Early in the present papacy, William Doino Jr. wrote some fine columns in First Things showing how progressive, conservative, and mainstream media outlets frequently distorted Pope Francis’s statements to make him fit their preconceptions. In his articles — written before First Things dropped all its columnists who were charitable to the Holy Father — Doino identified a serious problem with press coverage of Francis. It continues today: writers on all sides of the Catholic culture wars insist upon seeing Francis through the same “liberal pope” lens, ignoring inconvenient facts.

I thought of Doino’s insights when reading Pope Francis’s recent response to a dubium concerning the possibility of blessings for same-sex couples. Media coverage of the pope’s answer is all but unanimous in painting it as a win for gay couples seeking to have the Church recognize their unions. Thus the progressive National Catholic Reporter calls it a “watershed moment for the global Catholic Church.” The self-described “smart, faithful, and serious” canon lawyers who run the Pillar insinuate it reflects the mind of a wishy-washy pope who is “passively permissive” of same-sex blessings. Its editors would rather break out the popcorn in advance of a projected schism than grant the pope the presumption of orthodoxy. And LifeSite, together with the editor of the Remnant, seized upon the pope’s answer as fuel for its efforts to unite Catholics against the Francis pontificate.

But what if every single attempt to place Francis inside an ideological camp misses the point? What if we take Francis at his word when he addresses us all—“whether right or left or center”—to warn that “the Gospel is not an ideology?

In other words, what if the pope is Catholic?

If we are willing to remove our ideological lenses, we might see that Francis’s response to the dubium on blessings is neither a watershed nor a camel’s nose. It is rather an affirmation of the unchangeability of Church teaching on marriage, a firm “no” to blessing any type of sexual activity outside matrimony, and a call to priests to offer spiritual accompaniment to gay Catholics. What the Pillar editors paint as broad and vague is in fact a concrete, theologically astute application of major principles of Vatican II, John Paul II, and the tradition of canon law.

What Did Francis Actually Say?

The cardinals who submitted the dubium framed their question in light of Sacred Scripture’s teachings concerning marriage as the union of one man and one woman (Gen 1:27-28). They additionally cited St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:24-32, which they encapsulate as saying that “denying sexual difference is the consequence of denying the Creator.” With those verses in mind, they asked, “Can the Church deviate from this ‘principle,’ considering it, in contrast to what was taught in [John Paul II’s] Veritatis splendor 103, as a mere ideal, and accept as a ‘possible good’ objectively sinful situations, such as unions with persons of the same sex, without departing from the revealed doctrine?”

The Holy Father began his response affirming the underlying premise of the question, namely that “the Church has a very clear understanding of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation.” Citing Amoris Laetitia 292, he added that “other forms of union” thus “cannot be strictly called ‘marriage.’” Since “the reality we call marriage has a unique essential constitution that requires an exclusive name,” Francis said, “it is undoubtedly much more than a mere ‘ideal.’”

Francis’s next words could not be any clearer or more direct: “For this reason, the Church avoids any type of rite or sacramental that might contradict this conviction and suggest that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.” Catholic teaching on the nature of marriage cannot change or be changed, and the Church’s rites and sacramentals must reflect that teaching. (A blessing is a type of sacramental, which is distinct from a sacrament.) The Holy Father’s teaching is thus in perfect continuity with the entire Catholic tradition, including the statement issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2021.

If Pope Francis had stopped there, he would have done nothing more than reiterate what he and those before him had said on the matter. Instead, having given a firm “no” to the question of blessings for same-sex unions, he wished to examine what the Church could do to accompany people who, although in such a union, wished to receive grace to strengthen them in their Christian walk. And so he added a new consideration:

“However, in our relationships with people, we must not lose the pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes. The defense of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity; it also includes kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.”

The first thing to note is that Francis is doing exactly what his opponents refuse to admit he does, which is that he includes the defense of objective truth in pastoral charity. At the same time, he says that in addition to defending objective truth, we must be willing to meet people where they are, being patient with them, precisely to assist them in their efforts to obtain the grace to live the truth. As he stated in Evangelii Gaudium and repeated in Amoris Laetitia, those who are involved in evangelization, “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, … need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur” (Evangelii Gaudium 44).

Before examining further how Francis envisions the exercise of pastoral charity in the accompaniment of people who are in a same-sex union, it is essential to understand what he means by pastoral charity. No one commenting on Francis’s statement, whether from the left or the right, has done this. And that is a shame, because the term pastoral charity is not some vague reference to being nice, neither is it a license for a priest to do whatever the faithful wish. It is rather a specific term with a specific meaning in the Church.

Pastoral Charity in the Documents of the Church

Pastoral charity is a key term in Presybterorum Ordinis (PO), the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests. The decree placed the notion of pastoral charity within St. Augustine’s description of the priesthood as an amoris officium, an office (as in vocational role or duty) of love: “May it be a duty of love to feed the Lord’s flock” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 123.5, quoted in PO 14, footnote 23). Pastoral charity was what the Council had in mind when it described “a special grace” that disposes the priest to receive further grace from doing what the grace of ordination disposes him to do—namely, “[serve] the flock committed to him and the entire People of God” (PO 12). It was thus the Council’s descriptor for what St. Thomas Aquinas called the res tantum of the Sacrament of Orders—the particular mode of sanctifying grace that is distinctive to that sacrament.

Vatican II’s understanding of pastoral charity is the key to John Paul II’s teachings on priestly identity and mission. In Pastores Dabo Vobis (PDV), his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on priestly formation, John Paul used the term pastoral charity fifty times.

With Pastores Dabo Vobis before us, we can now ask whether John Paul would have agreed that pastoral charity, while including “the defense of objective truth,” also includes “kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement.” The answer is yes, absolutely, for, John Paul wrote, “pastoral charity is the virtue by which we [priests] imitate Christ in his self-giving and service.” He added, “It is not just what we do, but our gift of self, which manifests Christ’s love for his flock. Pastoral charity determines our way of thinking and acting, our way of relating to people. It makes special demands on us” (PDV 23).

In his conclusion to Pastores Dabo Vobis, John Paul urged priests to reach out to people who were afraid of being judged by the Church. To the present-day reader, his tone and message are practically indistinguishable from those of Francis:

“People need to come out of their anonymity and fear. They need to be known and called by name, to walk in safety, along the paths of life, to be found again if they have become lost, to be loved, to receive salvation as the supreme gift of God’s love. All this is done by Jesus, the good shepherd—by himself and by his priests with him” (PDV 82).

“A Trust in a Father Who Can Help Us Live Better”

With John Paul’s words in mind, we can now return to Francis’s response to this dubium. After stating that “we cannot be judges who only deny, reject, and exclude,” he wrote, “Therefore, pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage. For when a blessing is requested, it is expressing a plea to God for help, a supplication to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us live better.”

Three times the Holy Father emphasizes that, to grow in our walk with God, we need grace to help us “live better.” He has already said that the Church can in no way permit a blessing that would “suggest that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.” So he is not speaking here of the blessing of a sexual union. He is speaking rather of a situation in which individuals seek a blessing to help them grow in their walk with God. To those who would prevent a priest from raising his hand to bless individuals who are living contrary to the Church’s teachings, Francis effectively asks: how are people to receive the grace to live up to the demands of the Gospel, if the Church denies it to them at every turn?

Francis went on: “On the other hand, although there are situations that are not morally acceptable from an objective point of view, the same pastoral charity requires us not to simply treat as ‘sinners’ other people whose guilt or responsibility may be mitigated by various factors affecting subjective accountability (Cf. St. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia 17).”

The passage in Reconciliatio et paenitentia that Francis appears to intend is that in which John Paul II stated a truth he deemed so obvious that he tossed it off as a kind of aside: “Clearly there can occur situations which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint and which have an influence on the sinner’s subjective culpability.”

John Paul II wrote as one familiar with the manualist tradition in moral theology that prevailed in Catholic seminaries prior to the Second Vatican Council, and he assumed that his audience was too. As Nicholas Senz has noted, Pope Francis was likewise schooled in that tradition, one which often took a far less demanding approach to the moral life than modern accounts of the bad, bad old pre-Conciliar days would suggest.

The manualist tradition developed out of Thomism and reached its climax with John C. Ford, SJ (whose pastoral approach provided a kind of bridge between neo-Scholasticism and the Council’s ressourcement approach to moral theology). It placed great emphasis upon the need for confessors to determine accurately the extent to which penitents who had committed objectively grave sins were subjectively culpable.

Manualist theologians recognized that people caught in habits of sin needed the grace of the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation to see that their situations were not ideal. John Paul’s Magisterium followed solid manualist principles in its advice to confessors in a 1997 vademecum issued by the Pontifical Council for the Family and approved by the CDF under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: “The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin.”

In other words, John Paul’s Magisterium told confessors that if a couple came to them who were in an irregular marriage, or who were using contraception, and were in ignorance, the confessor was not to refuse them absolution, lest he risk driving them out of the Church altogether. Instead, the Pontifical Council for the Family stated, he “must try to bring such penitents ever closer to accepting God’s plan in their own lives, even in these demands, by means of prayer, admonition and exhorting them to form their consciences, and by the teaching of the Church.”

It is that very manualist principle applied by John Paul II to which Pope Francis is now appealing in asking priests to exercise pastoral charity and pastoral prudence with gay couples. John Paul wanted priests to help couples in irregular marriages to do better and be better—even if that meant, for a time, letting them receive the Eucharist and sacramental absolution. Francis is doing the same in permitting priests to consider ways to offer blessings to gay Catholics, provided that they do not suggest “that something that is not marriage is recognized as marriage.”

What Is the Point of Canon Law?

This brings us to the final paragraph of Pope Francis’s response, in which he said that “decisions that may be part of pastoral prudence in certain circumstances should not necessarily become a norm.” Thus, he wrote, “Canon law should not and cannot cover everything, nor should Episcopal Conferences with their varied documents and protocols claim to do so, as the life of the Church flows through many channels other than normative ones.”

With those words, Francis expresses frustration with bishops in Belgium and Germany that have tried to institutionalize blessings for same-sex couples. Precisely because blessings should take into account the situation of the people requesting them—helping them live better and be better—blessings of individuals who are in non-sacramental unions should not be “one size fits all.”

The Holy Father’s comment that “canon law should not and cannot cover everything” should not be mistaken for antinomianism. Under Pope Francis, more new canons have been created than under any pope since the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The Holy Father is simply highlighting one of the great principles underlying canon law, namely canonical equity; the supreme law of the Church, to which canon law itself is subject, is “the salvation of souls” (Code of Canon Law c. 1752).

A final point: The Pillar, in painting Francis as “vague,” highlighted what it claimed was Pope Francis’s unwillingness to clamp down on those bishops who have sanctioned blessings for same-sex unions. Indeed, there is no doubt that Pope Francis has been patient with the so-called German Synodal Way, despite its being, in Mike Lewis’s words, “headed for a collision with the Magisterium.” But it is worth noting that Pope Francis inherited a situation in the European Church that had been building over the course of the last several papacies.

To give but one example, the German bishops were aware for years that a publishing company in which they held a large share was putting out pornographic books as well as books on Satanism and magic. Only after a mainstream news outlet broke the story did Pope Benedict XVI urge the bishops to divest from the company. If Pope Francis is now hesitating to correct prelates in Germany and Belgium, the response of a faithful Catholic is to assume he is using his best judgment to determine how to address a situation that long ago spun out of control.

Many saints have likened their moment of personal conversion to the experience of awakening from a deep sleep. We can hope that one day the Catholics who have accepted the “liberal pope” narrative will awaken to the realization that Pope Francis, far from being bound to an ideology, truly is what he told us from the beginning—“a son of the Church.” Those who insist upon seeing him through ideological lenses prevent the Spirit of Christ from acting upon them through Christ’s representative on earth.

Image: Vatican Media

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Dawn Eden Goldstein, JCL, STD, is the author of several books, including Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.'s Spiritual SponsorThe Thrill of the Chaste, and My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. She has taught at seminaries in the United States, England, and India. Currently she is writing a biography of Father Louis J. Twomey, SJ. Visit her at The Dawn Patrol.

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