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Anyone who has played youth baseball or softball has seen a backstop, a large structure made of chain-link fencing that is erected behind home plate to serve as a barrier in case a wild pitch or errant throw gets past the catcher and keeps going. During tryouts and practice, the backstop keeps a lot of baseballs from being chased down in parking lots, landing in people’s yards, and bouncing into busy streets. It provides parents, coaches, players, and umpires with security, even if they are not consciously aware of its presence at every moment of the game. This is nothing, however, compared to the protection given to the Catholic Church’s doctrinal fidelity by the Magisterium of the Church.

Yesterday, in an address to the International Theological Commission (ITC), Pope Francis summarized a crucial distinction that is integral to understanding his papacy. The address is not yet published into English (I hope this means that the translation team was enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday), but in this passage explains how and why theology and catechesis are different and how they should be approached differently (courtesy DeepL translation):

“Theologians must go beyond, seek to go beyond. But this I want to distinguish from the catechist: the catechist must give the right doctrine, the solid doctrine; not the possible novelties, of which some are good, but what is solid; the catechist conveys the solid doctrine. The theologian dares to go further, and it will be the magisterium that will stop him. But the vocation of the theologian is always to venture to go further, because he is trying, and he is trying to make theology more explicit. But never give catechesis to children and people with new doctrines that are not sure. This distinction is not mine, it is St. Ignatius of Loyola’s, who I think understood something better than I do!”

In a nutshell, when we catechize, we must be sure to teach according to doctrine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines catechesis as “an education in the faith of children, young people and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.” (No. 5).

People deserve to be taught the teaching of the Church, clearly and objectively. Catechesis for adults and children should be oriented towards “solid doctrine” to provide a strong foundation.

This is why, despite media attempts to portray him differently, Pope Francis spends a great deal of time on catechizing. Although the headlines about the pope often focus on juicy soundbites or his off-the-cuff musings, in his Magisterium we find deep and comprehensive doctrinal teachings. For example, more than three years before the sensational (and at times hysterical) coverage of the Holy Father’s decision to place restrictions on the antecedent, pre-Vatican II form of the Mass, he spent six months systematically teaching each part of the liturgy. (If you haven’t read his Catechesis on the Liturgy, a free eBook is available here). He followed his document restricting the older form of the liturgy with Desiderio Desideravi, a letter giving a teaching on the Mass that even some of his outspoken critics found beautiful and profound at times.

Catholic media and their consumers are exponentially more interested in controversy, which is why we hear so much about times when theologians at Vatican events throw out novel ideas (or even crazy ones). They consider every meeting that Francis attends and every appointment he makes to be an endorsement of that person’s views or theories, which is both absurd and profoundly unfair.

Much has been made, for example, of a volume recently published by the Pontifical Academy for Life entitled Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition and Practical Challenges, which followed a workshop of scholars in Rome during Fall 2021. Many papal critics decried this as if the Vatican had capitulated to “the world,” and forsaken all of the Church’s bioethical and sexual teachings. By contrast, one of the participants in the workshop, William Murphy, described it “as a synodal dialogue between Catholics representing different perspectives and models, with a focus on revisiting the subject matter in a new historical context and working toward more pastorally effective ways of addressing some of the grave challenges facing Catholic moral theology and pastoral ministry.”

Various novel theological ideas made under Francis’s papacy – the so-called “Kasper proposal” of 2014 also comes to mind – have bent Francis’s critics out of shape since the beginning of the pontificate. Every positive gesture Francis makes towards someone they deem “heterodox” or progressive or a sinner is portrayed as the pope being heterodox, progressive, or encouraging sin. They seem determined to catch him in the act of heresy, with no regard for nuance and no appreciation for context.

This is a profoundly uncharitable misreading of the pope.

To put it frankly, I am concerned that the accusations of such papal critics are rooted in a fear that Christ’s promises for the Church are untrue. Conversely, I have no doubt that Pope Francis trusts in the divine assistance promised to the Church in the ministry of the pope. The Church teaches, and Francis believes, that the Magisterium is a backstop against doctrinal error and heresy. He is confident that nothing can get past it. His faith in the Holy Spirit’s protection of the deposit of faith is so great that he doesn’t fear any erroneous ideas proposed in theological speculation.

This is what he means when he says, “The theologian dares to go further, and it will be the magisterium that will stop him.” In other words: “Bring it on, because nothing you can say will cause harm to the deposit of faith!” Pope Francis is totally comfortable with bringing together a group of people from all over the spectrum to share their ideas, thoughts, and impressions. He allows them to “make a mess.”

Pope Francis will not fly into a rage if – in the course of a 4-year synodal consultation – everyone tosses their ideas up against the wall like wet spaghetti noodles. A lot of what gets thrown won’t stick. That’s to be expected. But if it sticks, it sticks. Sometimes, something unexpected will stick. “The God of surprises.”

That’s the point. That’s what Pope Francis means when he talks about the Holy Spirit “breaking through.” This can’t happen with a popular vote or when everyone is driven by an ideological agenda. It won’t work as well when everyone who participates is forced to speak within set parameters. This is why Pope Francis urges “open dialogue.” Nothing is off the table.

Ideological thinking (left, right, whatever) or setting mandatory goals are hindrances to fruitful dialogue and synodality. They inhibit the openness that prayerful discernment requires. We can’t set time limits and boundaries on the movement of the Holy Spirit.

That said, no exercise in synodality is free of ideologues and Francis knows this. Conservatives point this out regularly, and despite their blind spots, they are sometimes right. Surely there are people across the spectrum participating in the synodal process who place conditions on the Church, and who have made up their minds about what must change and what must not.

What is Pope Francis’s answer to this? You let them in, you allow them to participate, you hope they experience conversion along the way, and you pray that they begin to understand synodality. This initiative is called “For a Synodal Church,” after all. That’s the goal, but we haven’t gotten there yet. Still, it is urgent that ideologues do not hijack the synod or block the other participants who truly want to listen to the Holy Spirit.

Some may be concerned, “But this will confuse people about what the Church teaches!”

It won’t if you don’t let it. First of all, none of this should affect catechesis. Catechesis is instruction in what the Church is, not what one thinks or hopes it should be. Doctrines may develop, but speculation on future developments belongs to the realm of theology, not catechesis. This is why the crucial distinction between catechesis and theology is so important. Rather than focusing on every little outrage, teach this distinction instead.

Some Catholics are offended by the idea that some of the people Pope Francis has praised or befriended or even appointed to positions in the Vatican are insufficiently orthodox (in some cases they are not Catholic at all). But Pope Francis also points out that while such a person “can in no way presume to teach or preach to others,” there “can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way” (Amoris Laetitia, 297). A mature and well-grounded approach to faith should recognize that “men and women are capable of coming up with shared goals that transcend their differences and can thus engage in a common endeavor” (Fratelli Tutti, 157).

Of course, if the Church is a sham and the promises of Jesus Christ are empty, the whole thing could fall apart. If that was the case, it probably should fall apart. But if the Catholic Church is true – which I firmly believe – her unity and doctrine must, by necessity, be preserved through the Magisterium: the pope and the bishops in communion with him.

Pope Francis trusts in the Holy Spirit to preserve the truth and to renew the Church. As a servant of the Church’s tradition, he knows that it is ultimately his role to discern what ideas are true and will benefit the Church. It is his role to determine what ideas are ruptures and which are true developments in continuity with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Do we think that we need to save the Church’s teaching from the person entrusted by God with its protection? Or do we, like Francis, trust that the Magisterium is the backstop against error, which allows the Church to proclaim the true faith?


Image: Adobe Stock. By Mark.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Pope Francis on protecting the truth of the faith
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