Making Sense Out of Pope Francis

Recently I heard of an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist who, during visits to a nursing home, was offering the Holy Sacrament to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. She claimed that Jesus loves and welcomes everyone, and offering the Eucharist to any and all is an extension of that love. When some friends disagreed with her, she presented an article from a Catholic publication that cited various comments from Pope Francis to support her position. Though I did not see the article in question, I’m inclined to think it deprives various pontifical statements of their immediate contexts, and presents an interpretation of our Holy Father beyond his actual words. Whatever the specifics of the pope’s statement, many a Catholic—even those eager to interpret Francis as charitably as possible—have, since 2013, often scratched their heads trying to decipher what, exactly, the Holy Father means.

Dr. Eduardo Echeverria, professor of philosophy and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, is one of those Catholics. In 2015, Echeverria published a book entitled Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, which offered a careful, scholarly evaluation and defense of our Holy Father in light of some of Francis’s earliest pontifical controversies (e.g., the infamous “Who am I to judge?” comment). Echeverria, four years later, has revised and expanded this text into a second edition that dramatically alters his thesis regarding Francis. This is an arresting development. Echeverria explains: “I have now come to accept that Francis has contributed to the current crisis in the Church—doctrinal, moral, and ecclesial—due to the lack of clarity, ambiguity of his words and actions, one-sidedness in formulating issues, and a tendency for demeaning Christian doctrine and the moral law.”

Echeverria offers detailed analysis of Francis’s most famous bewildering utterances. These include his criticism of those adhering to “hostile inflexibility” regarding doctrine, “doctrinal rigidity,” and “ahistorical fundamentalism.” He censures those “who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance,” and those who think their “way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives.” Many have speculated about the meaning of language unusual for someone holding an office that periodically offers doctrines binding on the faithful. Echeverria now believes that Francis’s criticisms of rigid ideologues are meant for faithful adherents of Catholic doctrine and are a “veiled reference” to critics of Chapter 8 of the Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which many interpreted to condone a broader offering of the Eucharist, including to divorced and remarried Catholics.

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In contrast to this “doctrinal rigidity,” Francis has argued that “the revealed message is not identified with any of its [formulations]; its content is transcultural.” He has stated, “Being a Christian is not adhering to a doctrine…. Being Christian is about an encounter.” Elsewhere he has said: “Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, rules to be followed, or prohibitions. Seen that way, it puts us off. Christianity is a person who loved me immensely, who asks for my love. Christianity is Christ.” Francis once noted: “I would not speak about ‘absolute’ truths, even for believers, in the sense that absolute is that which is disconnected and bereft of all relationship.” Again: “Let us not compromise our ideas, utopias, possessions, and rights; let us give up only the pretension that they are unique and absolute.”

Whatever Francis’s intention behind such words, he has created the impression, says Echeverria, “that he is against dogma, or at least has a lesser regard for it than is expressed by the Church.” Moreover, his language has given license to bishops, archbishops, and cardinals to accommodate, if not reject, “the Church’s Christian anthropology and normative sexual morality.” Using Francis’s language as justification, Church leaders have claimed that pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and homosexual relationships can be condoned under the banner of progress, and now has a confused conception of the sensus fidelium (i.e., the “sense of the faithful”) that conflates it with bourgeois sensibilities, to cite First Things editor R.R. Reno.

There are many problems with Francis’s language, which appears to draw a strong, antithetical distinction between truth and its formulations. As Echevarria explains, truth always has to be formulated, so it is simply impossible to get to the truth apart from some set formulation. Indeed, what would it even look like to adhere to a truth that didn’t have some objective formulation that is impervious to change? Can the Nicene Creed be altered? Rather, Aquinas argues, our faith consists of both propositions and in the reality of the divine Word, Jesus Christ: “We do not form statements except so that we may have apprehension of things through them. As it is in knowledge, so also in faith.” Propositions of faith are true because they correspond to reality.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in turn, has not placed doctrines and the person of Christ in opposition to one another, but unified them: “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed” (CCC 150). Moreover, the Second Vatican Council does not perceive any conflict between the individual Christian’s witness (the sensus fidelium) and the magisterium. Rather, as Echeverria adeptly proves, the sensus fidelium is only operative for those conforming to Church teaching in its totality and who are worshipping as faithful members of the Church.

One of the most frequent defenses of Francis’s language is that he is presenting a more “pastoral” approach to the pontificate after the so-perceived stuffy intellectualism of Pope Benedict XVI. Yet, says Echeverria, pastoral doesn’t mean “nebulous, without substance, merely ‘edifying.’” Pastoral must mean “presenting the life-affirming truth of the Christian faith.” If pastoral may mean prioritizing the preaching of the Word of God before doctrine, this presents the same problems cited above, because the Gospel cannot be separated from objective doctrines. What good is a pastor if he confuses his sheep or helps his enemies? Francis’s approach, unfortunately, has given ammunition to Catholic theologians who have called for a rejection of the “absolutizing” of the Gospel in favor of its relativization and subjectification.

Echeverria believes Francis’s pontificate has thus far exacerbated polarization within the Church, giving fuel to two separate camps who both consider the Second Vatican Council a radical, discongruous break with an older, dogmatic Church (with one pole viewing this as a good thing, the other not). Contra both these positions, Echeverria argues that it is Francis who is often at odds with Vatican II, rejecting the Lerinian hermeneutics of Vatican II. This approach adhered to a “retrieval theology,” a form of theological discernment that returns to authoritative sources of faith—Scripture and Tradition—when contemplating the future of the Church. Here Echeverria refers to St. Vincent of Lerins, who offered the first robust articulation of a theory of doctrinal development, one that reconciles “historically-conditioned formulations of dogma” and the permanence of that dogma’s “meaning and truth” in the face of modification or expansion.

One should acknowledge that Francis has many defenders, among them a number of faithful, orthodox Catholics. This is probably as it should be—as Catholics we are called to humble, charitable deference to our Holy Father. Indeed, some Catholics tend to engage in unhealthy, uncharitable, knee-jerk attacks against the pontiff. Echeverria does none of this. His fair and level-headed analysis of Francis’s epistemology and theology does seem to prove, at a minimum, that Francis is a confounding pope. I’ve largely given up trying to interpret and defend him for precisely this reason. Unless one has the theological and scholarly chops of an Echeverria or a Bishop Barron, it might be better to avoid the limitless, often futile debates about what Francis means or doesn’t mean. Echeverria did his homework when he produced a dense, admittedly poorly edited, 430-page text to establish some answers. I commend the seminary professor for his humble, impressive effort. For less ambitious Catholics, perhaps prayer for our Holy Father—and his many interpreters—is the most fruitful strategy.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)


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