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A Reader with Jitters About Pope Francis writes…

05/25/2014 Comments (89)
I'm really trying hard not to get concerned with this stuff. You were kind enough before to ensure me, someone new back to the Catholic Church, that I had no need to be concerned that the Church would change any doctrine. Please forgive me that I need reassurance.

First, I've noticed a pattern in Pope Francis' last few homilies. Today's homily sums them up pretty well. The Pope is teaching from Acts. He, as he seems to do often, speaks of two groups of people. One group is docile to the Holy Spirit, open to everyone. The other group is the doctors of the Law, that built a system of commandments that chase people away.

What exactly is the point that he keeps trying to make? Who does he see as today's equivalent of those two groups? And what did he mean in his previous day's homily that the Holy Spirit keeps moving the Church forward, more and more, beyond the limits, onward? It almost sounds like he is preparing us for doctrinal change, to be part of the first group, open, not he second, closed. Please tell me I'm way off base here.

What prompted me to write this email was that while contemplating what Pope Francis was trying to say, I'm reading that his hand picked secretary of the Italian bishop's conference, Bishop Galantino said today, "My wish for the Italian Church is that it is able to listen without any taboo to the arguments in favour of married priests, the Eucharist for the divorced, and homosexuality," and “With Pope Francis the Italian Church has an extraordinary opportunity to reposition itself on spiritual moral and cultural beliefs."

You're way off base. I say this, not because I'm familiar with the content of the pope's homilies, but because of what the pope can and cannot do. Might he be contemplating some change to the Church's discipline? Sure. He may, for instance, authorize married priests in the Latin rite (though I'm skeptical he will). There's no bar on communion for the divorced, only for those remarried without annulment. And I don't see how that will change. And what does it mean to argue in favor of homosexuality? Does that mean "accept homosexually oriented people as brothers and sisters in Christ?" (which the Church already does) or "Approve of homosex?"

The Pope is not going to alter essential doctrines. He's just not going to. He can't. It is a guarantee of the Faith. So whatever he does do, we should relax, learn from him, and try to see the Faith from his perspective. He's a good shepherd and a good teacher. Everything will be fine.

As to the content of his homilies, it sounds like standard Catholic teaching to me. Grace and mercy vs. pride and legalism.

I really am trying to learn from Pope Francis. I see Jesus in much of what he says and does. But he is surprising sometimes in his willingness to go against the grain, so it is hard for me, though I guess you're saying it shouldn't be, to take the possibility of some doctrinal change off the table.

The attitude of docility and attempting to learn is all the Church asks for, so well done! Just to be clear, there is a possibility of doctrinal change. There is no possibility of doctrinal error. The Church's doctrine develops. What it does not do is mutate or contradict itself. So there was a change in the Church's teaching after Nicaea. Before that, we did not say the Nicene Creed. After it, we did. But the Nicene Creed did not mutate the Faith. It simply clarified it.

Some of these things that bishops and cardinals close to Pope Francis are saying in interviews causes concern. One says the church isn't timeless,

...which is perfectly true. The Church develops and grows over time. It's not frozen in amber. But it does not mutate.

one says with Pope Francis we can reposition the church on moral beliefs...it seems we're hearing a lot of we need to change with the times.

We can reposition on moral beliefs. Again, the Church develops over time and changes as it comes to understand the deposit of faith more deeply. That's why Paul can tell Masters to treat their slaves justly and the modern Church can take that to its logical conclusion and demand that masters have no slaves at all. It's why the Church can progress from saying "Error has no rights" to recognizing that "While error has no rights, persons in error do have rights." It's why the Church can repent such sins as Jew-hatred or accepting the cultural norm of the use of torture. That's because a lot of the Church's moral teaching is prudential judgment made in light of the Tradition, but colored by the limitations of particular historical periods (a fact equally true of our own time, by the way. We are not the final and permanent platform from which to look down on the rest of history. Just as we see some things more clearly than our ancestors, so our ancestors see some things to which we are stone blind.)

The Anglican Church didn't change their teaching on same sex marriage, but everyone knows they aren't going to enforce it, and are officially allowing churches to bless same sex unions in a special service. I pray the Catholic Church, with all the influence that liberal bishops and cardinals are getting, doesn't head in this direction. "We didn't change the teaching, wink, wink."

Of course it won't. We're not the Anglican Church. I do think the Church, having fought a long rear guard retreat against civil unions, will probably throw in the towel on that. It was a prudential judgment, aiming at preserving natural marriage. But I think at this point the Church will be better off to say "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's". If Caesar is bound and determined to delude himself that there is such a thing as gay "marriage", the Church can't stop him. So the Church should decouple sacramental marriage from Caesar's delusions and conduct marriages apart from what the civil authority wants to pretend. I expect some civil authorities are going to bring pressure to bear on the Church to celebrate sacramental gay "marriages". It's even possible some priests will go for this and some wimpy bishops will knuckle under to Caesar. If bishops could deny the deity of Jesus in the Arian controversy, they can certainly go weak in the knees on this should Caesar use muscle. But the our Faith assures us that the Church will, somehow or other, preserve the Faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, the counsel of Jesus is clear: "Do not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry about itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

Thanks again for being kind enough to reply. I'm trying to be more positive on all this. I'm praying for the Pope, and the bishops.

Don't be afraid. God is with his Church to the end. "Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" is the watchword here.

I agree with you on where the Church is probably going in rendering unto Caesar with marriage. I just hope they don't, "for the sake of the children", come up with, as the Anglican Church has, a special blessing rite that's "not marriage". I just can't reconcile blessing what the bible clearly teaches as sin. I'm completely on board with the Church's teaching of respect and acceptance for those with same sex attraction, but to go further than that would be like pulling the rug out from under the rest of Church teaching on marriage, life, and the family. I'm encouraged by what Pope Francis has said on marriage in the past, and recently, but there is going to be a lot of pressure put on the Church on this, and it seems like more than a few bishops are sympathetic. Thanks for the good work you do.

This is exactly where the protection of the Holy Spirit comes in. They can no more alter the sacrament of marriage than they can confect Twinkies and Seven up in the Eucharist. It's just not happening.

How the Church will navigate the problem of gay unions creating pseudo-families, I don't know. Those people and their children need the grace of Christ too and the Church can no more write them off than she can write anybody else off. I think the smart money is always on mercy rather than on driving people away and I think that's the message of this papacy. So I would advise not panicking as the Church's pastors (who are flying as blind as the rest of us) try to figure this out. The advent of the catastrophic social experiment gay "marriage" (like it's far more lethal ancestor no-fault divorce) may be a surprise to us, but it's not a surprise to God. The Church will be guided through these turbulent waters as He has ever guided us.

Blessings on your good heart for trying to think with the Church in confusing times.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.