I’m glad pope francis hasn’t responded to the cardinals

I’m glad pope francis hasn’t responded to the cardinals December 1, 2016

I am glad that Pope Francis has not answered the four cardinals who have put forth their “dubia.”

We forget sometimes that the sacraments remain mysterious, that a lot of what we believe as Christians seems ridiculous from a purely logical standpoint. If I think I have clarified the deep mysteries of the faith – if I think I have whittled down my faith into a sharp and pointed certainty, which I can now use as a stick with which to poke my less-enlightened comrade in the eye – I am doing it wrong. This doesn’t mean our faith is irrational, or blind. But – to quote Pope Emeritus Benedict: 

We cannot come to know something unless we are moved by love; or, for that matter, love something which does not strike us as reasonable. “Understanding and love are not in separate compartments: love is rich in understanding and understanding is full of love” (Caritas in Veritate, 30). If truth and goodness go together, so too do knowledge and love. This unity leads to consistency in life and thought, that ability to inspire demanded of every good educator.

In the second place, we need to recognize that truth itself will always lie beyond our grasp. We can seek it and draw near to it, but we cannot completely possess it; or put better, truth possesses us and inspires us. In intellectual and educational activity the virtue of humility is also indispensable, since it protects us from the pride which bars the way to truth. We must not draw students to ourselves, but set them on the path toward the truth which we seek together. The Lord will help you in this, for he asks you to be plain and effective like salt, or like the lamp which quietly lights the room (cf. Mt 5:13).

I suspect that the cardinals who have questioned the pope would not like his answer, and would use it as a platform for further criticism. I get the sense that they may not be questioning in love. And all those Francis-haters on the sidelines waiting eagerly for the showdown they desire would cheer with glee.

But Pope Francis is focusing on the needs of those for whom the teachings are given:

…a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families”. Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that “natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions”. Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.

And of course, that terrible footnote 351:

In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).

This, to my (admittedly amateur) view, seems like very basic moral theology. And such theology is, I suggest, already implied in our acceptance of the sanctity of many in the past who, because they did not (apparently) know better, upheld evil in the name of God, or persisted in cultural forms that are contrary to the natural good. If crusaders could receive the sacraments after doing great evil in the name of God – if Thomas More could receive the sacraments after authorizing the burning of heretics – if all those men in “traditional” marriages that were actually legal rape could be considered to be worthy to receive the sacraments – then, we are already making exceptions due to diminished culpability.

(And it is absurd to argue that they had no way of knowing better: it’s there in the Gospels).

Marriage, sexuality, family life, and child-raising are all complex matters because of the unique irrepeatable persons involved, the infinite variety of their past experiences, the delicate gradations in what they know and how they understand it, the extent to which they are capable of choosing freely (given past upbringing, and any brainwashing or abuse to which they may have been subjected). This does not mean that the truth is relative to their situation, but it does mean that in order to understand how the absolute moral law speaks to their particular situation, great pastoral care is needed.

If Pope Francis were to clarify precisely how to go about such a pastoral approach, a whole new exhortation would have to be written. No, scratch that – it would have to be a massive tome, taking account not only of theology and canon law, but also psychology and sociology, and probably neuroscience. Doing so hastily, in response to the imperious and impatient demands of a few church leaders, might do more harm than good. Yes, Francis is our pope, and he has an obligation to teach, but that obligation carries with it a responsibility not to be overly hasty, overly simplistic.

Fellow Patheos writer Scott Eric Alt differs from me on this matter:

The cardinals are seeking a definitive, Magisterial answer to some people’s doubts—not answers in interviews, not private lectures, not “go listen to so-and-so.” The reason a definitive answer is needed is precisely to prevent bishops in some places from running wild and doing whatever they want to the potential harm of souls. If someone in a state of mortal sin, not disposed to receive the Eucharist, receives the Eucharist anyway, that compounds the problem. It is a harm to both the individual who receives and the priest who knowingly distributes. A definitive clarification would, potentially, forestall this.

But I suspect that a definitive declaration might, given the complexity of the pastoral matter at hand, actually cause greater harm. It might mean that those in the greatest spiritual need are cut off from the graces Christ intended to be given to us frail unworthy mortals – graces that were given in the early Church, by the way, to those who were married in Roman or Jewish law.

If mortal sin involves not only grave matter, but also full knowledge and full consent of the will, is it very likely that – given the agonizing complexity of most cases of irregular marriage – such “full knowledge” and “full consent” are very possible? Note that I am not questioning the absolute objectivity of right and wrong. I am, however, questioning the degree to which subjective culpability can ever be absolute.

Given how stupid we all are, full knowledge even of the simpliest truths must be very rare indeed. And given what we know about neuroscience, full consent of the will is not really possible for most of us, most of the time. This is a humbling thought.

Also: even though the church has been given the fullness of revealed truth, that doesn’t mean that the purely human language in which our teachings have been presented has  EVER been capable of conveying every nuance of what the revealed truth entails. The demand for clarification is one that can, thus, never be fully satisfied. Pope Francis has been accused of loving to cause confusion. But I wonder whether he’s just being honest about the level of confusion already present in our teaching, which theologians like to avoid by carefully crafting language that leaves out the possibility of asking certain questions.

Poetry might be better than theology, when speaking of divine things. Poetry at least operates with a recognition of its own ambiguity.

We seek and draw near to the truth, as Benedict said, but the idea that we can possess, capture, and control it is dangerous. In this case it is extra dangerous because it could lead to the loss of the one wandering sheep, who the good shepherd knows is as worthy of love and care as all the rest of the well-behaved flock.



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