16 March 2014

Good Advice from Fr. Richard on the Pope and Problematic Statements

Fr. Edward Richard, the moral theologian late of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Saint Louis, had a good post earlier this week that is excellent reading for all of us suffering under the current papacy-by-interview regime.

The theme, with which I completely agree is this: the Pope, like any cleric, prelate or layman, may be subject to admonition if he were to propose something for belief or action that contradicts the Divine law. Yet he, as the Pope, is entitled to every benefit of the doubt, and any person who assumes for himself the task of admonishing him undertakes a very weighty thing. We must always avoid the cheap and theatrical. We must assume the best motives on his part, and be very aware-- more than usually so-- that we may be the ones who are wrong.

By saying this, I do not mean to say that we should give a benefit of the doubt that is ridiculous, but rather, simply, a legitimate one. A real one.

This is not an excuse for cowardly silence, but I mean exactly what I say. Because there is much in what he actually says and does that at first or even third glance, gives immense concern.

To deny this is to be as Pollyanna as it is possible to be. And yet, the Church, headed by Peter, cannot fail.

So, going forward, and as an apology for anything untoward of the past, I ask you to remember that I want to defend the faith, and the Church, the Bride of Christ, whom I love. That's the goal, anyway. And I want to speak when I should, and stay silent when I should.

What a crazy and evil time in which we live, when this is the problem for a Catholic.

Anyway, Fr. Richard says it better:

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.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Fr. Richard had a very intriguing (and reassuring) column. A couple of thoughts:

1) This may sound dumb, but if you have concerns, write to someone. No, the Church is not like Congress where constituents "vote" with their letters, etc., but our bishops appreciate a well-structured argument as much as anyone. Write to American bishops that have close contact with the Pope - who knows what points might make their way into a conversation? Heck, it's not like the Pope has shown himself to be unapproachable - write the Vatican.

2) This prospect is somewhat scary, but what if God has decided, as at various points in the Bible, to abandon our society to its sin because of our sheer stubbornness? One of the few ways to do so and still have a Church that maintains truth is to have a Pope who changes not a letter of doctrine, but who treats society so rhetorically gently that said society bends his words to mean anything it wants.

Bryan Kirchoff
St. Louis

Anonymous said...

P. S. I also think the papacy's "pivot" from life and morality issues to poverty issues may have some strategic merit. Charitable outreach in Christendom has atrophied over the past many decades, and modern government almost always attempts to fill the vacuum (to the point where many Christian agencies see the majority of their budgets coming from government grants). Government, of course, almost always has ideological strings attached to those programs and uses them to advance its social worldview (as we have seen in the HHS mandate, various Catholic Charities agencies having to cease adoption placements, and so on). The Church reclaiming its role in direct outreach to the needy is probably necessary for it to advance its moral vision. Poverty serves as a fertilizer for sin in more than one regard; I'm just hopeful the worldwide Church will realize the reverse is true as well.


Anonymous said...

1. What you see is what you get"
Correct----We can not judge motives or a soul. We can judge what is presented to us as right or wrong.
That is the only way I can protect myself, from bad companions or bad philosophy or mistaken translations.
God help us!

As far as the policies on the poor:
When someone has nothing- he or she can own all the riches of the Church. They can relish the bank of treasures in heaven and on earth, the wisdom, the graces, the fraternity, the history and proudly love it----in the end that is ALL we all have.The saints had nothing, that is the way we all are to live. I realize -you can't eat the riches of the church or wear them, BUT this has been neglected lately!


thetimman said...

Bryan, that may be as you say, but from my own perspective as a blogger, with the size of my readership (which is neither large enough to be of immediate influence on any question yet not so small as to be nothing, particularly on local or 'traditional' issues), I wonder always what I should do. Is the blog like a continual 'open letter', urging things for the better (as I see it of course) or does it descend to gossip sheet.

That's always the challenge for me. I try to make it the former but I know my limitations. I really am fundamentally hopeful in the true sense, yet my sarcastic streak and gallows humor can make it seem otherwise.

But I digress. I am absolutely convinced that more Catholic bloggers need to speak out for the truth. Many are caving, or are discouraged, or are bought and paid for. The real problem is that speaking out is perilous-- not to one's temporal interests but rather to one's soul. It is very easy to think well of yourself if you are 'heroically speaking up for the faith'. It rarely occurs to you that you might be wrong, or causing scandal, or encouraging contumely. And yet it is true that we need heroic speaking up for the faith.

It is the daily dilemma. Please pray for me, I need them very much. I don't want anyone to go to hell, especially me.

Anonymous said...

Two of your lines stood out - can't sleep unless I try to help rephrase them for you. You said:
"The Church reclaiming its role in direct outreach to the needy is probably necessary for it to advance its moral vision." That, along with your idea that helping the poor has "strategic merit."

I think you might have wanted to say "Serving the poor and needy is the essential core of the Gospel Message of Jesus Christ." We serve the poor not because we are trying to advance some agenda or push a strategic vision. We do it precisely because Jesus Christ challenged us to do so, because Christ is within us all, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, black or white. Our motive isn't about advancing anything. It is purely to love and serve the poor (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and all the other ways we are poor.)

One of the primary reasons the Jewish rabbis of Jesus's time pushed to have him crucified was because he PREFERRED to be with sinners and thugs versus the temple leaders of his times. Jesus was a thorn in the side of those who preferred the status quo. He didn't do this to advance an agenda. He did it because - he simply loved the poor.

Holy men and prophets provoke and challenge people on all sides of the political spectrum. Pope Francis is certainly doing that. (Sorry if he doesn't fit into your rigid view of why you are saved, and those who don't think like you aren't.)

Jesus held his highest contempt towards leaders who were smug in their beliefs, who knew the answers, and who constantly judged those who weren't like them.

Maybe my Bible is broken, but can someone cite the passage where Jesus uses the words "doctrine," "authentic magisterium," and/or "Canonical authority." I'm guessing the Sadducees and Pharisees of His time certainly did. Jesus, of course, chose to never ever spend time with them.

Anyway, my contention is that none of us are truly Christian until we find a place deep in our hearts to love and accept the poor. Simple as that.