It’s Not for the Pope to Change

We may have a third, and perhaps most catastrophic, change coming to Catholic teaching under the pontificate of Francis.

In the classic The Spiritual Combat, the first weapon needed for sanctity is self-distrust. Or, as Chesterton said, “Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.” Some in Rome should think about this before they cause even more Catholics to question the Faith (or at least the Church). They—and we—should also consider and be grateful for the diffidence of Pope St. Paul VI. Let me explain.   

Here’s the problem. Pope Francis has changed the continuous moral teaching of the Church at least twice. The first was in Amoris Laetitia, allowing Catholics in adulterous relationships to receive the Eucharist; and the second was when he declared capital punishment inadmissible.

Now, I know many will say that the teaching has not changed. To do this, though, they have to go through so many mental, theological, and ecclesiastical hoops that it makes the “How many angels fit on the head of a pin?” debate seem simplistic.  

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The two instances that have happened have not been “misstatements” or something “taken out of context.” They have been official pronouncements by Pope Francis. Regarding the allowance of adulterous Catholics to receive Communion, we can’t play the “dubious footnote” game. Francis later gave his own directions to the Argentinian bishops that, yes, that is what he means. All requests for clarification were dismissed. 

In the matter of capital punishment, he, on his own volition, and citing no authority other than himself, made the change in the official catechism of the Church. In both instances, there seems little doubt that the moral teaching of the Church has changed and has been changed, officially, by the pope.  

These are not prudential judgments or matters of Church governance. These are moral teachings. And by “changed” I don’t mean “developed” (that favorite word of the pope). I mean changed. In the first instance, what once was sinful is now no longer so; in the second instance, what once was allowable, is now sinful. For the Catholic in the pew, black has become white, and white has become black.    

And now we have a third, and perhaps even more catastrophic, change coming. The Pontifical Academy for Life has published a document describing a “paradigm shift” in the Church’s teaching on birth control. The document reads that, since there are “conditions and practical circumstances that would make the choice to generate irresponsible,” a married couple may decide to resort “with a wise choice” to contraceptive techniques. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, Pope Francis’ handpicked president of the Academy, writes, “The text carries out a radical change, moving, as it were, from the sphere to the polyhedron.” (I’m not making this up.)  

Some will argue that this is only a document written by, or at least guided by, Archbishop Paglia and is not official Church teaching. They may also add that several members of the Academy have criticized it, pointing out that they were not consulted. But we’ve seen this “end around” before (see Amoris Laetitia). Besides, Archbishop Paglia made it clear that Pope Francis knew from the beginning about the initiative and the document, and, according to Paglia, he encouraged it. Some are seeing it as the basis for an encyclical changing the teaching. 

I’m not going to debate the teaching. What I want to do is point out two things. The first is the absolute confidence Pope Francis and his theologians have shown in their own judgment on changing Church teaching. This leads to the second thing: their confidence in themselves is destroying many Catholics’ confidence in the Church. Do they realize this? 

Here is the question I am asking myself, and I wish to God I had the answer: If Pope Francis is right, then the Church up to his pontificate has been wrong, and my belief in that Church has been misplaced. On the other hand, if (as I believe) the Church up to Pope Francis has been right, then he is wrong, and my belief in a central tenet of that Faith (her teaching authority) has been misplaced, which, in turn, undermines my belief in the whole structure. 

I want to be clear that I am not “attacking” Pope Francis. I am simply stating what he has done. I could even agree with the changes. The problem still remains. We are now faced with a situation (or two, and possibly three) where the moral pronouncement of the Church, as issued by the pope in his teaching capacity on matters of morals, is not infallible. It can change.  

So, what is a Catholic to do? And by a Catholic, I mean someone who has trusted the Church in her consistent moral teaching for two millennia, in all her Councils and through all her popes. I guess they were wrong?  

The papacy of Francis is full of ironies, but this may be the most ironic. These changes have been made—and will be made—to keep up with the times. (Use whatever fancy theological language you want, that is what it comes down to.) We “now know better.” They are done—even giving the best of intentions—supposedly to strengthen and broaden the Church. They will do nothing of the sort. They will weaken her incredibly and narrow her remarkably. With all due respect to other faiths, especially Protestants, people have not converted, and will not convert, to the Catholic Faith because she is just like any other.   

I am not saying that the Church should hold to her teachings simply to be different; to offer another item on the menu. I am saying that, in my experience—my own personal faith journey (an ugly phrase, but necessary) and the conversion stories of many I know—the turning or returning to the Catholic Faith has been because she alone has said, “We have the truth, the unchangeable truth, the rock of truth.” And now the rock is being pulverized into sand. 

So, again, what is a Catholic to do? I don’t know. Perhaps the next conclave would elect “our man” and put in the “policies” (i.e., moral teachings) we approve of. The effort and cost would be enormous. For one, Francis has made a point of appointing only those who agree with him to positions of power. He has that right as pope, so I don’t challenge him there. I wish John Paul and Benedict had been more Franciscan in this regard.  

A large part (fifty percent? Seventy-five percent?) of the college of cardinals and the episcopacy would have to be overhauled. And what to do with those who, whether we like it or not, are bishops for life and are still around? Also, entire religious orders would need to be cleansed. Universities and seminaries would need to be purged or shut down. Countries may need to be put under interdict. 

But so what? With his confidence, Francis, I am sure unwittingly, has made the papacy into a presidency whereby moral teachings are mere policies. The “other side” will just wait their turn to put in “their man (woman?)” and reverse it. Hello Protestantism.  

And, meanwhile, what about our priests? I am thinking of the many who entered the priesthood precisely because of John Paul II’s and Benedict’s upholding of Church teaching. They will be caught not only in their own moral dilemma but in having to try to explain to parishioners (while keeping a straight face) why sin is no longer sin.  

So why am I bringing up Paul VI? I go back to The Spiritual Combat and its first lesson—distrust of self. There is a lot one can criticize about Paul VI and his pontificate. Probably the most frequent charge is diffidence, too much of a willingness to go along. That certainly seemed a problem. But as we are staring into the headlights of a papal reversal of Humanae Vitae, it may be that very quality of Paul VI that saved him in that reaffirming encyclical; a quality that seems conspicuously absent in Rome today. 

We know that the commission Paul VI had appointed regarding contraception said it should be allowed. And it may be that Paul VI himself was willing to go along with them. If he were looking only at the current times and those present around him, he may have done so. 

But maybe, maybe, he distrusted himself even there. Maybe he looked back over his shoulder at his predecessors, and the Councils, and the doctors of the Church, into that eternal encompassing entity that is the Church, and thought, “But who am I to go against them?” As many are wondering where—or whether—they belong in the Catholic Church today, I can only wish that the current pope had more such diffidence.  

[Photo Credit: Daniel Ibaez/CNA]


  • Robert B. Greving

    Robert B. Greving teaches Latin and English grammar at a Maryland high school. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps following his graduation from the Dickinson School of Law.

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