Is Pope Francis a Relativist?

Is Pope Francis a Relativist? October 3, 2013

In a second major interview, this time with a noted atheist Italian journalist, Pope Francis has made more waves.  Certain elements in the Church have started hunkering down assuming that this will be the Pope’s modus operandi for the foreseeable future.  They imagine several years of clarifying off–the-cuff papal statements given in uncontrolled fora that the media and, worse than that, the liberals in the Church are going to use as excuses to downplay or altogether reject central Catholic teachings, particularly of the moral variety.

Now, as has been pointed out, this new interview does suffer from translation issues, though apparently not as many as initially hoped.  Francis says a few odd things that appear to be mere issues of hasty translation work.  The most significant one being that Francis did not say, ” The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood,” as reported, but said rather, “Il Filgio di Dio (The Son of God) si é incarnato (became incarnate) per infondere (in order to infuse) nell’anima degli uomini (in the souls of men) il sentimento della fratellanza (the feeling of brotherhood).”

So, we don’t need to worry that the Pope has invented some (in my understanding anyway) new Christological heresy.  (A patristics scholar might be able to show that such a heresy is not new at all, but a simple rehashing of some error or other that besought the early Church.)

But what about Francis’s teachings about conscience?  Robert Royal suggests that Francis’s statement, “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place,”  is simply untrue.  Writes Royal:

Nazis, racists, abortionists, eugenicists, promoters of euthanasia, jihadists and terrorists of all kinds, and various other unfortunate human types all believe they’re right.  They’re wrong.  And no one in his right mind, let alone the pope, wants them to follow their own conception of good and evil.  It won’t make the world a better place.

Now let me say right off that I quite liked Royal’s conclusion, and I recommend you read his piece through to the end.  But, despite the rather straightforward logic of his concerns about Francis’s teaching about conscience, Royal seems to have rather misrepresented Church teaching on conscience, and, in the process, taught a very strange version of universalism.

Royal’s assertion that Francis is simply mistaken rests on the assumption that a good deal of the evil done in the world (perhaps even all of it, though he doesn’t say as much) is done in good conscience.  But, if this is actually the case, everyone is saved, because the Church teaches quite clearly that for a sin to actually be a sin it must be done in bad conscience, that is, with knowledge and consent of the will.

In fact, following Chesterton’s insight that I am what is wrong with the world, Francis is exactly right:  the world would be a better place if everyone followed their conscience because it is a very basic fact that I would be a better person if I always followed my conscience.  The fact that I don’t always follow my conscience is precisely why I need a saviour!

Now, this is not to deny that people can and do commit terrible atrocities because they somehow think it is the right thing to do.  But Church teaching on conscience is subtle enough to handle this.  If you have been convinced that you must, in conscience, abort this baby or bomb these civilians or defraud this business or lie to this electorate or whatever, then somewhere further up the line someone was not following their conscience.  And it may well have been you!

People who end up justifying genuine evil have very often ignored or flat out disobeyed their consciences long before the moment of gravity presents itself.  This is called vincible ignorance, and we are responsible for it.  We must still follow our consciences – because, honestly, what else can you actually ask someone to do?  “Do what you are convinced in conscience is wrong because I say so!”? – but we are responsible for ill-forming them precisely by not following them earlier.  Read any honest biography of a great sinner who has repented and you will find in it the awareness, however dim, that this was wrong all along and that one needed to consciously look away from reality to continue in it.  The Catholic conviction is that the natural law will assert itself.  Even in times of grave depravity, when the whole culture conspires to cover up a systematic sin like slavery or abortion, the natural law can reveal itself through the consciences of those who honestly seek to know the truth.

And if someone commits a grave evil in good conscience with no history of abandoning their own conscience, then their ignorance is invincible – in which case they have been lied to, damaged, abused, etc. by someone who did ignore their conscience, if not in the first generation removed, at some point in the past.  There is no moral evil in the world that does not stem from someone somewhere ignoring their own conscience.

In fact, conscience is what makes morality possible.  It is simply meaningless to speak of someone sinning without knowledge and consent.  This is why the Church does not condemn lions when they maul tourists or rabbits for garden theft.

Francis is right.  If everyone were to follow their conscience, it would make the world a better place.  Note, it would not make the world a perfect place, that is, it would not save the world.  If everyone had always and everywhere followed their consciences, the world would need no saving.  But once sin has entered the system, we humans cannot root it out.  This is the doctrine of Original Sin.  Without grace, sin will perpetuate itself and finally determine our reality in an ultimate sense.  But, and here perhaps is one of the jewels of Francis’s interview: “Even you, without knowing it, could be touched by grace.”

Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of four (so far) and husband of one.

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