Ever since Pope Francis’s election, and especially since Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia, there have been clear tensions between the pontiff and some more conservative Catholics. I think we need to examine both from within the framework of what they believe the Church needs.
I will discuss their analysis of problems, then the way they view the pope’s mission in Church.
The division starts with a fundamental disagreement about which of two problems is bigger in the Church today: the conservatives say it is doctrinal confusion, while Francis thinks it’s an insular attitude. Obviously these are both problems, but we’re talking about priorities, not just admitting they are issues here.
The Two Views of Church Problems
If doctrinal confusion is a bigger problem, then the pope and other high-ranking bishops should emphasize extreme clarity on dogma. We need to emphasize that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, the Church’s teaching on contraception, the reality of the final judgment, etc.
On the other hand, if insularity is a bigger problem, the Church needs to step out and try to reach people in every place, and not just sit in the sacristy. We need to emphasize the fact that the Church is mission, the call of each Christian to evangelize, and the ability to use different words and attempt to explain the same dogma, etc.
Now, obviously, at all times the Church must try and do both, but unfortunately she has to pick her priorities at each moment as we imperfect humans in the perfect Church can’t do everything at once.
When I first started taking my faith seriously in the 90s, I would’ve agreed with the conservatives. As a child, my parish had a giant tie-dye fish behind the altar and only later put a crucifix on top. In high school I read that the Eucharist is really Jesus, and this was something new to me even though I’d gone to Catholic school since kindergarten.
Nonetheless, I see the Church in a different place 20 years later, and would tend to see insularity as the bigger problem.
This comes out most strongly in the debate over Amoris Laetitia and Communion. Francis wrote Church teaching in a different manner to try to welcome some people who felt excluded. Unfortunately, this way of speaking was not sufficiently clear to avoid misinterpretations that conservatives see as a major problem.
(I don’t know if Francis’s phraseology actually helped these people who feel distant, I just point out it seemed to be at least part of his intent.)
The two views of the Pope
Both views see a key role for the pope, but see him exercising his ministry in different ways.
The role of the pope is expressed in Luke 22:32, addressed to Simon Peter: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” There are many ways that an individual can strengthen others, and both see the pope as key to resolving what they see as the primary problem.
If you see unclear dogma as a big problem, then the pope strengthens the brethren by proclaiming the Gospel clearly. The clearer he is in declaring dogma, the better. (It is worth noting that although clarity is generally charity, the pope has no obligation to be clear all the time, just not to declare heresy.)
If instead you see insularity as a big problem, then the pope needs to step out and show an example of reaching outside the Church towards the peripheries. The goal is to know people and try to reach them where they are. If, in this vision, a few things are said in ways that are unclear or sub-par from the perspective of dogmatic or moral theologians, that’s a small price to pay for stepping out.
I don’t think Francis is ever intentionally unclear, but if his goal is to re-present Christian doctrine in a way this person would find attractive, trying to do this spontaneously on the fly, we shouldn’t be surprised by a few missteps.
Francis has corrected himself on a few occasions for saying things in ways which, in hindsight, he realized weren’t the best, such as talking about rabbits breeding or saying “most” marriages are invalid.
Going out, unfortunately, can be messy.
Humility before divine providence
The cardinals elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to be the pope, so we should respect his priorities. It isn’t that we have to agree with him on everything, but we should at least respect him, given God chose him.
In his own pre-papal work Open Mind, Faithful Heart, the most-quoted magisterial document seems to be Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi on evangelization. One line sticks out as particularly useful for today’s debate: “As pastors of God’s people, we should realize that truth is not enough; what is needed is the truth in charity, for only this will build up the unity of the Church…Let us not forget the body.”
In this and his book-length interview as a cardinal, Francis repeatedly mentions the testimony of the individual, the encounter, the person as keys to reaching others. He never disagrees on dogma when asked, but repeatedly tries a pastoral approach of reaching out rather than simply declaring the truth.
Right before the conclave, the future Pope Francis gave a short speech to the other cardinals outlining a plan for the Church. He ends by describing the next Pope in a way that definitely seems to match how he’s approached the mission.
“He must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from ‘the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing’,” he said.
We may not agree whether reaching out or clarifying doctrine is more important right now, but if we see things from the other’s perspective, it can help us respect their opinion far better.