Why Doesn’t the Pope Answer His Critics?

Pope_Francis_Malacanang_7This week’s big Catholic news is the release of a “filial correction” of Pope Francis by a group of theologians and church laymen. Edward Pentin reports on it here:

This is the sixth major initiative in which both clergy and laity have expressed concerns about the Pope’s teaching, particularly emanating from Amoris Laetitia. Despite the repeated pleas and warnings of chaos and confusion, Francis has refused to respond or acknowledge the initiatives which are as follows, in chronological order:

 

  • In September 2015, just ahead of the second Synod on the Family, a petition of nearly 800,000 signatures from individuals and associations around the world including 202 prelates was presented to Pope Francis, calling on him to issue words of clarity on the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. The signatories, from 178 countries, expressed concern about “widespread confusion” arising from the possibility that “a breach” had been opened within the Church at the previous synod.

 

  • In July 2016, a group of 45 Catholic scholars, prelates and clergy sent an appeal to the College of Cardinals asking that they petition Pope Francis to “repudiate” what they saw as “erroneous propositions” contained in Amoris Laetitia. They said the apostolic exhortation contains “a number of statements that can be understood in a sense that is contrary to Catholic faith and morals.”

 

  • On Sept. 19, 2016, four cardinals — Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, and Joachim Meisner — presented the Pope with dubia, five questions on disputed passages of Amoris Laetitia with the aim of obtaining clarification and resolving confusion over diverse interpretations of the controversial passages among various bishops and episcopal conferences. The Pope did not acknowledge the dubia, nor did he respond to the cardinals’ request for an audience in May.

 

  • In February this year, confraternities representing thousands of priests worldwide issued a statement saying a clarification of Amoris Laetitia was “clearly needed” in the wake of “widespread” differing interpretations of the apostolic exhortation. They also thanked the four cardinals for submitting the dubia.

  • In April this year, six lay scholars from different parts of the world held a conference in Rome in which they drew attention to the same controversial passages of Amoris Laetitia, showing the extent of concern and unease among the laity over the papal document and its interpretation.

The Pope’s response seems to ignore and marginalize his critics. For many this is surprising since Pope Francis has always spoken passionately about the need to listen to others and engage in dialogue. It is also surprising since Austen Ivereigh–Pope Francis’ biographer–has claimed repeatedly that Pope Francis “welcomes criticism.”

However, I think people need to understand some of the underlying currents in this discussion. The elephant in the nave is the yawning gap between the views of contemporary theologians and ordinary Catholics.

People in the pew probably do not know that many theologians and clergy are critical of what they call “propositional faith.” Propositional faith is a faith that is grounded in rational statements and definitions. It is, if you like a religion based in an authoritative book, a creed, a catechism, a dogmatic systematic theology and, by extension a defined religious law. Those who favor a propositional faith like certainty and clarity.

Critics of propositional faith believe that, at best, the propositions are simply a framework or structure of belief, and that the real experience is far more complicated, but also far more exciting and real. They criticize those who like a propositional faith as being rigid, legalistic or Pharisaical. The critics of propositional faith like to emphasize the more subjective “encounter with Christ.” They advocate getting away from all the debates about doctrine or canon law, rolling up one’s sleeves and getting busy doing God’s work in the world.

Critics of propositional faith also believe that it is divisive. If “the encounter with Christ” is emphasized rather than propositional formulas of doctrine and morals, we will connect better with non Catholic Christians and people of faith and goodwill who are outside the boundaries of Christian belief. In other words, “doctrine is divisive” but if we focus on religious experience we are more likely to find common ground.

They also feel that a “propositional faith” is, by its nature, bound to the historical and philosophical constructs of the time and culture in which the propositions were asserted. So, the theology of Thomas Aquinas (they would argue) was fine for Europe of the thirteenth century, but it is rather clunky for the fast moving, fast changing global culture of the twenty first century. A faith that is not so propositional is more adaptable and fluid.

In reading the gospel it is difficult not to sympathize with those who criticize “propositional faith.” After all, Jesus’ main opponents were the religious people who were indeed legalistic, judgmental and bound to their laws and man made traditions. Jesus, on the other hand, waded in and “made a mess” to use Francis’ terminology. He defied the legalistic technicalities, met people where they were and brought healing, compassion and forgiveness.

Why does Pope Francis not answer his critics? I believe it is because he is not in favor of “propositional faith”. He wants Catholics to move beyond the technicalities, the details of doctrine and the constrictions of canon law to live out a Catholic life more like Jesus’–allowing for the complications and ambiguities of real life, meeting real people who face difficult decisions and are trying to be close to God while tiptoeing through the legalities and rules of being a Catholic Christian.

In other words, he does not answer his critics because he does not wish to play their game. He does not wish to be drawn into their legalistic arguments, but instead wants to continue to challenge them. That is why he lets his ambiguous statements stand without further clarification. That is why he does not answer the “corrections” he receives. I expect he believes the teaching of the church is clear. He has not contradicted it, so there is no further need for discussion and debate.

Instead he wants us to live with the ambiguities and get on with the complicated business of bringing Jesus to people who are tied up in the sometimes messy business of life.

As a pastor I understand this and am sympathetic to what I believe Pope Francis is trying to do.

However, there is always the other side of the argument and balance is a good thing, Continue Reading

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