catholic, pastor, pope francis, priests October 11, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – One of the benefits of writing regularly on the internet is that I receive a fair number of notes from readers with whom something I’ve published has struck a chord. I hear disproportionately from priests, religious, and seminarians who are struggling to live a faithful Catholic life—above all, liturgically—in the midst of a hostile wasteland, with wolves on one side and hyenas on the other.
A priest recently wrote to me about the challenges created for him by the Pope’s rough manhandling of settled Catholic doctrine in regard to capital punishment (about which I have written a number of times: that Francis’s new text is not in accord with the truth; that it cannot be defended; and that it should neither be taught nor adhered to). Here is what he said, apropos the last of these articles:
Thank you so much for writing this article. It seems odd that this subject has received such little attention. I’ve not found anyone who thinks Pope Francis’ actions are problematic. Until now, I have always taught that despite some sinful popes and bishops, none has ever officially proclaimed an error to be truth. The teachings of the Magisterium cannot be “overturned” like an unconstitutional law. Teachings can be expanded or elaborated on to account for new developments or discoveries, but not reversed. To my knowledge, no encyclical with a declarative statement to establish, explain, and define the [new] teaching was issued. It’s simply inexplicable that an act is morally good/allowable for thousands of years, to become today an intrinsic evil. This event leads me to believe that Francis has no clue about the workings of the Magisterium or the Holy Spirit!
One of my concerns is the damage this kind of thing does to my ability to teach moral truths. It’s essential for the faithful to have absolute confidence in the accuracy of the Church’s teachings. I fear similar errors will follow from the current Vatican in regard to teachings on marriage, human sexuality, and ordination. If a pope can simply bypass common sense, convention, and tradition to revise the Catechism, all moral teachings are questionable.
This good priest is quite correct. The faithful deserve clear and consistent moral guidance that is not peppered with contradictions, ambiguities, doubts, and loopholes, otherwise they will turn away from the Church either to a secularism that has no rules except self-gratification or a sect that has strict (but not always correct) rules. For man cannot live without some principle to live by, and he will live either by true principles such as Christ has given us through His Church, or by false principles such as self-love, political messianism, or sectarian codes. The extent to which the Vatican appears to be operating by all three—the messianic complex of the great leader, the sectarian creed of liberal Protestantism, and the self-love that places modern differentness over traditional commonality—is therefore most appalling, and presents the single greatest challenge to pastoral care, Church renewal, and evangelization that the Church has yet seen in the post-Tridentine period.
In responding to the priest, I expressed my agreement with his analysis. What the pope is doing is terribly destabilizing, not only for Catholic pastors today, but for the future work of all of his successors. The papacy has become far too politicized, as if each conclave is a new parliamentary session electing a new prime minister to run the country’s affairs in a liberal or conservative direction. This is certainly not the vision of the pope as the staunch guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy and the determined upholder of ecclesiastical traditions that Church history reveals to us at the papacy’s best moments, nor is it the theological vision of the papacy discussed at and taught by the First Vatican Council.
In my opinion, Pope Francis has not attempted to engage his full magisterial authority to teach anything, let alone something erroneous. After all, if we look at the conditions under which earlier popes have signified their intention to teaching infallibly, we will see an exceptional care taken to use the most solemn language coupled with threats of the most dire punishments. (This prompts me to wonder if any modern pope, inasmuch as he buys into the false ideas about justice and mercy first enunciated by John XXIII in the run-up to Vatican II, would ever be able to muster the courage or clarity to issue a solemn pronouncement that could be known to be an infallible statement!)
As for teaching error, either the Holy Spirit would prevent the pope from doing so (e.g., by bringing about his death prior to the act of teaching error), or in the moment he uttered the error, he would ipso facto cease to be pope. For this latter scenario to play out, the error would have to be manifest to all, e.g., “Jesus Christ did not actually rise physically from the dead on Easter Sunday; he only rose spiritually, inasmuch as the early Christians were inspired to follow his example in their hearts.” If a pope ever came out and said such a thing, and it was clear that he was not insane or joking, it would be time for the cardinals to book their plane tickets to Rome. (Actually, if he was insane or joking, it would also be time for them to book their tickets.)
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Let us hope, for the sake of preserving the little sanity we have left, that Our Lord does not permit us to capsize into still murkier and rougher waters than those in which we are currently sailing.
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I return now to the issue raised by my correspondent. There is no question that the death penalty is permissible in some circumstances, and that is because the death penalty is taught by God to be, and is accepted by Catholic tradition as, a legitimate exercise of punitive and retributive justice on the part of the state, which has its authority from God, the Lord of life and death. One is allowed to argue that those circumstances no longer obtain, but one cannot say the thing in itself is evil. That, indeed, would be heresy, and one notes that Francis did not dare to say this explicitly in the new Catechism text. But he implies it, which is hardly less damaging, for all the reasons we have seen.
Are you a Catholic tempted to tear out your hair and say: “Wait a minute, if the pope can’t be trusted, who can?” There is a way out of this perplexing situation. It involves admitting forthrightly, as most Catholics in history would readily have done, that the pope is not above the law, not above tradition, not above the theological witness of the Fathers and Doctors, but in communion with them and, in a sense, subordinate to them. Therefore, one may always be confident believing and teaching what has been held “by everyone, always, and everywhere” prior to this time of confusion.