A reader is pleased and puzzled to be Catholic

He writes:

Hi Mark, enjoy your blog and writings. I’m new back to the church after decades in born again church’s. I’m thrilled to be back, after studying for a couple of years Catholic Church doctrine.

Wonderful! Welcome back!

But at the same time I understand again why many leave the church for what seems simpler approach by Protestants.

Sure. But “simpler” doesn’t mean “truer”. It’s simpler to believe in six day creationism, or that God is an old man on a cloud, or that the sun goes around the earth, or that the good are always rewarded with riches and happiness and the wicked are always punished with misfortune, and lots of children believe such things till they bump into the real world and are disabused of these simplicities. Catholic faith is complicated because it describes the relationship between a Triune God and a fallen world. That relationship is complicated, so theology is too. Though, paradoxically, it’s simple if you have the faith of a child and simply trust that Jesus knows what he is doing as he leads the Church and teaches us through the Magisterium.

Why does almost everything Catholic hierarchs, especially the pope, say, need to be interpreted?

Because all human language–including the Bible itself–needs to be interpreted. There is no such thing as a self-interpreting text.

I’m keeping on top of all this, and I’m confused. What exactly is Pope Francis trying to say? I think I get the gist, and he does sound a lot like Jesus, but when he speaks about rules that have to change, what rules?

What are you referring to? I haven’t heard him say that rules have to change (though, of course, he’s perfectly right if he has said this since human rules are subject to the changeability of human situations). But I’m not sure what you are referring to.

I don’t think people like to float on an unsure foundation. Again, I understand that he doesn’t want the rules thrown out before the love, but, for instance, don’t warn against taking communion unworthily, as St. Paul warned?

Again, what are you referring to?

And Pope Francis seems to say a lot of “I want this, I don’t want that”, is he the rule maker or the protector of the doctrine.

I’m not sure those two roles are opposed. But I’m still not clear on what rules you are referring to.

I am really trying to learn and grow from what the pope says, but I’m a little confused, and a little scared. I don’t want to be returning to what is turning into the Episcopal Church.

Don’t worry. You’re not. The pope has not said one iota that is heterodox. He may well make some changes here and there to the bureaucracy of the Church or various disciplines, I don’t know. But he won’t (and can’t) contradict the core dogmas of the Faith. The Spirit won’t let him. Indeed, most of what he does will scarcely impact you at all in terms of how you live your life at the parish level.

His message is basically the same as his predecessors: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Keep yourself from idols. These are money, pleasure, power, and honor. All his recent teaching on mammon (and the priority of poor people over it) is basically about that and is the same thing his predecessors (and Jesus) had to say.

Read his exhortation. He’s very accessible.  Meanwhile, God bless your efforts to learn and grow through our Lord Jesus.  The Faith is huge and fascinating and God will bless your openness to his Spirit as you continue to feed on Christ and try to imitate his mind, heart, and deeds.

He replies:

Thank you for taking the time to reply to my email. I guess a couple of the things Pope Francis wrote in his exhortation that I wasn’t sure of we’re

“The church has rules and precepts that might have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness in directing and shaping people’s lives.”

I wonder what rules he’s referring to.

Beats me. But of course the basic principle is perfectly sound. The Church has the authority and sometimes the obligation to alter its merely human rules when fitting. Fasting regulations, for instance, were deliberately calibrated to focus the onus on the rich, rather than the poor, who live an eternal compulsory fast anyway. It was the same idea as the biblical model which allowed the poor to sacrifice a cheap pigeon instead of something more expensive. The poor at fish all the time anyway, so only the rich felt the pinch of the Friday fast. He may, for all I know, be referring to some human system like the curia, which badly needs reform.


“The Eucharist…is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Not sure exactly what he means by that, and if that is different than Paul’s warning not to take communion unworthily.

He means that holier than thou super-Catholics who spend much of their time demanding that the Impure be barred from the sacraments need to pipe down and accept the judgment of their pastors when they allow weak sinners to approach the Altar. He’s addressing a sort of latter day Jansenism that wants to keep as many people as possible from approaching the sacraments.

I really am open to learn from the Pope, and have come to better understand him, with writings like yours being very helpful.

Thanks again!

Thanks! God bless you!

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  • said she

    The context for the “rules” quote from Evangelii Gaudium:

    IV. A mission embodied within human limits

    43. In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few”. Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation “so as not to burden the lives of the faithful” and make our religion a form of servitude, whereas “God’s mercy has willed that we should be free”. This warning, issued many centuries ago, is most timely today. It ought to be one of the criteria to be taken into account in considering a reform of the Church and her preaching which would enable it to reach everyone.

  • $2346491

    First, the only people who need to interpret Pope Francis are those who don’t like Pope Francis’ message. Hence, they need to twist Francis’ message to serve their own purposes. This includes some of the more conservative Internet bloggers, certain U.S. bishops, and certain rich Catholic donors (apparently the founder of Home Depot was whining about Francis criticizing rich people.) Second, I think that the two things pointed out are fairly easy to interpret. I believe that the rules Francis is talking about has to do with the liturgical rubrics and some of the more draconian pre-Vatican II rules. The Communion comment probably has to do with ending the Eucharist wars. For instance, telling certain U.S. bishops led by Burke and their lay allies to can it about banning pro-choice politicians from Communion. There is also always a controversy among some more conservative lay Catholics about certain people getting Communion. I remember last year there was a freak out because the head of the Italian Bishops’ conference who is a conservative gave Communion to a prominent transgendered activist. I think that Francis is telling the mainly lay people serving as Communion police to can it.

    • HornOrSilk

      I often have to tell others this: every text, every writing, every speech is interpreted. If there is no interpretation, no meaning, no understanding comes from it. This is why Scripture is not so clear as many Protestants try to make it out, but this truth is a truth for all communication.

  • John Sobieski

    I suppose Canon 915 is Jansenist.

    • chezami

      Yes. You do suppose that. I wonder why you do that when nobody says any such thing.

  • Jonathan

    I think what the Holy Father is trying to say is relatively clear. Instead of focusing on one’s own pet issue (abortion, SSM, contraception, etc.) and whether someone is orthodox enough, Francis is calling everyone, saints and sinners, to hear the Lord. No one comes to the Church a fully formed saint. When I became Catholic in my twenties, I was still socially liberal and held many views contrary to Church teaching. Over years of listening, reading and thinking (a great Catholic trait), I have come to see the logic of the Church’s position on many of these issues.
    I think what Francis is saying is that if a pro-choice person wants to be Christian, open the Church doors to them, expose them to the Gospel and let them learn the truth. Jesus talked to sinners, so should we. I know I am one.

  • MainlineP

    This “former member of a born again” (whatever that means) sounds like a made-up piece of fiction by a trad RC pretending to be something else. As a real Protestant (albeit not evo-fundie) I know my evangelical cousins almost never, at least these days say”Protestant”. They are “Christian”. Then claiming Francis is changing the rules when at most he is changing the tone. The whole post was one long series of red flags for this Protestant reading it. I’d bet the author is either SSPX or a sedevacantist of your tribe Mr. Shea. I’m surprised you don’t see that.

  • krom

    My message to Catholics is if you love Christ before yourself and any other then leave the Mother Hen.
    Catholic Doctrine one of hundreds that elevate man over GOD.

    Source: “Faith of Millions”, John O’Brien, Ph.D., LL.D., 255-256

    “It is a power greater than that of monarchs and emperors: it is greater than that of saints and angels, greater than that of Seraphim and Cherubim. Indeed it is greater even than the power of the Virgin Mary. For, while the Blessed Virgin was the human agency by which Christ became incarnate a single time, THE PRIEST BRINGS CHRIST DOWN FROM HEAVEN, AND RENDERS HIM PRESENT ON OUR ALTAR AS THE ETERNAL VICTIM FOR THE SINS OF MAN – NOT ONCE BUT A THOUSAND TIMES! THE PRIEST SPEAKS AND LO! CHRIST THE ETERNAL AND OMNIPOTENT GOD, BOWS HIS HEAD IN HUMBLE OBEDIENCE TO THE PRIEST’S COMMAND.”

    ” Power of Consecrating: The supreme power of the priestly office is the power of consecrating. ‘No act is greater,’ says St. Thomas, ‘than the consecration of the body of Christ.’ In this essential phase of the sacred ministry, the power of the priest is not surpassed by that of the bishop, the archbishop, the cardinal or the pope. Indeed it is equal to that of Jesus Christ. For in this role the priest speaks with the voice and the authority of God Himself. WHEN THE PRIEST PRONOUNCES THE TREMENDOUS WORDS OF CONSECRATION, HE REACHES UP INTO HEAVENS, BRINGS CHRIST DOWN FROM HIS THRONE, AND PLACES HIM UPON OUR ALTAR TO BE OFFERED UP AGAIN AS THE VICTIM FOR THE SINS OF MAN.”

  • $16977560

    I regularly check out a blog which advocates for a “Rabelaisian Catholicism”, one which encompasses everything (hence, “catholic”) . It’s other name is “messy Catholicism”.

    For years, I railed against those Pharisees, who seemed to be in the position, as expressed in good King James English of those, ” Which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou. ” –Isaiah 65:5
    Until I realized that, by despising Pharisees, I had become one.
    Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

    • ME

      I think we all have a bit of that. One of Pope Francis’ great strengths is to help each of us see how that applies to each of us. Some of us have a more difficult time admitting it though.