Ever since the moment that the America extended interview with Pope Francis was published on – line, I’ve been deluged with messages, news headlines and RSS feeds alerting me to it, mostly drawing attention to his observation that the Church has been too obsessed with gay marriage, and on the importance of more sensitive, more pastoral approaches to lesbian and gay people. I obviously welcome these words, which largely repeat some of what I’ve been saying here at QTC, and are a logical extension of what he’s already been saying, in his widely reported in – flight interview, returning from Brazil.
But because these words have been so widely reported, I feel no particular need to do so myself. Perhaps I’ll have a closer look later, and share some thoughts on the significance of the words on homosexuality and gay marriage, rather than simply report the content. We’ll see.
What I want to draw attention to, is something else, of probably greater importance for the Church as a whole (not just LGBT Catholics), and which has far – reaching implications. It’s been often noted (quite correctly), ever since his election, that Pope Francis is not about to change Church teaching. There is nothing in this interview either, to suggest that he is the one to change anything in that respect (change in style and tone is quite a different matter, which is already abundantly in evidence). But while he many not be the one that will introduce change, he did signal very clearly, that there is continuing and constant need for change in the Church. Nowhere in this interview is there any reference to Benedict’s regular mantra, claiming for the Church a mythical ”constant and unchanging tradition”. Francis knows very well that this “constant” tradition is a myth, and without spelling it out in single syllables, has given clear reasons why it is inevitable that the church will and must change. Unless it does, he noted, the Church will fall “like a house of cards”.
The change he is referring to, once again, is change in style and tone, not of doctrine, but these are not independent. The changes in style that he wants are so fundamental, that they will inevitably lead to more enduring change in doctrine, too.
Collegiality and listening.
The first of these major changes is one of a genuine commitment to collegiality and a listening church, promised by Vatican II but never delivered.
“The consistories [of cardinals], the synods [of bishops] are, for example, important places to make real and active this consultation. We must, however, give them a less rigid form. I do not want token consultations, but real consultations. The consultation group of eight cardinals, this ‘outsider’ advisory group, is not only my decision, but it is the result of the will of the cardinals, as it was expressed in the general congregations before the conclave. And I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial consultation.”
This is huge, and is something on which Francis has already delivered. After his recent meeting with the heads of the curia dicasteries, it was reported that he had spent his time listening to the cardinals, in marked contrast to his predecessor Benedict, whose characteristic meetings with synods of bishops had him speaking, and the bishops listening. In an address this week to a gathering of new bishops, he told them that they too, should be listening, to their priests.
The Pope asked the new bishops to be especially responsive to their priests. He challenged them to meet frequently with priests, and said that any phone call from a priest of the diocese should be returned the same day.
This renewed focus on collegiality applies at all levels of the Church, including proper respect for the laity. They too must be fully included in what he called “thinking with the whole church” (but without reducing this to simple populism)
Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.
After a brief pause, Pope Francis emphasizes the following point, in order to avoid misunderstandings: “And, of course, we must be very careful not to think that this infallibilitas of all the faithful I am talking about in the light of Vatican II is a form of populism. No; it is the experience of ‘holy mother the hierarchical church,’ as St. Ignatius called it, the church as the people of God, pastors and people together. The church is the totality of God’s people.
This matters. At the foundation meeting last year of the British “A Call to Action” movement, one of the most notable speeches warned of the importance of confronting and eliminating the culture of fear that inhibits frank and open discussion in the church. Far too often, parishioners are in fear of speaking openly to their priests, priests live in fear of angering their bishops, the bishops fear the Curia, which has its own hierarchy of fear. The result is that no – one dares to rock the boat, or to raise for discussion the very real problems of the Church affecting real lives. Many of the more prominent reform movements of recent years, such as the declaration for reform by German theologians, have described this culture of clericalism as an important contributory factor in the scandal of clerical sexual abuse, and for the large numbers of Catholics leaving the Church, and of clergy leaving the priesthood.
.Encouraging openness, collegiality and frank discussions will do more than simply improve relationships and church culture - it’s an essential precondition for the changes in doctrine that must also follow – especially sexual doctrines.
The Church is Not a Regulator
One of the many notable changes in style that Francis is advocating that will greatly benefit LGBT Catholics, is his insistence that the Church is not a regulator.
Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.
In discussing the Curia, he notes that the Vatican receives far too many letters of complaint, about allegations of supposed lack of doctrinal orthodoxy. Gay and lesbian Catholics are all too familiar with these. It is just such a stream of complaints to the Vatican and to diocesan offices, that led to pressure on Archbishop Vincent Nichols to end the renowned and valuable “Soho Masses” for LGBT Catholics, their friends and their families, and to pressure on the bishop of Clifton to cancel Professor Tina Beattie’s planned lecture in Bristol last year. Lower down the line, it is the fear of such complaints to the Vatican that has led some bishops put pressure on parish priests to remove from ministry gay Catholics who hit the news, for example by marrying same – sex spouses. Frequently, this has been the response to just a single anonymous letter, carrying an implied threat of reporting to higher up the line if the desired actions are not taken. Francis clearly does not see this kind of doctrinal regulation as appropriate.
Indeed, he questions even the possibility of absolute orthodoxy and doctrinal certainty:
“Yes, in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.
If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing.Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things.
This rejection of a static, rigid adherence to the past leads Francis to the inevitable conclusion. The church must constantly change and adapt, not only in style and tone, but even in its teaching.
Even Doctrine Must Evolve
The interviewer at one point asks the pope about the enormous changes in society and in human self – understanding. The answer is revealing:
He opens to the Office of Readings for Friday of the 27th Week in Ordinary Time and reads me a passage from the Commonitorium Primum of St. Vincent of Lerins: “Even the dogma of the Christian religion must follow these laws, consolidating over the years, developing over time, deepening with age.”
Note that word, “dogma”. We have often heard in the past about the possibility of change in matters of discipline, but that change in doctrine is simply not possible. Benedict, in documents he prepared for the CDF and when speaking as pope, was fond of repeating the mantra, “the constant and unchanging tradition” of the Church. That constant tradition of course, is a myth, and Francis knows it. By beginning his response with reference to the need for “dogma” (a much stronger word than doctrine) to develop over time, he is acknowledging not the mere possibility of doctrine evolving to adapt to changing circumstances, but the necessity and inevitability of such an evolution.
Elaborating, he takes as example (as I have often done) slavery, which was once accepted and defended by the church – but which is now rightly. (He could equally have taken the example of usury, which is even more harshly condemned in the Bible than homosexuality.
Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.
I hope that those numerous orthotoxic Catholic bloggers and other commentators who rant indignantly about my supposed “heresies”, and those of other gay Catholic activists, relentlessly cherry – picking selected verses from the Bible of from the Catechism, are listening carefully.
In accepting that humans can make mistakes in their search for understanding, he is in fact tacitly accepting that the Church, too, can make mistakes, especially in its treatment or mistreatment of its own tradition. The young Joseph Ratzinger warned of the dangers in the “distorting tradition” in Church history. Francis makes a similar point about the great Thomas Aquinas. I have been harshly criticized for stating in a recent post, that a proper application of Thomas and natural law theory requires some adaptation to modern conditions, and what science has taught us about sexuality, human and animal. My reader seemed to think that we dare not change anything in Thomistic theory. Francis disagrees, referring to the dangers of “decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism”.
“Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.
The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.”
Creating the conditions for change
Right from the start of his papacy six months ago, commentators have stressed that Francis is not a man who will institute core changes in the church, not in matters of discipline like compulsory clerical celibacy, and certainly not in matters of doctrine, on contraception, or on women’s ordination, or on same – sex eroticism. That was true even after his in-flight words about not marginalising gay people and refusing to judge, and it remains true today, after this landmark interview. But what he is doing, and has already done to a remarkable degree, is creating the essential conditions for those changes.
He began to do so immediately, with his obvious shift in emphasis from doctrinal supervision, to pastoral care. Following up later with his renowned refusal to judge, and to minister directly tot those in apparent conflict with church teaching, and by his obvious personal commitment to listening rather than directing, he has struck a major blow against the fear which has so stifled any real, constructive debate about how the church should adapt to modern conditions and understanding, on sexuality and on so much else.
By implementing and encouraging a return to genuine collegiality, at all levels, he is ensuring that those who are charged with leadership of the Church, will benefit from the knowledge, ideas and insights of all – including that of the laity. We should expect that in matters of sexuality, the impact could be profound. Ordinary Catholics should find it easier to speak frankly and openly about the realities of sexual life, and to do so outside the guilt – ridden environment of the confessional Priests who have little or no personal experience of loving sexual relationships, will develop a more rounded understanding than they can obtain from theological theories of sex. Themselves more confident in speaking frankly and truthfully to bishops, that greater understanding should filter upwards, to bishops and to the Vatican. There must, inevitably, come a recognition that Humanae Vitae has obviously not been properly accepted and received by the faithful, it does not have the sensus fidelium, and so it needs to be radically reconsidered (and with it, the entire structure of current sexual doctrine).
Most importantly, he has acknowledged the simple principle that even in matters of doctrine, the church must gradually evolve to fit modern conditions and human understanding. He is not the man who will implement that change, or indicate in any detail what that change will be, except at the margins. (He has already accepted a need to be more inclusive of divorced people who remarry, and the need for a stronger role for women, but short of ordination). But the insistence on collegiality and openness to different ideas, he has created and will continue to create the conditions for just the kind of environment that will foster fruitful exchange of ideas, which in time will lead to clear discernment, to use his favoured Jesuit term, of just what those changes should be.
- People Talking–About Religion, Gay Folks, Women, Pope Francis, Etc. (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- Pope Francis: The Church Has No Right to ‘Interfere Spiritually’ With LGBT People (patheos.com)
- Pope Francis: Catholic Church must focus beyond “small-minded rules” (cbsnews.com)
- Pope Francis urges church toward compassion on issues like abortion, homosexuality (vancouversun.com)
- Pope warns church must find balance between rules and mercy or “fall like a house of cards” (vancouversun.com)