Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Continuity of Magisterium

There are, unfortunately, Catholics who think that defending Pope Francis involves tearing down his predecessors. What Pope Francis does is either portrayed as “finally correcting” bad practices of the past or trying to bury the good his predecessors did under the problems that became public at the time of their pontificates. It’s a problem because they fall into the same error as those who claim that Pope Francis is a “disaster” for the Church. Both factions falsely believe there is a “break” in continuity and merely disagree on whether that “break” is good or bad.

In doing so, both are forgetting about the nature of the Church as God’s chosen means to evangelize the world, protected from error in doing so. The individual needs of an era can require changes in discipline or emphasis, but the central truth remains. When we take both the changeable and unchangeable into account, arguing that a break has occurred is to either deny or be ignorant about God’s role in the Church.

It doesn’t matter which Pope you use as a yardstick. You will always find something that went wrong during his pontificate or at least something you might wish had been done differently. But that is an unavoidable part of God’s choice to make use of weak, finite, and sinful human beings. Without God’s protection, His Church would have collapsed right after Pentecost, if not the Last Supper.

Some things are not protected, of course. We might look at certain acts of governing the Papal States and Vatican City and wince. We might wish that the concordat with Nazi Germany or the agreement with China had been handled differently. We might wish that St. John Paul II had not kissed the Qur’an, that Benedict XVI had not given that interview in Light of the World§, or that Pope Francis didn’t give press conferences. Cringing in those cases is not being rejecting the magisterium*. Regretting how Popes handled the sexual abuse crisis is not against the magisterium. We can lament how some priests escaped or took refuge behind bad interpretations of canon law@. But, if somebody uses these non magisterial events to argue that a Pope is a heretic, and we can reject when a Pope does teach—that is dissent.

Pope Francis is not “a Marxist.” His warnings on the evils of Capitalism are no different from his predecessors. St. John Paul II was not “heartless” with Familiaris Consortio. Nor did Pope Francis contradict him. The two Popes wrote on two different aspects of communion after remarriage. St. John Paul II wrote on the fact that those not seeking to rectify their situation cannot be admitted to communion. Pope Francis wrote about evaluating every person to determine whether the conditions of mortal sin are present#, and helping those earnestly trying to get right with God and the Church. What Pope Francis said would not apply to the unrepentant. St. John Paul II denying communion would not apply to those trying (and occasionally failing) to live as brother and sister.

But if one assumes a break in teaching by a non magisterial act or a change in a discipline, it’s the same error whether one supports or opposes the “break.”

I would ask my fellow defenders of Pope Francis not to tear down his predecessors while defending him. From a worldly perspective, it might seem to be a break or change in teaching. But it’s actually only a change in approach to deal with where our society went wrong today.


(§) This was where Benedict XVI used the infamous example of “the male prostitute with AIDS” that many (wrongly) thought was opening the doors to using condoms.

(*) It might be sinful based on how one responds. We should always remember that the account we hear might not accurate.

(@) Reading the 1917 Code of Canon Law, it appears (to me anyway) that the canons did not consider that victims might be too ashamed to come forward, that abusive priests might not confess their sins, or that the canons seemed to block bishops from acting until the victim came forward.

(#) Unfortunately, some interpretations of FC assumed that mortal sin was present in all cases. 

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