Matthew Sewell is the author of the popular “Popes in a Year” daily email series, and hosts The Popecast, a podcast about papal history. Matthew writes about intriguing stories from Church history, the messiness of the Christian life, and (occasionally) insights into Catholicism through Denver Broncos football. By day, he works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church. Matthew, his wife, and their unborn child make their home in Spokane, Washington.
At July’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, one of the breakout sessions discussed the nature of the human person, particularly in light of our present cultural milieu. The panel discussion was overseen by two prominent archbishops, one of whom took a question from a priest in the audience after each of the panelists had a chance to speak.
The priest inquired about when the American bishops would write a document advising specifically what to do with the transgender issue in the way of accompaniment. It seemed an innocent enough question, and though the archbishop gave a thoughtful answer, its tone was somewhat unexpected.
In his response to the priest, the archbishop was very direct (and charitable) in saying, not that the bishops would indeed be putting forth some clarifying teaching, but rather that the answer already lay in the Church’s robust intellectual and spiritual tradition. The answer, in other words, didn’t need clarity. The Church had already spoken, and the priest ought to be more than capable of finding and discerning the answer.
That poignant rebuke popped back into my mind recently with the resurgence of a campaign calling on Pope Francis to clarify several portions of his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.
With there now being several attempts at requesting that Pope Francis clarify some of his more vague statements from the recent document, it’s becoming clear that the Holy Father may never acquiesce, and frankly I don’t blame him.
To be sure, I’m always a fan of clarity, and I wholeheartedly agree that Pope Francis issuing clarifications would be a helpful thing. But in no way do I think it’s necessary, nor do I think we as Catholics should have the audacity to demand such a thing.
Indeed, I think Francis’ silence is telling us something very specific — that we simply don’t actually need a clarification.
If we consider the words of Francis in light of the Church’s entire breadth of knowledge, particularly with Aquinas’ Summa, St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, and Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est ringing in our ears — all of which are footnoted copiously by the Holy Father in Amoris — we ought to have no trouble discerning our good pope’s true intent.
The Dominican Fr. Thomas Petri, writing recently at the Catholic Herald, spoke to this issue well:
We simply cannot take a single verse or a single passage of the Gospel, read it, interpret it and preach it in isolation from the rest of the Scriptures, from the faith we hold to be true, and outside the living tradition of the whole Church. To do so is to reduce the richness of Divine Revelation to isolated allocutions unconnected to the larger narrative of salvation history. In short, it is to become fundamentalists of a modern variety along the lines of the liberal Protestants who emerged in the late 19th century. If we look at certain passages in isolation, we can be misled.
As much as we’d all prefer otherwise, life is lived in shades of gray. YES, we’re bound and obligated to very clear and objective truths as members of the Church, but life is still messy. People are still sinners. That’s what the sacraments are there for. Death in all its forms is why Jesus took on flesh in the first place.
Whatever a person’s plight — be it divorce and civil remarriage, a homosexual inclination, porn addiction, or any number of other things — we’re kidding ourselves if we really think that just yelling “repent!” without actually encountering them first and accompanying them constantly will bear any good fruit.
Being Catholic means believing in the both/and at every turn — faith and reason, mercy and justice, accompaniment and a call to conversion. And each is to be taken, as Bishop Robert Barron often says, “all the way down,” to its fullest extent.
The both/and even extends to the need to acknowledge equally the importance of the subjective encounter with Christ and the objective doctrines and dogmas of Catholicism. Both can exist without marginalizing the other, though I’d bet we’d all be surprised at how often our fear causes us to choose one and poo-poo the other.
I had a recent conversation with a friend who worked at one time in a prominent Denver-area parish. He told me about the “annulment ministry” that he and his wife had helped cultivate, in which they walked with couples in sticky situations and intentionally called them to conversion.
One couple in particular had entered RCIA at the parish, but had also each been through divorce and were now civilly remarried to one another. In the midst of all of this, the couple began learning about the Eucharist and cultivating an even stronger desire to enter the Church in order to receive the Sacrament.
Given their objective state, they were asked point-blank by my friend if they’d be willing to live as brother and sister— in perpetuity — in order to do so. My friend and his wife even offered to abstain with them in solidarity.
Their answer? A resounding yes.
Incredibly — heroically — the couple was utterly sincere in their commitment. It took an untold number of months for their respective annulments to come through, but neither person made their commitment with fingers crossed about receiving a decree of nullity. It was solely through the accompaniment of a friend who invested in them and called them to conversion that they came to know Jesus in the fullness of the Church.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis noted:
A missionary heart … never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness. It realizes that it has to grow in its own understanding of the Gospel and in discerning the paths of the Spirit, and so it always does what good it can, even if in the process, its shoes get soiled by the mud of the street. (45)
That’s what Pope Francis is telling us in Amoris Laetitia, perhaps especially in parts lacking clarity, for a well-formed heart will know the path to heaven, just as a well-made compass finds true north.