In yesterday’s post, I explored the hostile responses from many of Pope Francis’s critics over his ecumenical gestures towards Christians outside of full communion with the Catholic Church, and how the outcry compares to their acceptance of similar gestures — not to mention a major change in sacramental discipline — made by St. John Paul II during his papacy.
Today, we’ll take a closer look at three issues that are at the center of debate during the papacy of Pope Francis, and how Pope John Paul laid the groundwork for the changes currently being discussed. The issues are: the ordination of married men to the priesthood, sacraments for the divorced and remarried, and Church teaching on the death penalty. There is a double-standard at play. Some are willing to grant JP2 a pass for promulgating changes and developments on these issues, but outright reject those proposed or enacted by Pope Francis.
The criticism Francis has received over the possibility of allowing the ordination of married men in some places and situations is a clear-cut example of this double standard. In 1981, Pope John Paul issued a “pastoral provision” that permitted married former Anglican ministers to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood. In 2009, Pope Benedict promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, providing for the creation of ordinariates for former Anglicans, directly subject to the Holy See. Anglicanorum coetibus led to an even greater number of married former Anglican priests receiving ordination to the Catholic priesthood.
I don’t know the total number of married Latin-rite priests, but the US Ordinariate claims to have 69 priests, the UK Ordinariate had 91 as of 2016, and the Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross, based in Australia, had 19 in 2016. Certainly, not all of these priests are married, and many married priests aren’t affiliated with the ordinariate (they work in dioceses, such as the prominent papal detractor Fr. Dwight Longenecker), but I think it’s safe to say there are currently over 200 active married priests in the Latin Church as a direct result of the actions of Francis’s two immediate predecessors.
Many of these married priests, in fact, have become noteworthy figures in the anti-Francis movement. In addition to the aforementioned Longenecker, Fr. John Hunwicke of the UK was one of the signatories of the open letter accusing Pope Francis of heresy. Another married priest, Fr. Vaughn Treco, was recently excommunicated for refusing to retract erroneous views on the second Vatican Council and the papacy.
Hopefully these examples aren’t representative, and most married priests are faithful and devoted to Christ and his Church. Yet some of the people who never criticized John Paul or Benedict for their allowances of married priests are outraged at the possibility that Pope Francis might allow for the ordination of married men (of proven virtue) to the priesthood in remote regions of the Amazon.
German Cardinal Walter Brandmuller, one of the dubia cardinals, described one of the aims of the upcoming Synod on the Amazon as the “the abolishment of celibacy.” Cardinals Burke and Muller have also been outspoken about the proposal in the synod’s working document. They present it as a backdoor approach to ending the obligation of celibacy in the universal Church. They apparently distrust Francis, who has spoken out strongly affirming the normative discipline of priestly celibacy and insisted that an exception in the Amazon would be limited to rare and extreme situations.
Indeed, on the surface, Francis’s proposal makes more sense than the provision made by St. John Paul II. Most married Catholic priests live in the UK and US. While there is certainly a vocations shortage in both countries, it is nowhere near as dire as the situation in the Brazilian rainforests. The Diocese of Xingu, for example, is reported to have only 27 priests for over 800 congregations. Most of these congregations are small tribal groups, scattered across a vast region and not easily accessible by car or boat. Some of these groups are lucky if they see a priest once a year. But for Francis’s critics, much more important than these Catholics’ access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist is the “hidden agenda” of the synod’s organizers.
Another issue where the same double standard is present is the teaching on the death penalty. Pope Francis’s 2018 revision to the Catechism was actually the second time the teaching was revised. St. John Paul II issued a revision in 1997, which not only strongly discouraged the death penalty, but suggested that when nonlethal means of punishment are available, the death penalty is contrary to the common good and respect for the intrinsic dignity of human life.
We’ve gone into the evolution of this teaching at length many times (See Adam Rasmussen’s analysis here and Pedro Gabriel’s here). The trajectory of the development of the Church’s teaching on the issue is absolutely clear, and it would be naive to think that even Pope Francis’s statement that the death penalty is “inadmissible” is the final word on the subject. But to hear his critics complain about it, you’d think that JP2’s 1997 revision was unchangeable dogma.
Which brings us to the pastoral practice regarding the reception of the sacraments for the divorced and remarried. It is clear that the Church teaches that marriage is indissoluble, and that civilly marrying someone while one’s spouse is still living is an objectively grave sin, and contrary to God’s plan for marriage. Both John Paul and Francis have upheld that doctrine, but both allowed for some people in such situations to be admitted to the sacraments in situations that do not conform to the ideal. John Paul’s exception, articulated in Familiaris Consortio 84, was to allow the sacraments to be received by couples who could not fulfill their obligation to separate if they committed to live as “brother and sister.” Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia chapter 8, allows for some Catholics in irregular situations–after honest discernment of mitigating factors in the course of pastoral accompaniment–to receive the sacraments if they are not culpable of mortal sin. Both John Paul II and Francis spoke clearly that the situations are not in conformity with the objective ideal, but both were cognizant that not every case is the same, and that real life often presents messy circumstances beyond our control.
Pedro Gabriel wrote an excellent piece last week on the fundamental continuity between Familiaris Consortio and Amoris Laetitia last week, and I encourage all to read it in order to better understand how both popes demonstrate the same fidelity to Tradition, even with pastoral understandings that occasionally differ.
Once again, however, Francis’s critics claim that St. John Paul’s exception was completely different, theologically and doctrinally. No one disagrees with the claim that John Paul went as far as he believed he could go, but just because he didn’t believe there was room to refine the discipline any further doesn’t mean that it is impossible for a subsequent pope to licitly revise or change the sacramental discipline.
Certainly, pro-JP2/anti-Francis Catholics have devised objections and distinctions explaining why they believe John Paul’s reforms were perfectly orthodox and reconcilable with Tradition, while Francis’s present ruptures and violations of irreformable Catholic teachings. Just as certainly, twenty or thirty years from now, some pro-Francis/anti-JP4 Catholics will make similar arguments about why Francis’s reforms were licit and JP4’s aren’t.
The remedy to such thinking, of course, is a sound understanding and acceptance of Catholic ecclesiology, doctrinal development, magisterial authority, and the living Tradition. What the papacies of both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis teach us is that the Magisterium lives, and that the responsibility of the pope is to interpret in response to the signs of the times, faithful to Tradition, but open to the ongoing movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.