The cowardice and hubris of Pope Francis
By Michael Brendan
April 11, 2016
To universal fanfare from the mainstream and Catholic media, Pope Francis has issued a long-awaited document, Amoris Laetitia, "the Joy of Love," as his conclusion to the Catholic Church's two-year Synod on the Family. But to this Catholic, the pope's supposedly reformist document is a botch job.
For two years, bishops presented their respective cases for two contradicting views of marriage, re-marriage, and the Church's own sacraments. Pope Francis didn't choose between these two options. He chose them both. The pope did not effect some grand synthesis. He merely gave his imprimatur to the Church's own confused practice on these matters and, more frighteningly, to its self-doubt.
As a result, the Joy of Love reads as an admission that God, as Catholics understand him, really isn't merciful or gracious to poor sinners. So priests should try to do better from now on.
All of this requires some explanation. While the document spends hundreds of pages, some of them quite good, and others quite banal, on the meaning of Christian marriage and family life, the headlines and anxiety all revolve around one topic. The "Great Matter" of the two-year Synod on the Family came down to one question: Can the divorced and re-married receive holy communion without obtaining an annulment or otherwise amending their life?
The Church's traditional reasoning is straightforward. If a valid, sacramental marriage is indissoluble, and someone contracts and lives within a second civil marriage, they are committing the sin of adultery, and doing so publicly. Like anyone in a state of moral sin — for instance, someone who knowingly missed Sunday Mass through their own fault — they are to exclude themselves from communion, lest they commit a further sin of sacrilege. If they repent of the sin and want to amend their life, they can make a sacramental confession and return.
The German Cardinal Walter Kasper has proposed a way around this — a kind of penitential path in which the remarried person admits some responsibility for their failed first marriage, but persists in the second. For two years, cardinals and bishops lined up on opposing sides of this proposal. Some argued for retaining the Church's traditional understanding and practice. Others pressed for some kind of "pastoral" accommodation to better integrate those who persist in their second marriage into the life of the Church.
Pope Francis sided with all of the above. And he did it not by effecting some greater synthesis, but by cowardly obfuscation.
Pope Francis tries to reframe what Catholics have long understood as the truth about marriage and chastity as merely an ideal, possibly an impossible or oppressive one, if taken too seriously by mere Christians. He pits his concept of mercy against marriage, as if a true understanding of the latter were a threat to the former. Pope Francis reveals himself to be a pope of his times, and embodies the defects of the Church he leads; Amoris Laetitia is characterized by loquacity and evasiveness in trying to dignify and disguise moral cowardice borne from a lack of faith.
Chapter 8 of this heralded document begins by describing the kind of person in an "irregular union" who might be considered for pastoral counseling back toward communion. It describes that person as someone possessed of "humility, discretion, and love for the Church." The question of whether this person has sincere sorrow for sin and a firm purpose to amend their life is side-stepped. Repentance and conversion? How old fashioned. Even the term "irregular union" is evidence of the way the Church is abandoning its understanding of adultery, draining away the moral force of its own teaching, as if marriage were merely a matter of paperwork yet to be amended.
Francis cites well-known Catholic teaching about whether a person is truly and fully culpable for their sins as if it were a new revelation, and then draws reckless conclusions from it, such as in paragraph 301 of chapter 8, where Francis simply announces, "Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any 'irregular' situations are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace." One can see how this substitution of "ideals" for commandments works when, in paragraph 303, Pope Francis posits, absurdly, that in some instances the most generous response a person can offer to God's grace is still itself "not fully the objective ideal."
The message is clear: God's grace is insufficient to assist you to do what he asks of you. Jesuits can do better.
Finally, although the pope rejects a formal institution of the Kasper proposal as a general rule, he strongly encourages the readmission of people in "objectively" adulterous unions to holy communion. He doesn't trumpet this, of course. He buries it in the 351st footnote. For a man showing such great audacity before God, Francis certainly isn't bold before men.
Many conservatives are revealing themselves as cowards, too. They hope that because the pope's document seems so confused and self-contradictory, because it hides its innovations under a ton of verbiage, and buried within footnotes, and because it is merely an exhortation and not a more lofty encyclical, that they can embrace what is good in the document, and pass over the rest. "It could have been worse," they are telling themselves. "It cites the Church's teaching against contraception, at least." I would remind them that their forebears said the same thing about the Vatican II's document on the liturgy. "Oh, it says Latin shall be retained, it promotes Gregorian chant," they comforted themselves. As now, the betrayal of the institution was too unthinkable, and they willfully overlooked the footnotes that contained within them a mandate to destroy high altars, tabernacles, altar rails, and institute folk music in a synthetic vernacular liturgy. So too, many conservatives will try to find the good parts, an easy feat in a document so prolix.
But progressives are not so timid. In the talking points handed out to bishops and other spokesmen ahead of the document, the intention was made clear, but plausibly deniable. "Pastors need to do everything possible to help people in these situations to be included in the life of the community." Words like "possible" and "inclusion" are left to be interpreted broadly, from the footnotes. Cardinal Kasper described the document glowingly as a "definite opening." Cardinal Schonborn boldly papered over differences between Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II by describing the work of Francis in Amoris Laetitia as the development of doctrine.
Traditionalist critics of the modern Church have a kind of slogan: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief. It's hard not to see how the already incoherent prayer of the Church is leading to incoherent doctrine and practice. The Church officially teaches that confession is necessary to be restored to holy communion after committing a mortal sin, and that receiving communion in a state of sin is itself sacrilege. Yet rare is the pastor who seems troubled by the long lines for communion and the near disappearance of the sacrament of confession among the people in his parish. Everyone just sort of knows the Church doesn't really mean what it says.
The Church's blasé attitude here has a pedagogical effect, teaching people that there is no need to have a holy respect or fear when approaching the altar. Naturally, this attitude has worked its way up the chain to a papal pronouncement. Pope Francis' document justifies people receiving communion in a public state of sin by saying that the Eucharist is "not a prize" for good behavior. That is true. But instead the Church has turned it into a participation trophy, something so perfunctory and ultimately meaningless that it seems just too cruel to deny it to anyone.
Perhaps worse than Pope Francis' official invitation to sacrilege is the document's cowardice, cynicism, and pessimism. The Church can no longer even bring itself to condemn respectable sins such as civilly approved adultery. It can barely bring itself to address a man or woman as if they had a moral conscience that could be roused by words like "sin." Instead, it merely proposes ideals; ideals cannot be wounded by your failure to realize them. And it promises to help you out of your "irregular" situation.
This supposed paean to love is something much sadder. A Church so anxious to include and accept you that it must deny the faith that transforms and renews you. It admits that God's commands are not just beyond our reach, but possibly destructive to follow.
Pope Francis is trying to be more merciful than God himself. He ends up being more miserly and condescending instead.