There are, unfortunately, Catholics who think that defending Pope Francis involves tearing down his predecessors. Throughout his pontificate, they have portrayed almost everything Pope Francis has done as “finally correcting” the bad practices of his predecessors and ignoring the good that they accomplished. This is a problem because these Catholics 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.
When they do this, both groups forget the nature of the Church as God’s chosen means to evangelize the world, protected from error in doing so. The specific needs of an individual era can require changes in discipline or emphasis, but the central truth of the faith remains. When we understand what is changeable and what is unchangeable in the Church, 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 find something that went wrong during every pontificate, or at least something you might wish had been done differently. But that is an unavoidable consequence of God’s choice to make use of weak, finite, and sinful human beings to lead His Church. Without God’s protection, the Church would have collapsed right after Pentecost, if not the Last Supper.
Some papal actions are not protected by the Holy Spirit, of course. We might look at certain acts of governance in the Papal States or Vatican City and wince. We might wish that the concordat with Nazi Germany or the recent 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 in-flight press conferences. Cringing in those cases is not rejecting the magisterium*.
Regretting how Popes handled the sexual abuse crisis is not magisterium. We can lament how some priests escaped or took refuge behind bad interpretations of canon law@. That said, if somebody uses these non-magisterial events to argue that a pope is a heretic, or that we can reject the magisterial teachings of a pope as doctrinally erroneous—that is dissent.
Pope Francis is not a “Marxist.” His warnings on the evils of Capitalism are no different from his predecessors. It is incorrect to classify St. John Paul II as “heartless” with Familiaris Consortio. But it is also wrong to say that Pope Francis contradicted him. The two popes wrote on two different aspects of the issue of receiving sacraments after divorce and 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 does not apply to the unrepentant. St. John Paul II’s denial of the sacraments would not apply to those trying (and occasionally failing) to live as brother and sister.
When one assumes a break in Catholic teaching has resulted from a non-magisterial act or a change in a discipline, they make the same error whether they support or oppose the “break.”
I would like to ask my fellow defenders of Pope Francis not to tear down his predecessors while defending him. From a worldly perspective, there might appear to be a break or change in teaching. In truth, however, such decisions are only a change in approach in response to the unique challenges of 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.
An earlier version of this piece, “The Continuity of the Magisterium,” appeared on David Wanat’s personal blog, If I Might Interject.
Image: Portraits of the popes at Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome. Wikimedia commons.
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David Wanat holds a Masters Degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has been blogging in defense of the Catholic Church since 2007. His personal blog is at http://www.ifimightinterject.com/.