The Pope and the paradigm shif
Just how deeply Pope Francis is feared and loathed is exemplified by the rise of ultra-conservative Catholic movements on the internet. He is surrendering Catholic truth, they angrily insist, to the modernist liberal spirit of the age. Their misgivings came to a head over his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, published three years ago, in which he tentatively opened the door to the admission to Holy Communion of Catholics who had remarried after divorce. First there was the so-called dubia, a challenge to the Pope by four conservative cardinals to explain how his document was compatible with received Catholic teaching. There have since been other such rebukes, of increasing stridency, the latest of which is an open letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy, signed by, among others, the prominent English theologian Aidan Nichols OP.
How does one explain such venom? Conservative Catholicism has been more or less defined by obedience – blind, if necessary, full-hearted, if possible – to the teachings of the Supreme Pontiff. This was not just a theological anchor but plainly also an emotional one. That is why they find their dissent so painful.
It is impossible to deny that Pope Francis is trying to change the mind of the Church on certain sensitive and contested issues such as marriage, homosexuality, Christian relations with Muslims, the role of the laity – women in particular – and the primacy of evangelisation over a preoccupation with precise doctrinal conformity. He wants a Church of and for the poor and a Church which takes risks, and those who hold tight to their comforts and privileges and are by nature risk-averse are frightened by that.
What the enemies of the Pope’s reforms lack is the theological equipment to put what is happening in a positive light. It is a pity that Fr Nichols did not help them here. The letter he signed, for instance, has no recognition of the place of theological development in the life of the Catholic Church. The development in question – a paradigm shift may not be too strong a term – is from a religion of law to a religion of love. In the former case, God is seen mainly as a source of inflexible moral rules, of which the denial of Holy Communion to divorced and remarried couples in all and every circumstance is just one example.
Saying that we should take into account a person’s life history and circumstances, by acknowledging that the rightness or wrongness of any action may depend on the circumstances, is not to jettison the idea that there are moral absolutes. Pope Francis does not abandon the law, but sees it as at the service of love; and his key to how to do so is by the application of mercy. This is drawn from the Gospel. By refusing to condone the stoning to death of a woman taken in adultery, although that was the legal punishment due, Jesus did not reject the law but overruled it in the name of mercy. The prodigal son was welcomed home by his loving father, regardless of the profligate way he had squandered his inheritance. The Pope’s critics have to be careful they are not standing in the place of the older brother, who had always behaved correctly, but becomes jealous when he sees the unconditional love with which his errant younger brother has been showered.
Law in the service of love, for instance, declares that each or every sexual act between an adult and a child is prohibited because of the deep and lasting damage it may cause. The inflexible application of such a law is an act of love towards children. On the other hand the proposal that a divorced and remarried couple must live together as brother and sister if they are to be admitted to Communion can swing a wrecking ball through the love at the heart of their marriage. In such a case law is not serving love, but undermining it.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. This is the year that John Henry Newman is expected to be canonised. He was and still is the leading exponent of the theory of the development of doctrine. His criteria is that for a development to be legitimate it has to be rationally implied, hidden, so to speak, within the previous principles. He had this to say about it: “Ideas may remain, when the expression of them is indefinitely varied; and we cannot determine whether a professed development is truly such or not, without some further knowledge than an experience of the mere fact of this variation. Nor will our instinctive feelings serve as a criterion. It must have been an extreme shock to St Peter to be told he must slay and eat beasts, unclean as well as clean, though such a command was implied already in that faith which he held and taught; a shock, which a single effort, or a short period, or the force of reason would not suffice to overcome. Nay, it may happen that a representation which varies from its original may be felt as more true and faithful than one which has more pretensions to be exact.”
That applies precisely to the debate over Amoris Laetitia. And it offers some sympathy to critics of the Pope as they feel the shock of the developments he is proposing. Penultimately, the process of development happens within the body of the faithful, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, according to the sensus fidelium. There will be disagreement along the way. Ultimately, when the People of God has had its family conversation, the judgement is left to Peter’s successor. It then becomes binding on the faithful, in accordance with the Second Vatican Council decree Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25.
Pope Francis has stimulated a debate, and has declined to shut it down prematurely. To call him a heretic in the middle of it is, to say the least, unfair and unhelpful.