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‘The assumption must be faced that Pope Francis is consciously breaking with the Church’s tradition’

The Daily Knight

(Pope Francis attends an ecumenical prayer with Protestants and Orthodox at St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, September 30, 2023 | Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP via Getty images)

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

On World Youth day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, Pope Francis, excited by the crowds of young people, adopted something of the energetic creativity of the teenagers he was surrounded by and exhorted them to make a mess:

“I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!

“I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!”

During the years since, he has put into action himself what he urged the youth in his native South America to do – and a mess has followed.

Whereas youth create a mess more often by shaking the system with exuberant interrogations, Pope Francis himself has made use of a more subtle method. He has engaged in ambiguity. That is until the recent “dubia”, when the policy changed and the strategy became more overt. According to my interpretation of what Pope Francis has said, ambiguity has now given way to direct action on homosexual blessings.

Most people have become aware of the “dubia” presented by five disturbed and eminent cardinals. The Vatican most unusually released the text of his first response.

Although the form of communication was intended to produce a “yes” or “no” from the Pope, he wrote more generously. In his generosity he made a papal pronouncement on the blessing of gay couples. It might not be too much to suggest he finally broke cover. With all the ambiguous hints, it was always going to be a matter of when. Moving from “who am I to judge?” he instead gave all clergy permission to judge. Some infer from what he said that he declared his support of homosexual coupledom through the principle of facilitating pastoral blessings.

This proposal was in response to the interrogating cardinals asking if the pope believed that blessing homosexual unions continued to be, as it always had been, contrary to both the Bible and tradition.

Instead of providing the simple “yes” or “no” form that the “dubia” invite, the pope explained his thinking.

“In dealing with people, however, we must not lose the pastoral charity that must permeate all our decisions and attitudes. The defence of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity, which is also made up of kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot become judges who only deny, reject, exclude.

“For this reason, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage. For when a blessing is requested, one is expressing a request for help from God, a plea for a better life, a trust in a Father who can help us to live better.

Was there any hope that within voluminous paragraphs a slight conceptual sleight of hand might be hidden?

But one does not have to look very hard to follow the technique.

“Objectivity”, or in this context, less euphemistically, “sexual restraint”, could be contradicted or cancelled by “generosity”, or in this context “pastorally justified indulgence”.

But while this may have made a mess of the magisterium, it contained an inner coherence. It raises the question as to whether Pope Francis speaks within the confines of the Church’s magisterium or outside it.

The assumption must be faced that the pope is consciously breaking with the Church’s tradition, but using papal authority to do it.

Archbishop Fernandez said as much when on appointment he emphasised the importance of the charge given him by Francis, which was to ensure that all Vatican departments are in alignment with the “recent magisterium”.

“It can happen that answers are given to certain theological issues without accepting what Francis has said that is new on those issues,” Fernández said. “It’s not only inserting a phrase from Pope Francis, but allowing thought to be transfigured with his criteria. This is particularly true for moral and pastoral theology.”

So there is intended to be a difference in the Church’s moral teaching under Francis. The question for the rest of the Church is whether the not-very-energetic attempt to pretend it is consistent when it is inconsistent is to be taken seriously. The mask, or theological subterfuge, lies in the claim that this is “development” of doctrine, and not contradiction.

In the arguments over what constituted the development of doctrine as opposed to the reversal of doctrine, Pope Francis’ predecessors were energetic in their condemnation of interpreters of tradition who sought not to develop but reverse it. In a powerful critique of the Modernists, Pius IX wrote:

“These enemies of divine revelation extol human progress to the skies, and with rash and sacrilegious daring would have it introduced into the Catholic religion as if this religion were not the work of God but of man, or some kind of philosophical discovery susceptible of perfection by human efforts.”

Pope Pius X quoted this and extended it in his Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis in 1907. He warned that the spirit of modernism had infiltrated the centre of the church:

“The partisans of error are to be sought not only among the Church’s open enemies; they lie hid, a thing to be deeply deplored and feared, in her very bosom and heart… In the ranks of the priesthood itself, feigning a love for the Church, lacking the firm protection of philosophy and theology, nay more, thoroughly imbued with the poisonous doctrines taught by the enemies of the Church, and lost to all sense of modesty, vaunt themselves as reformers of the Church.”

In several recent remarks Pope Francis has suggested there are three areas the Church has changed its mind about.

He referred to slavery, the death penalty and sexuality as the areas in which the Church’s understanding has developed significantly over the years.

In fact he is mistaken. This is neither historically nor theologically correct. The Church’s view on slavery has remained constant. It has always defined its repudiation of slavery on a defence of the human person being made in the image and likeness of God. It has never accepted the legitimacy of the practice of the concept, and wherever possible has done all it could to mitigate the practise.

More interesting is his turning to the example of the death penalty.

Brian A. Graebe, a priest of the archdiocese of New York, has recently written in First Thingsan excoriating critique of the strategy that the Pope has employed in relation to the death penalty to present contradiction as development. He wrote:

“I would like to focus on what I believe to be the most serious doctrinal error of this pontificate, which is the change that the pope made to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty. I call this the most serious error both because of its official nature—this was not an off-the-cuff remark—and because of the precedent it set.”

In 2018, Pope Francis completely rewrote the section on the death penalty:

“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Whilst not overtly contradicting the moral teaching of the Church up to that point, the wording renders the death penalty obsolete and consequently does so covertly. The practice may not be wrong in “theory”, but it is never to be carried out in practice.

Most problematically Francis declares that the current age has a more sensitive and refined awareness of the dignity of the human person than previous cultures.

And this moves neatly and succinctly off the ground of “development” onto the platform of “contradiction”. For two millenia the Church believed capital punishment was in some cases morally justified, but now we appreciate human dignity with a deeper sensitivity, concluding that in no circumstances is it justified to the extent that we must work for its complete abolition.

In response to the recent “dubia”, the pope follows the same course to enable him to mandate contradiction while asserting development.

This presents a challenge to the whole Catholic Church. Invoking the raison d’etre of the Catholic Church, continuity and authority, Catholicism is being challenged and changed.