The “Concern”

A relative recently wrote an e-mail to me in which he made the following off-handed comment: “What do you think of the pope’s recent course change on abortion?” Now, unless I missed something, on this subject the pope has not changed anything. He has, no doubt, indicated that he wanted to downplay its relative importance compared to other issues. He avoids right-to-life marches in Italy. Many of his ecological friends want to control world population.

But the questioner was perceptive, nonetheless. Most people do think that the pope has or soon will change Catholic doctrine on abortion and many other related issues. What is even more surprising is that many think that he has the power simply to change doctrine as if he were a voluntarist potentate free to change things as he wills.

The same issue of changeability comes up with regard to marriage. While the pope has not changed anything on the objective disorder of active gay marriage, most people, especially most homosexuals, think that he has. Their way of life, it is claimed, is simply “good” and must be recognized as such. Not a few passages in scripture, previous church teachings, and common sense, suggest that this recognition may not be such a good idea.

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In the case of communion for the divorced, again most people and many bishops consider a radical change has been made. It is just wrapped up in obscure language and promulgated in a strange manner. The pope is cautious in revealing his hand. Many people have given up on him. They do not understand what he is up to. They do notice the “leftist” tenor of thought of those who support his most publicized public statements.

Four cardinals recently sought, through normal legal and canonical channels, to ask the pope for a clarification of what he means in these areas in which he has written or spoken. (See Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s recent essay in Crisis.) Many are confused. Has the pope, in his own mind, changed anything substantial; and, if so, on what basis? Any change in these important questions would bring into question not only the truth of the issue at hand, but also the centuries-long record of consistent orthodoxy in the Church. This abiding consistency is one of the major proof-claims for the Church’s credibility. Is it possible, I wonder, to articulate the “concern” that many people I know or read about have about the present Church without being sensational, inaccurate, or unfair? What, in other words, is the core of the “concern”?

As it is by now well-known, the pope, at least for now, “dismissed” or ignored these requests of the cardinals for clarity. He seems to maintain that anyone concerned with such issues is “rigid,” or a Pharisee, or even a bit psychotic. Increasing numbers wonder why the pope cannot just give a brief direct answer to an honest, well-phrased inquiry. After all, this protecting the integrity of what was handed down is the burden of the papal office. To avoid giving answers, when giving answers is your job, seems odd.

In absence of clarity, people look for reasons about why the Holy Father refuses to answer straightforward questions of some import. Is there something hidden that might explain it? People become detectives looking for clues. The pope rightly maintains that not all questions need to be or can be answered. This is not unlike the notion that all the laws need not all be enforced. To see what laws are or are not enforced is a pretty good indication of what the law enforcer thinks to be important. Likewise, the unanswered questions seem to point to what is really the problem.


Pope Francis has had a good education as befits the Jesuit priestly tradition. But he makes no bones of the fact that he is not himself intellectually oriented in his overall outlook, as were perhaps John Paul II and Benedict XVI. To be sure, Francis does at times display certain operative principles, like “time is more important than space.” This principle is evidently addressed to critical intelligence in a world in which time and space are inter-related in the scientific textbooks while space is measured in terms of light years. Christ came in the “fullness of time” to a specific place, which, if it, or a place like it, did not exist, he never could have made it to this Earth in which time is also manifested. But of course, the pope did not deny the existence of space in preference for some obscure notion of time.

The point that I write about here is relatively simple. The “concern” is not so much to “prod” the good Holy Father into answering his mail. Others have tried this approach and failed. Rather it is to articulate the core “concern” that many normal people have about their Church under Pope Francis’ leadership. The Argentine pope certainly attracts crowds and generous media attention. He is seen kissing little babies, waving, smiling, and talking earnestly with almost anyone from scientists to politicians to mullahs and rabbis. We all recall his visit with the late Fidel Castro.

Pope Bergoglio has been on some twenty travels out of Italy and all over the known world. He dutifully attends to papal liturgical, diplomatic, bureaucratic, and ceremonial functions. At almost eighty, he seems full of energy and zest. He appears in public to enjoy being the pope. He even gets annoyed. He is human. The people he seems to like the least are practicing Catholics and the poor ecclesial bureaucrats who have to do all the thankless grunt jobs in the Church. He certainly has a good press. The crowds at papal audiences seem down, while observers do not yet detect any remarkable “Francis effect” in increased vocations, conversions, or Mass attendance.

But none of these issues seems to be what most concerns people. We are used to maintain that the principle of contradiction binds us to the truth of things. Catholicism is a religion that takes mind seriously. Revelation and reason do not contradict each other. These affirmations about reason and revelation indicate a certain confidence in our Catholicism. When spelled out, what the faith teaches makes sense in all areas. We can articulate what we are talking about without claiming that we grasp absolutely everything about the mystery of being. In fact, we claim that we do not understand everything in all its intelligibility. We do not confuse ourselves with the gods.

What we can figure out by ourselves makes sense also. We hold that what was revealed by Christ still holds and was intended to do so over time. Among these teachings and practices that were revealed was that of the consistency over time of the content of revelation. This consistency of its intelligibility was to be upheld in particular by the office of the papacy. Thus, what was taught by St. John, by Leo the Great, by Innocent IV, by Alexander VI, by Pius V, by Gregory VI, by Leo XIII, and by John Paul II would be essentially the same teaching, however well or ill it was explicated in a given era.


In this tradition, the Jesuit theologians, Francisco Suarez and Robert Bellarmine, at least considered the problem of a hypothetical pope who did not affirm what had been explicitly handed down. In general, they held that a pope who might enunciate any heretical position would cease ipso facto to be pope. But this was an opinion. The one or two instances in the history of the Church, when a given pope did state something dubious, were usually considered, on examination, to be merely private opinions or not taught infallibly. So the consistency record over time is pretty impressive from that angle.

In this light, the “concern” that exists today is whether the promise to Peter that what Christ did and held would be kept alive in its fullness. The Church thus must avoid contradicting itself; that is, teaching one thing in one generation or area and its opposite in another. We are not concerned here with equivocation or impreciseness. If some pope did cross this line, we can at least suspect that he would not admit it or see the point. If he had the issue pointed out to him and saw its import, he would simply acknowledge what is the truth and be done with it. Otherwise, a drawn-out struggle would follow to decide who is right.

In a recent talk to the Jesuit Congregation, the Holy Father again spoke of seminaries wherein “law” was taught, where priests became “rigid.” Instead, he advocated what appears to be a version of St. Ignatius’s “discernment of spirits” as the alternative to this “legalism.” It often seems that the real target is the encyclical Veritatis Splendor of John Paul II that spelled out the conditions for dealing with absolute evils. It is of some interest to reflect on this approach. It may explain the reason why Pope Bergoglio does not answer specific questions about the truth of doctrines.

In Aristotle and Aquinas, the virtue of justice was what upheld the law. The lawmaker is responsible for stating exactly what the law is. We cannot be held to what we do not know. However, the classic discussions of law included a second virtue known as equity or epichia. It was recognized by the law itself that laws are made for the generality of cases, whereas human action takes place in particular times, places, and circumstances. This awareness meant that observing the purpose of the law sometimes meant not following the letter of the law. As far as I know, no one has ever had a problem seeing this point.

Epichia, however, did not mean that there was no objective standard of right in any given case. It was not a “feeling,” but a judgment of insight about the real rightness or wrongness of an act that took into consideration all its aspects. The assumption was that in every act there was a “right” thing to do, which we searched out with our reason and insight and were obliged to follow. In the older Jesuit tradition of casuistry, we find a tendency to take the lenient side in a complicated moral or practical issue. It was up to the lawmaker to make things clear. Judges in particular cases did little other than look into these particular complexities. And we should not be constantly changing the law as that too created uncertainty about what we can be expected to know and do. In this sense, the “liberal” position was not merely a subjective position.

The Jesuit tradition of “discernment of spirits” was designed to do just that—discern “spirits,” good ones from bad ones. Particularly, when sorting out one’s choice of a vocation in life, what God wanted this particular person to do, or what particular person to marry, or what task to undertake, we could, with the help of a wise advisor, gain some sense in the way the Lord was guiding us. It seems to be from this background that the Holy Father derives his antagonism to “legalism.” Whether one can make an easy analogy of “discernment of spirits” and the sacramental confession and judgment of one’s sins is a reasonable question to ask ourselves.

When the Holy Father refuses to answer what appear to entail clear issues, the reason seems to be that he is looking at human action through the eyes of the “sinner.” The sinner can always, as Aquinas intimated, give some sort of reason for what he does. There is no such thing as an absolutely “evil” act. Evil always exists in some good that can be articulated, and even praised. On the other hand, we too must “discern” spirits that are leading us away from our own good and from God. How we observe the commandments are signs of the direction in which we are going. The ancient spiritual fathers always taught that eventual damnation began with little things, small faults. One thing leads to another until we had a habit of separating emotions surrounding the good from the good itself. We impose our will, in other words, on objective reality.


Where do such considerations leave us with regard to the “big” current issues of marital fidelity, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and other issues? No one seems to want us to apply the same kind of thinking, say, to thievery or murder whereby we go through such agonies to decide what is good. Generally, the expression of “bringing the Church into the modern world” has meant, on examination, that we should devise some way to accept these wide spread and civilly enforced practices as goods. If we do accept these practices as “good,” we need, at the same time, to recognize that we deny the tradition we are to uphold. We lose all claims to revelation as a consistent guide to action.

To put the best face on it, if we apply the “discernment of spirits” approach to the way we deal with these issues, we ought not to intend, at the same time, to deny the objective standards that are the objects of justice and epichia. If we do, then we have simply contradicted ourselves and should acknowledge it. In other words, the epichia tradition with its emphasis on an objective “rightness” that we are seeking to know and follow cannot be replaced by a “discernment of spirits” tradition that somehow, wrongly, would justify intrinsically immoral acts.

At their best, both traditions can look at the ones held to live according to the norms of reason and revelation to inquire how they see the issue in the concrete. Neither ought to be a subtle methodology to justify evil or make everything so subjective that no objective order any longer exists. Rather both, at their best, seek not just to know what was thought at the time the problem arose, but to instruct and guide us to live by those standards that do embody the true good of each person, standards found both in reason and revelation.

So, briefly, to conclude, what is the “concern” that so many have? It is whether a shrewd way of undermining what had been handed down has been introduced into the Church. I myself do not think opposing “legalism” in favor of “discernment” is a good idea. Law and equity, discernment of both good and bad spirits, are necessary. Not all questions need to be clarified immediately. I, at least, belong to the school of thought that thinks that the most important ones should be clarified. It is not “legalism” to do so. We are not a people who seek to live in darkness. We seek to live in the light that teaches us about what is.

(Photo credit: Wikicommons)


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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