There is an Interesting recent report on Pope Francis recently in the British and American press. You can read about it here and here . What is emerging is a very interesting phenomenon; let’s call it the “Spirit of Pope Francis”. It is analogous to the alleged Spirit of Vatican II. It is common knowledge that after Vatican II a large number of changes occurred in the Church, mostly in the direction of less orthodoxy, and in a great break with tradition. Very often these changes were said to be mandated or allowed by Vatican II. Of note many of these changes were nowhere authorized or encouraged or even mentioned in the actual documents of Vatican II, but when confronted with these facts liberals within the Church often cited the “Spirit of Vatican II” as justification for going beyond the mundane words of the actual real council. There is ample evidence that what followed was the decimation of the Church. In our initial blogs we talked a little about this here . Most of those in the Catholic blogosphere are familiar with this debate over the meaning and misinterpretation of Vatican II. Over the last two pontificates there has been push back from those of us who think the Spirit of Vatican II was a distortion of Vatican II, and in fact Both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had been working to reinterpret Vatican II in light of the prior 2000 years of Church history. They wished to reject a heterodox hermeneutic of rupture with the past in favor of one of continuity with what had gone before, this interpretation being a “hermeneutic of continuity”. The Catholic left hates this, and thus hated both pontificates, especially Benedict XVI’s reign. Beyond the papacy there are considerable forces sympathetic to tradition and interested in a “New Evangelization” more in line with historical Catholicism. These include new orders of religious like the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, lay religious collaborations that have grown such as the recognition of Opus Dei, as a personal prelature by John Paul II, and any number of lay organizations, publications and blogs ( see our useful link page) . The point is the forces of orthodoxy have been stronger then the aging Catholic left for a long time. Fr Andrew Greeley has gone to his reward and the average age of the membership of the Leadership Council of Women’s religious is now about 74… That is right 74. It was not a rosy looking future for the folks in favor of Womyn priestesses, and that sort of thing.
Now along comes Pope Francis. He is seen by them as an opportunity, in just the exact same way Vatican II was seen as an opportunity. He makes statements that in and of themselves can be interpreted in a way consistent with orthodoxy but lend themselves in their ambiguity to interpretations that Catholic liberals like since they feel they can “run” with them They write about these statements, and suggest they have a meaning that would indicate a great reversal of what the Church previously said, often in a direction that would be inconsistent with orthodox teaching.
So the lets review some of the Pope’s statements :
He does not want to “judge” someone who is gay for a sin committed long ago. Of course this is nothing new, if someone committed any sexual sin long ago they can be repent and be forgiven. Moreover if they are merely homosexual but are not engaged in homosexual acts, this was never considered a sin ever. Somehow the press interpreted this to mean we would soon be blessing gay marriage.
Pope Francis argues we need to be concerned about the poor and suddenly he is repudiating capitalism, in spite of the fact concern for the poor is a perennial one, and multiple saints and Papal encyclicals have not linked this with being synonymous with total government control of the economy. In fact quite the reverse, caveats regarding an excessively large oppressive state have usually been given as well.
Now most recently we have the Pope saying atheists can avoid sin by “following their conscience”. This is true to a point. To the extent this means they follow the natural law, that is the moral law we can know through reason, this is consistent with what the Church has always thought. In fact almost all of the moral law is known not through revelation but through reason, thus outside of specific religious rules that Catholics obey ( go to Mass on Sunday etc..) The same moral rules are binding on all human beings. That said We still have the obligation to properly form our conscience. So an atheist, who thought he had the right to beat his wife, would presumably be sinning even if he “followed his conscience”. I am sure Pope Francis would agree. Pope Benedict XVI wrote a little book about conscience in which he reiterates the point we can be culpable for an erroneous or silent conscience. His specific example was that in his youth there were Nazi’s who may have been “sincere”. He specifically rejects the idea of the “good Nazi” who thought what he was doing was ” good” since the Nazi was indeed morally culpable for having such a twisted view of the moral law. In fact this kind of erroneous conscience is an even deeper and graver fault. Many of the Nazis’ were functional atheists worshiping the state or the Party. Many other famous atheists such as the Communist tyrants of the last century ( Stalin, Mao) could have been said to be following their conscience. So following your conscience is not as simple as it sounds. It should be obvious that the chances of a sound conscience are much less in someone who rejects God then someone who does not. The usual suspects however will assume this means belief is no more virtuous than unbelief. (If this was so the Martyrs who died to preach the faith were fools, I doubt Pope Francis really thinks this way, it would be a most peculiar papal view.)
Finally a recent comment by the Pope’s new Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, to the effect that priestly celibacy is not a dogma or a doctrine but merely a discipline is reported as a great breakthrough. Any reproter who did not already know this sort of thing is such an obvious ignoramus they should be banned from ever writing about the Catholic Church again. The Catholic Church has waived the priestly celibacy requirement for Anglicans and Lutherans who converted and have been ordained, a prominent example would be Fr. Dwight Longenecker well known priest blogger. Moreover it has long been true and to a religion reporter should be well known, that Eastern rite Catholics united to Rome do not have a requirement that Priests be unmarried.
I think what is going on with all this, is those on the left are in a state of ecstasy now that their nemesis Pope Benedict XVI has gone, and they see an opportunity to create a narrative with this Pope whose style is so much different. Any statement, that in any way that can be interpreted as a break with orthodoxy and in favor of the fantasy Church to be created by the “Spirit of Vatican II” will be seized on as indicating a new revolution under the auspices of the new Popes preferences or emphasis. If one points out that Pope Francis did not call for some new heterodoxy by name, it will nonetheless be said that it was what he really intends based on his emphasis, style or something similar. Call it the “Spirit of Pope Francis”.
One wonders if Pope Francis knows this is what is happening? I wonder if he knows how much encouragement he is giving this particular side of the intra Church feud? One can only speculate. There are several possible theories about what the Pope might be up to.
- He has no idea his words are being hijacked and would be displeased by it. A corollary would be that the differences are really all just stylistic and he there really is no difference between what he said at this point in the Papacy and what others have done. Moreover other comments he has made as Archbishop are decidedly more conservative. I think this is often offered by some on the more traditionalist side of things, they want to give this new Pope a break, he is the Pope after all, and we are very early in the Papacy. But he is making them very, very nervous. Frankly this response strikes me as being a little naive; you do not get to rise up from anonymous priest to leader of a billion or so Catholics by being unaware of the implications of your words.
- He thinks the Church has so damaged its moral credibility with scandals, particularly the repulsive sex abuse scandal that it must speak and present herself in a way that people who ordinarily hate the Catholic Church will give her a hearing. So he wants some breathing room with secularists in Europe, and America, and their fellow travelers in the Church. If he can end some hostility he can later draw them in. This sort of thing comes from the kind of Catholics who know the Church and the culture are in deep trouble but usually tow the USCCB line; call this the “National Catholic Register” theory. This is not to say I have seen this specifically written at the NCR, but the folks over there are the kind of Catholics who see things that way, they are just a bit “happy clappy”. ) Visit them here and see for yourself.
- He really does have some sympathies with liberals in the Church, as he is after all a Latin American Bishop and a Jesuit to boot. These are not two groups noted for their conservatism. Still he cannot just overturn 2000 years of history. The College of Cardinals might elect a Catholic liberal, i.e. someone who does not like emphasizing the pro-life issues and prefers to talk about poverty etc, but they will not elect someone who is an open dissenter, after all Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI appointed these guys. Indeed at the end of the day Pope Francis has sent signals he has no intention of reversing doctrines (not that he could). He will canonize John Paul II ( not a hero to the heterodox and thought a saint to most conservatives except for the kind of ultratraditonalist Catholic who does not like the Divine Mercy devotion because they cannot stand the thought anyone might escape hell.) OK that’s a caricature but you get the point. Pope Francis also said the door to women priests is definitely closed and so forth. I would not bet he is going to endorse gay unions any time soon. Perhaps given his background and personal history he is temperamentally a liberal but only to a point. Many people forget that at the time of Vatican II, a Bishop by the name of Joseph Ratzinger, that is Pope Benedict XVI was a “liberal” at least by the standards then. I have not seen this theory advanced anywhere else, but it seems to be a self-evident possibility. Nonetheless since it does not conform to the deepest fears of conservatives that he is really going to be the first heretic pope, or the deepest longings of liberals for the same thing, it is not likely to get much play in the press.
Unfortunately we cannot read the Pope’s mind and so we have no idea if any of these theories is correct, some aspect of each of them is at work, or if the explanation is something else altogether. What we would urge on those like us who do not think the Church was born or died at Vatican II is this: The Pope cannot and will not reverse teaching. What was true yesterday is true tomorrow. We should not succumb to a false narrative that takes a comment of the Pope and distorts it. Frankly if the Pope really thinks atheism is just as good as a belief in God he is wrong, and I guarantee he will not say such a thing in a setting in which he is speaking with an intent to bind the Church or teach doctrine because the Holy Spirit will not let him.
Still Orthodox Catholics need to beware the “Spirit of Pope Francis”. I am sure we will be seeing a lot of this kind of reporting until events force the Pope to do or say something really conservative. Archbishop Chaput has made the point, that as the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ, he will ultimately have to say some things about the life issues, marriage and the other hot button cultural issues. That is to say he will have to speak the truths that the usual suspects among Catholic dissenters do not like to hear. In other words he needs to say something that irritates all the right people. We can only pray.
St Pius X, Blessed John Paul II pray for your successor Pope Francis, and all of us under his watch in this dangerous time.