Thursday, September 15, 2016

Popes and Precedents

So, did you hear the one about the Pope who asked his advisors to look into a Church teaching and see whether it was ever legitimate to do something everyone assumed was sinful? 

No. It's not Pope Francis. 

It was actually Pope Benedict XIV. The document in question was the encyclical Vix pervenit (1745). He called for Church to look for the difference between usury and legitimate money lending for investment to see if such a case existed without sin.  In doing so, he was not seeking to change Church teaching,  but to distinguish what was condemned (demanding interest when lending to a person in need) from legitimate earnings of interest and dividends. 

Benoit XIVThat Ultra-liberal Pope . . . Benedict XIV?

Likewise, Pope Francis is not supporting the permission for sin. He's asking the Church to investigate whether conditions exist where a person might be in a situation not in a state of sin. In writing to the bishops of Argentina, the Pope supports their search for discernment. He doesn't approve of open reception of the Eucharist by all divorced and remarried and neither do the bishops he wrote to. In fact, the bishops’ document insists on the proper understanding of the indissolubility of marriage, and that the recovering of these individuals to the community is not an automatic path to the sacraments. The point is finding ways of returning such people to the path of grace. It anticipates that the number of cases where people might have access to the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist as being limited. 

His critics look at this as if the bishops are promoting sin and the Pope approves of that. In doing so, they act as if everybody in the world lives like 21st century Americans. Since we Americans can't imagine a situation where a person wants to get their relationship right with the Church but can't, for reasons outside of their control, we assume they can't exist. But other nations have different vicious customs than our own. When the Church deals with them, we, who are ignorant of them, assume the bishops are condoning things American Catholic dissenters are agitating for.

That leads us to another matter to consider. Even if a bishop, priest or member of the laity misuses what the Pope or a bishops' conference says, that doesn't mean the Pope or bishops' conference approves of that misuse. The fact is the bishops explicitly insist on the proper understanding of marriage and making it clear to the faithful. The Pope has, in his press conferences, made clear that bringing the divorced and remarried back to the Church doesn't automatically mean receiving the Eucharist. So what we are seeing is the Pope and bishops discerning whether conditions exist where an individual's situation is not intending to violate God's law.

This brings us back to Pope Benedict XIV and interest. He did not support usury. He wanted to investigate whether there could be legitimate ways to invest for interest without usury. The end result was that investment for a return was discovered to be permitted but lending at interest to a person in need was still condemned. Could his words be misused? They were misused. Infamous American dissenters like Fr. Charles Curran tried to use this as “proof” that the Church could change teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is good” when arguing for a change in teaching on sexual morality. Is Pope Benedict XIV to blame for people citing his action to justify their sins? No, and neither is Pope Francis to blame for people misusing his writings.

I believe that the Pope and bishops are not trying to bypass God's law, but are seeking to discover whether unjust laws or vicious customs trap people in relationships that blocks them from leaving illegitimate marriages. As Americans (or Western Europeans) we might not be able to picture such a situation. But the fact that we can’t imagine such a situation does not mean no such situation exists (That’s the argument from ignorance fallacy). 

We should keep that in mind, and not assume that this incident is a sign of teaching error or promoting sin.

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