral matters. Well, he is my Holy Father and I love and respect him.  I have had considerable difficulty making sense of some of these things he says, though, and I have needed a bit of time to reflect upon how to speak about moral matters, any moral matter, while giving my sincere deference to the words of our Holy Father. What does he expect of a moral theologian of the Church? Of me? What does he expect of faithful Catholics who love the Church and the Lord, much as he does? I think I can provide some direction.

No matter how much we would recoil at the idea, it is hard to deny that a few of the Holy Father's comments have been interpreted to approve of gravely sinful actions and, to a degree, immoral behavior, in general. If he does not know this, he should be made aware of it. I bet every parish priest knows it. Pope Francis has a duty to know this. He is the most authoritative moral teacher with a worldwide audience.

Fortunately, the Holy Father has given us some guiding principles of his own way of speaking and acting as Pope that are helpful.  I humbly and cautiously proceed to set forth a few of those, in the most tentative fashion, subject always to the authority of Holy Mother Church.

The first principle is that Pope Francis is a loyal son of the Church--of course, I think that goes without saying--but he said it, so I will take it and run with it. There is no need to question this.  Indeed, the Pope wants everyone to love the Lord Jesus and the Church. That means that he wants them to fall in love with the Truth as it is taught by the Church. In turn, this means that the Truth must be known. He is concerned about the obstacles to the discovery of the splendor of the Church's real treasure. I want to help it be known in all its splendor.

The second principle is that he is not going to change doctrine. He said that. Obviously, he has no intent to do so. I can add to that, though. He cannot change doctrine, not a point of moral doctrine that is definitive, certainly, and not any principle of the Natural Moral Law or any principle of moral action generally taught in the authentic magisterium. In that respect he is the chief steward. If a Pope should err in a statement, which is possible if it is not made invoking the fullness of his authority as Pope speaking ex cathedra,--I am not suggesting that Pope Francis has--then anyone with sufficient knowledge of the matter can point out the error. Of course, questioning the veracity of a statement of any teacher of the faith, especially the Pope, must be done cautiously, respectfully and with charity. One must first carefully examine himself and take counsel if this is to be a prudent act and not an act of daring. The presumption is always in the Pope's favor and can only be refuted with sufficient authority. There are other considerations as to the manner of doing this. The point, here, is that there are times when a Pope should be corrected in an appropriate manner.

The third principle, an offshoot of the previous two, is that what Pope Francis says must always be understood in light of the authentic teaching of the Church. He expects this. He often speaks in terms of pastoral application, not expounding upon moral truth. Be aware that his pastoral pattern functions only upon the foundation of authentic doctrine that he upholds, even when the media and individuals ignore this and distort his intent. I can add to this point, though. Pastoral charity and truth cannot be opposed to one another. If the Holy Father's statements are being used to contradict doctrine and against the authentic magisterium, they must be explained and the opposition between pastoral charity and moral truth must be disavowed. The Church must respond decisively to this. These interpretations of those who unjustly appeal to the Pope's words for their own nefarious ends are absurd. It is not as though the grave sinfulness of abortion, same-sex unions, and adultery are in dispute. However, there is the problem of passive scandal and a pastoral response to it. As the Church's universal shepherd, he has a duty to respond to the proliferation of false and harmful interpretations of his words or intent. The fact of these distortions is not a matter of speculation.  The erroneous opinions are verifiable in the media. Prudentially and pastorally, it would be helpful if the Holy Father took into account the ill will there is in the world against truth, against the faith, against good morals, against the Petrine office and his predecessors, and even against his own person.  Those malefactors who abuse the Pope's words are leading the little ones of Christ to sin. This is on their heads, of course.

Correlatively, those Catholics with concerns about the Pope's statements must listen to him reverently and interpret his words properly in light of the authentic universal magisterium of the Church. This is something that many in the Church are not quick to do. Pope Francis allows the Vatican Press Office to clarify his words on a routine basis. We can expect more of this in the future and we must allow for this pattern. To that, I would add that I believe that I can contribute something to that process and intended outcome for those who read what I write. I can provide the moral doctrinal context of the statements of our leaders in the faith. They are competent to apply their own pastoral prudence within the limits of their canonical authority.  The doctrine, however, remains the same. I can help them and the readers of this blog.

These principles are enough for me to act on.  These principles can be applied to the statements of all prelates, as well.

No comments: