(Click here to read Part 1)
Today we continue our interview with Stephen Walford, author of the upcoming book Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy, which will be released by Paulist Press on August 28.
In part 1 we discussed the abuse crisis, Walford’s background as a musician and a writer, and began to discuss the division in the Church that has followed Pope Francis’s teaching on marriage and the family. Today, we continue that discussion, including setting the record straight on an accusation made against him on global television. He also tells us what it was like to meet the Holy Father in person, details about his upcoming book, and his prescription for healing the wounds in this theological division.
Where Peter Is (WPI): Why is there so much anger and division among Catholics on the question of Pope Francis?
Stephen Walford (SW): Pope Francis is a divisive figure because he acts and preaches like Jesus. He challenges us to come out of our “cafeteria Catholic” comfort zones. He loves the poor – spiritual and material – and never ceases to shine a light on the tougher aspects of Catholicism that some would prefer to ignore. Due to this insistence, he leaves many unsettled – but that is exactly as it should be. If we are comfortable in our Faith, then something is wrong with it. I also firmly believe that what we are seeing from so many dissenters is actually a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit. He will never fail us, and he hasn’t in the present pontificate. We are being taught a radical announcement of the Gospel – to get our hands dirty, to love the homosexual person struggling to carry their cross, or the prostitute who has no other way to feed her children. True love for God means true love for every brother and sister on this planet. A pick and mix Catholicism is one Pope Francis has no time for, and neither should we.
WPI: You and I have spoken privately about an incident that happened a while back, where EWTN’s Fr. Gerald Murray mischaracterized your position on adultery on national television. Would you like to set the record straight?
SW: Yes, it was actually in January this year after my article on the dissenters of Amoris Laetitia was published by Vatican Insider. My position to be absolutely clear (and this is clearly shown over and over in my essays and articles) is that adultery is always gravely sinful. The point I have stressed, is that various mitigating circumstances may lessen the gravity of the sin from mortal to venial sin. This is perfectly in line with magisterial teaching from a variety of popes and the CDF. It is clearly taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well. Fr Murray chose to ignore these vital facts unfortunately, and in doing so, will have left some viewers with a deficient understanding of sin and guilt.
WPI: Changing the subject, in July of 2017, you and your family were received in a private audience with Pope Francis, and you were able to spend 45 minutes with him. How did this visit come about? What was he like? Did you discuss Amoris Laetitia and your upcoming book?
SW: The visit came about so that I could present the Holy Father with my book on the Communion of Saints. He was very humble and showed he is a great listener. It also struck me how down to earth he is, for instance he came into the room on his own, then went off twice to get books he wanted to give us, and to find a translator. Nothing was stage managed at all. No spin, just the great example of charity and holiness. After having photos taken with him, he even suggested we go to the other side of the room where the light may be better. We didn’t discuss Amoris Laetitia much; I was aware of the delicate nature of the subject of course, and with my family present, it didn’t seem appropriate. However, I discussed the book I had written (and gave him a substantial letter in Spanish in which I explained the nature of the work) and he seemed very pleased. I told him it was an honor to defend his Magisterium, and we hugged. That I will never forget!
WPI: Let’s talk about Amoris Laetitia. It seems that the release of the document (especially Chapter 8) marks an important point in the rift among Catholics on Pope Francis. Did the response from the Catholic media surprise you?
SW: Not really to be honest. There are those whose agenda was opposed to Pope Francis from the moment he was elected. Amoris Laetitia was just another opportunity to put the boot in.
WPI: How do you interpret Chapter 8, and especially footnote 351 about the help of the sacraments? Do you believe that your interpretation is faithful to the Holy Father’s intended meaning?
SW: Pope Francis has made it absolutely clear that the opportunity now exists for some divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion after a process of discernment. This, for those apparently “confused,” was confirmed when he raised the Buenos Aires Bishops guidelines to the level of “authentic Magisterium.” Since my first essay in January 2017, I too have explained ch. 8 of Amoris Laetitia in the same way these bishops did.
WPI: Why do you think so many Catholics are opposed to this? Do you see the opposition growing in intensity, or slowing down?
SW: I think because they were under the impression that the Pope did not have the authority to change sacramental discipline at all. But that of course is false. I would also speculate that many have not really ever know or understood the way the internal forum works-even though it has been utilized by the Church for centuries. I would imagine that over time the opposition will slow down-simply out of exhaustion if nothing else.
WPI: Do you think the response to the recent change in the Catechism on the death penalty is a continuation of the same dispute?
SW: Probably not, since with the death penalty, St John Paul II had already altered the teaching once before, and his attitude was shared by Pope Benedict XVI who called for nations to eliminate the death penalty. Pope Francis has simply concluded that mercy takes primacy of justice, and that nations now have the ability to incarcerate the most serious offenders while still leaving them time to repent and obtain salvation from Jesus.
WPI: Let’s talk about your book, Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce. Why did you write this book?
SW: I wrote the book for two reasons: 1) to defend the Pope and his teaching 2) to hopefully offer help to those brothers and sisters in second, civil marriages that they can advance on the path of spiritual renewal which may in time lead to resuming a sacramental life. I sincerely desire that nobody in these irregular situations feels secluded from the Church that is their Mother, thus I hope the book can give them the encouragement to return to their Faith, with a new realization that the Church listens to them and wants to help them, without condemning them.
WPI: Who do you hope this book will benefit? Describe your intended audience.
SW: Along the same lines of my previous answer: Primarily the many millions of Catholics around the world who live in second, civil marriages, and also Catholics in general who desire to understand the theological reasoning why Pope Francis took the courageous decision he did.
WPI: What are the 2-3 most important things that you think your readers should draw from the book?
SW: That this decision of the Pope derives from Christ himself who through the Holy Spirit guides and protects the Magisterium from error. With this fact in mind, the reader can hopefully see that God himself desires to help these honest souls benefit from the great blessing of the Holy Eucharist. It is about seeing all these brothers and sisters through the wounds of Christ, and seeking their sanctification.
WPI: Finally, what do you wish Pope Francis’s critics understood about him? What do you think they are missing in his vision and teachings?
SW: I would hope that they could open their hearts to see how the Holy Spirit has sent a Pope of great realism; one who utilizes everything at his disposal in order to give spiritual succor to the many frail souls in this world. I believe for the most part, his critics do not sense the necessity of finding new ways to approach the secularization of modern society. For the Pope, Jesus is waiting for the Church to let him out; to spend that extra energy in seeking out the lost souls. For many traditionalists, it seems that justice has a “you’ll get what you deserve mentality,” whereas for Pope Francis, the sinner furthest from Jesus has even greater right to his mercy, and should have the opportunity to encounter it. If the Church washes its hands of the countless millions in messy moral situations, then it is failing massively in its mission to bring salvation to all humanity. The Holy Father is doing nothing more than what Jesus demands; we should thank God for him, and pray much for him.
You can read Part 1 of this interview here.
Image provided by Stephen Walford. In the image, Walford presents Pope Francis with an autographed football jersey from his local club, Southampton. The “266” on the back is in honor of Francis, the 266th pope.