Philip Lawler, in his book Lost Sheperd, argues that Francis is creating confusion intentionally as a means to usher in radical changes that could not be carried out through the formal processes of the Church. By introducing question marks into bedrock doctrines of the Christian faith, the Pope is setting the stage for liberalizing change.

If a Pope, therefore, wants to allow for women priests, he won’t be able to issue a formal declaration, given as how the Church has previously ruled out a female priesthood in not so uncertain terms. What a Pope can do, however, is push the envelope and see how far the question can go. If not female priests, then maybe female deacons. If not deacons, then female “helpers.” The process of exploration and questioning becomes a foot in the door to wider liberalization.

Pastoral exemptions, or exceptions in individual cases, unequivocally become the new standard. With each change, the culture of the Church changes, pushing the norms even further “left” and impelling the faithful and priests to accept even further departures from the previous norm. Referencing the parable of the frog in a pot of boiling water, conservatives warn that we must stop now before the Church is, more or less, boiled alive.  Or, as Ross Douthat warns in his book, before the Church is torn in half by a terrible schism.

There are a few problems with this interpretation of events, however.  First, it seems to underestimate the cadre of faithful Catholics and clergy who are very interested in preserving the Church’s clear teaching. It’s both the mainstream media with its liberal bias and the conservative religious media overcorrecting for that liberal bias, that both consistently suggest a pervasive liberal influence within the institutional Church.

While no doubt there “liberal” wings of the Church, it would be a gross oversight to underestimate the influence of other “factions” or “wings” as well. At this juncture, I’m not even referring to the Cardinal Sarahs and Cardinal Burkes, but to the Cardinal Dolans and Archbishop Carlsons (my own Bishop here in St. Louis) that faithfully shepherd millions upon millions of Catholics. They may not always get it 100% right (I assume they would be the first to admit their own sinfulness and regrets), but they are also not pushing for radical change within the Church either.

The second problem with this interpretation is, to be sure, a rush to judgment regarding the proposals themselves. For example, anything less than absolute uniformity and rigidity on matters of the moral law is seen as a failure of the Church’s mission to teach and form the faithful. Lawler seems to suggest that if you’re not with Cardinal Raymond Burke, you’re with Cardinal Walter Kasper, who in his mind has exalted conscience to an inordinately high degree. It escapes Lawler that Francis never went as far as the Kasper proposal and, in fact, Amoris Laetitia points to sharp disagreements with the most liberal of recommended pastoral practice regarding the divorced and remarried.  

The third problem with this interpretation of events is that it neglects the reality of people who live in the space between clear doctrines of the Church. In the process of neglecting the day-to-day lives of Catholics or their “concrete realities” in the language of Francis, Lawler implies that a billion Catholics are eager to live by the clear teachings of the Catechism but also full of people looking to change that Catechism. Lawler leaves little to no room for faithful Catholics to exercise well-formed conscience in areas where the Catechism is unclear on specific direction.  In other words, just because a person is exploring how best to live in these “gray areas,” this does not mean that person is somehow a “bad Catholic.”

In the context of marriage, Francis writes:

We […] find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.

When Lawler accuses Francis of “creating confusion,” therefore, he misunderstands the Pope’s objectives. Francis is not setting out to create confusion as a means to a sinister end. What he is doing is trying to explore those areas between the Church’s clear teachings. He is asking questions that can help guide those who have to live their lives where the Catechism does not, nor cannot, offer direct advice. By arguing that Francis is creating confusion, Lawler seems to reveal himself as one uneager or uninterested in helping those currently suffering today in the “outermost fringes of society.”    

Francis shows in Amoris Laetitia and elsewhere how the world is becoming increasingly complex and family situations are becoming more difficult. Catholics are struggling to live the faith well in a world that is filled with sin and a variety of modern challenges for which the Catechism offers no practical response,.

Pope Benedict described these challenges in philosophical ways, as a world ravaged by materialism and relativism.  Francis describes these challenges in very “subjective” ways, or ways that situate the individual in the context of a sinful world. Francis references divorce, cultural changes in which the family no longer offers as much support, individualism, consumerism, stress, the fast-paced nature of modern life, (mis)organization of society and labor, widespread uncertainty and ambiguity, misunderstanding of true freedom, fear, etc.

My point is that many Catholics are already confused. While we must acknowledge that there are clear teachings of the Church that are immutable, their applicability to specific situations is often less clear to say the least. Amoris Laetitia, in its most controversial passages, is a faithful working out of one complex area of life in which an increasing number of Catholics sadly find themselves, through varying degrees of culpability or none at all. We defend the orthodoxy of the recommended pastoral practices throughout this website.

One can accuse Francis of “creating confusion,” but one does not create confusion by revealing it and discussing it for the benefit of the faithful. And this is precisely what Francis is doing.

Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.

Developing the thoughts of Francis, it is precisely the “space between” doctrines where people often experience their “concrete realities” and where direction for living within the richness of the Gospel is most needed. Somehow, in some way, the Church absolutely must speak to the faithful even here. It cannot merely hide behind doctrine. Francis writes:

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.

Lawler, in his book, never accuses the Pope of heresy, not directly anyway. He admits that his teachings can be understood in an orthodox way. Through aspersions and tenuous implications, he accuses Francis of participating (or, at least, benefitting from without complaint) a liberal conspiracy aimed at undermining the institutions of the Church.  

In the light of the above, however, we find a less sinister reading of his ministry. It is not a vast liberal conspiracy that aims to make changes to the Church’s life-giving teachings. It is not a program to introduce widespread confusion to make those changes easier. Rather, it is a desire to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world, to people who need the healing touch of Jesus, who need guidance and support, even those that are on the fringes, and for whom the Church must “get dirty and bruised.”   

Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman, finance professional, and armchair theologian. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of “encounter” with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts.  He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing soccer and coaching his daughter’s soccer team.

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18 Responses

  1. Pat says:

    ” the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. ”

    Well now, that is a gaping hole you could drive a truck through, isn’t it.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      Haha. It would appear so at first glance and that seems to be Lawler’s criticism: what’s the point of having “exceptions” if the exceptions basically extend out so far as to be a norm unto themselves.

      But a full reading of Amoris Laetitia and not just the offending paragraphs, shows how this is a false reading. Francis sees that the movement of the individual must always be to the Truth. There is, at no time, a permanent departure from the moral norm. Situations of “objective sin” cannot become new norms. At the same time, grace works in history and through time. It is reasonable to expect that people are not “healed all at once” and that consciences must be formed through a process, which may include the help of the sacraments.

      There is a much more rigorous framework in Amoris Laetitia than Lawler gives credit for, a much stronger call for divorced and remarried to live in the fullness of truth. I could throw a bunch of quotes your way but I’ll just ask you to re-read the document yourself. But the short of it is that Francis sees also the inherent problems with insisting that people, once made aware of the truth, can suddenly live according to that truth. This is a bit of gnostic pastoral guidance. Francis most certainly rejects that “hardline” approach.

      • pat says:

        “make me holy O God, but not today”

        Of course it is hard to leave a life of sin instantly, but, one must at least acknowledge that it is sin, and intend to leave it before sacraments are fruitful. We seem to be saying that life is hard today (when was it ever easy, certainly not in ancient pagan Rome for instance) so if it is too hard, you are excused, for now, or if you don’t accept that it’s wrong you are excused.

        And, all of the best elements of AL as well as those subject to misinterpretation are only as orthodox as the bishops and priests who apply them, which is to say, if the pope doesn’t define the limits, then there are no limits, are there?

        thanks

        • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

          I forgot the most obvious quote of all:

          “Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church. For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it”.338 These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions”, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours. When a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires
          ahead of the common good of the Church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard.

  2. Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

    You’re right. This is why Francis says “in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur”

    He also writes:

    “Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion. ”

    I think “excused” is the wrong framework. We are not “excused” from sin. You and I, who receive the Sacraments, sin daily but we are not “excused” from our obligation to correct our wrongs. It’s the same for the divorced and remarried. Rather, for certain people in an objectively sinful situation, but for which subjective culpability is diminished or lacking altogether, the Sacraments will be a real help on the path of holiness and formation, on the path to the fullness of the Church’s teaching on marriage.

    The Pope has defined limits fairly well in this document but I also believe the Pope is ok with different pastoral approaches in different locales. This is a feature and not a bug. I discuss this precise point in https://wherepeteris.com/chaos-and-the-spirit/

    Ultimately, I believe Francis is ok with a little bit of a “mess.” It’s good if the Church gets dirty and bruised if its service of the faithful who are legitimately struggling with sin in their day-to-day lives.

    • Pat says:

      But, I fear, it is all too unnecessary. It is not like the doors of the churches are closed to anyone. All of the normal means of grace are open to those in hard situations as soon as they desire/resolve to amend their lives. There is no need to make a mess. It is wonderful to make a concerted public effort to recall people living outside of the church to return, but I think that that effort must be prudent, so that it does not jeopardize those who are faithful, and to know that it is effective. In other words, I don’t know how many gay people, for example decided to abandon a sinful life style after the pope said “Who am I to judge?”, probably not too many since the statement implies there is nothing to condemn (even if it was taken out of context), but I fear that it may have caused a few who were struggling to live in grace to give up the fight. Now instead of saying “they misunderstood” or “they weren’t really faithful” or “I can’t let them get in the way” I would say aren’t they worth saving too?

      Same thing with the AL initiative and the response to its critics. How many will be restored to grace vs how many will be confused or find an excuse, in goodwill or bad to continue or go back to sinful habits. That’s the reason for the dubia in my estimation. It’s not about complaining that people are accessing sacraments without an up to date countersigned membership card.

      • Jong ricafort says:

        Pat, Jesus shows in the gospel God is willing to leave the 99 soul for the sake of just one lost soul.
        And all of heaven rejoices at one soul returning to God.
        Pope Francis inspiration from the Holy Spirit is directed toward courage of the Church to be dirtied and bruised for the sake of one lost or wounded soul in this evil world we live in.
        AL is just a surface of the deeper message of the signs of times.
        Pope Francis thru AL confusions is calling all Clergy and faithfuls to Conversion.
        Why?
        Its Church Purification time and all of us must be docile to the Voice of the Holy Spirit, individually its our invisible unity because the enemies is distorting every messages in the media.
        A converted heart is equipped to discern the Truth and the subtle lies.
        Pope Francis is truly a Great Pope in these end times.
        Remember St. JP2,Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis are all speaking of Divine Mercy.
        Its the Time of Mercy… Orthodoxy the Justice of God will come later soon after the Triumph.
        So lets be thankful seeing the Face of God Mercy to all wounded soul.
        Godbless

        • Pat says:

          I am not talking about leaving the 99, I am talking about misleading them. I don’t think that there is joy in heaven when 1 sinner repents if it means that in the process you lost 50 saints who were just barely hanging on, and you harden 50 other sinners in their sin. I know in the current climate those 50 saints who were lost don’t count, because they were probably trying too hard or something, but it’s hard to see their loss as a good thing.

  3. carn says:

    There is one problem with the criticism of Lawler:

    “What he is doing is trying to explore those areas between the Church’s clear teachings. He is asking questions that can help guide those who have to live their lives where the Catechism does not, nor cannot, offer direct advice.”

    “One can accuse Francis of “creating confusion,” but one does not create confusion by revealing it and discussing it for the benefit of the faithful.”

    If one is discussing, revealing, exploring, asking questions for increasing understanding of complex situations, then this would usually include

    ANSWERING

    questions posed by others who are beyond doubt an important voice in the exploration process to oneself. And answering means not only some hard to understand speculation about who has a hard heart, is legalistic or needs conversion, but something like e.g. “Ok, to these questions my answer is: a. you are dumb idiots to formulate that as yes/no, because …. b. So skipping your stupid attempt to put it into yes/no i have to say … c. Is this a sufficient answer? If not, please ask further, but no stupid yes/no.”

    It is no replacement to have others attempt to answer the questions.

    And hence, in my view, sorry, Pope Francis is not interested in open discussion and exploration of complex issues.

    And also, the charge that there is some sort of uncharitable mind behind some questions, is even a sign of lack of understanding what such an exploration usually requires; it usually requires to ask questions and spin thoughts that are HURTFUL to other participants; because in complex and hard issues one has to challenge sometimes even foundational beliefs of some participant and that HURTS.

    (That does not mean Lawler is right; just that i find your claims used against him to be unpersuasive)

    Minor issues:

    “Lawler leaves little to no room for faithful Catholics to exercise well-formed conscience in areas where the Catechism is unclear on specific direction.”

    We know from church attendance rates, polls about believing in the resurrection of Christ and other issues of the creed and especially from the use artificial contraception that either the number of faithful catholics or the number of faithful catholics with a well-formed consciences could be quite low; so neglecting this probably insignificant group does not seem to be a major error.

    The majority of catholics and of course non-catholics AL and Pope Francis ministry is aimed at very likely do not have a well-formed conscience. Hence, not a serious error of Lawler to ignore the small group of faithful catholics.

    (And i number myself among those without well formed conscience; i can say that, cause i know what it sometimes suggest to be legitimate)

    “re-read the document yourself”

    This is a variation of “see AL as a whole”-defense. This defense does not work, as AL states:

    ” The
    greatest benefit, for families themselves and for
    those engaged in the family apostolate, will come
    if each part is read patiently and carefully, or if at

    tention is paid to the parts dealing with their spe

    cific needs. It is likely, for example, that married
    couples will be more concerned with Chapters
    Four and Five, and pastoral ministers with Chap

    ter Six, while everyone should feel challenged by
    Chapter Eight. ”

    Which means that according to AL each chapter can be considered on its own; hence, if some chapter on its own leaves contradiction, confusion, lacks clarity, requires additional information (aka quotes) from other chapters for a correct understanding this is an error committed by those compiling and checking the document for internal consistency and would be sufficient to prove beyond any doubt that AL is at least in a minor way confusing.

    Cause if a document says “Chapters can stand for themselves” and they can’t that is in a minor and “didn’t they hire someone competent for text work?” way confusing.

    • Jong ricafort says:

      God resists the proud and give more graces to the humble.
      Follow that leading first and when you accept the reality that Pope Francis Wisdom hy virtue of his office as Vicar of Christ is Supreme and guided by the Holy Spirit. Then embrace also the fact that discernment is not a given thing… It takes a lot of humility, love for the Church and Truth not to mentioned compassion for the wounded soul then somehow your mind will now be on the same page with Pope Francis inspired Wisdom on God’s Infinite Mercy.
      The confusions is not on AL but our inability to grasp the Supernatural and limits ourselves only on human finite understanding called orthodoxy.
      Try to embrace the Supernatural like Blessed Duns Scotus philosophy to appreciate the wonder and majesty of an Almighty God who transcends orthodoxy for the sake of just one wounded soul seeking His Divine Mercy.
      Gaze the Agonizing Jesus At The Foot of the Cross… It would help us much in embracing God’s infinite mercy.
      My Jesus, mercy. S&IHMMP4us.Amen

  4. carn says:

    “Follow that leading first and when you accept the reality that Pope Francis Wisdom hy virtue of his office as Vicar of Christ is Supreme and guided by the Holy Spirit.”

    I can accept the wisdom of carefully exploring the rules and the room between to find space for as many souls as possible.

    But for example I cannot accept the skills in text production of Pope Francis and whoever helped him compile the text. Cause saying that chapters can stand for themselves when – at least from what many people say – they can’t, is an error in compilation skills.

    So while i have no fundamental problem with what supposedly the plan is, i see serious problems how it is carried out and communicated. Especially that it is communicated so bad, that i have to put “supposedly” in the prior sentence.

    “Then embrace also the fact that discernment is not a given thing…”

    I cannot embrace that, since i do not know what you mean with “discernment” in that sentence. I know i have something some people call “discernment” in spades; just whether its the same thing, i am uncertain.

    You presume that i lack certain things, but are unable to formulate what i supposedly lack.

    • Jong ricafort says:

      Why are you confuse in some provisions in chapter 8 of AL and why others are not?
      Have you ask yourself why?
      Does a Loving and Merciful God cannot give graces to help your confusions while others already grasp the essence of AL in light of the wounded soul seeking guidance and help from the Church?
      As scriptures said wisdom of man is foolishness to God…
      Proverbs18:2 hits those type of person who cannot assent to understanding but always expressing only their endless opinions.
      Eternal Wisdom as St Montfort said can only be fathom by those faithful who resembles the Heart of a Mother.
      Thats why the Church as a Teacher and Guide has a Maternal Heart
      Meaning a Loving & Merciful Mother is compassuonate.This is the image of the God the Father in the Prodigal Son.
      Healing first the wounded, strengthen and formed back the right conscience and the soul experiencing Love & Mercy would embrace the Truth and be empower to leave the ways of sin.
      This is the essence of Mercy, as orthodoxy demands Justice.
      We are living in the Time of Mercy not Justice but it will come soon.
      As Pope Francis said ” the Divine Mercy of God is Infinite but the Time of Mercy is Not”
      Godbless

      • carn says:

        “Why are you confuse in some provisions in chapter 8 of AL and why others are not?
        Have you ask yourself why?”

        Yes.

        In part it seems to be an issue of different use/understanding of words as if we were speaking different languages.

        Take as example the speeches of JPII in Assisi i discussed with the somewhat-sedevacantist in the other thread. I read the thing from start to end without once stumbling “Huh? I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about.”; and that is usual with JPII texts; i just read them and usually i think i grasp what he wanted to say.

        With Pope Francis it is the opposite; often i read several times and i am still left with guessing, what he wants to express.

        “Does a Loving and Merciful God cannot give graces to help your confusions while others already grasp the essence of AL in light of the wounded soul seeking guidance and help from the Church?”

        Not my job to say what God can or cannot do.

        “This is the essence of Mercy, as orthodoxy demands Justice.”

        As i do not demand justice instead of mercy, most of your post directed at me are missing the target.

        • carn says:

          An example of different language use with the two of us:

          “Proverbs18:2 hits those type of person who cannot assent to understanding but always expressing only their endless opinions.”

          “This is the essence of Mercy, as orthodoxy demands Justice.”

          You think yourself acting under the banner mercy, yet think it is ok to “hit” people with Bible verses, who cannot understand.

          If you had said “don’t want to understand” fine; but hitting someone verbally for failing to understand who CANNOT understand is something i would consider to be very cruel (and also not just, but justice takes anyway a backseat with you); yet you think its merciful.

          We might as well speak different languages.

          • carn says:

            Small correction:

            If you had said “don’t want to assent to understand” fine;

            But that doesn’t change; if someone CANNOT do something, it is not merciful to hit that someone verbally for that inability.

          • jong ricafort says:

            Sorry if you got hit by Proverbs18:2 then that only means Hebrews4:12 does not miss the target.

            If you cannot comprehend the language of Pope Francis used in AL, don’t be upset your not ALONE.
            Even the expert Theologian, Biblical Scholars even Cardinals cannot follow the wordings or meaning of some provisions on Chapter 8..

            So again, we go to the root of the problem., the Dissenters like you want orthodoxy but you have to understand that you are not the one who will administer the AL to the divorced and remarried.

            So, who will administer? the Anointed Priest…can the ordinary Priest who doesn’t have a clear orthodoxy guidelines follow the AL to the letter of the Spirit as inspired to Pope Francis?
            My answer is an ABSOLUTE YES, despite the lack of orthodoxy.YES
            Why?…Jesus said “My God will supply your needs according to His richness and glory in Christ”…Jesus Christ is so RICH in Mercy AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS. all the sins even the unimaginable and griveous sins Jesus forgives all of that…No Sins escapes the Mercy of God.
            So the Clergy just simply OBEY, submit his full TRUST and let the lacking of GRACES be supply by God Himself won by Jesus Christ for all of us.
            This is the way God works by FAITH not by sight.

            Did Pope Francis leave the Clergy in the dark by not providing orthodoxy in all cases that are possible to be encountered as there’s no fit for all solutions. NO!
            Reflect on Pope Francis offered solution to Clergy Confusions…and What is that?..CONVERSION.
            Conversion according to Sis. Ann Shields is a turning away to see the Face of God, the Mercy of God..
            So what blocking us to see the Mercy of God, asked by Sis.Ann Shields is it a personal sin or sin of the mind?
            What is a sin of the mind?…it’s what you called Original Sin of Lucifer…PRIDE!…

            So, we know what’s the opposite and solution to PRIDE…Humility.
            And…Humility is TRUTH!

            Godbless.S&IHMMP4us.Amen

          • carn says:

            “So again, we go to the root of the problem., the Dissenters like you want orthodoxy”

            Again you judge me. You think for some reasons you know my motivations, the inner workings of my heart, etc.

            “So what blocking us to see the Mercy of God, asked by Sis.Ann Shields is it a personal sin or sin of the mind?
            What is a sin of the mind?…it’s what you called Original Sin of Lucifer…PRIDE!…

            So, we know what’s the opposite and solution to PRIDE…Humility.
            And…Humility is TRUTH!”

            And you judge that the source of my issues is pride.

            And i do not get hit by bible verses, it is you trying to hit me with bible verses.

            “If you cannot comprehend”

            And that although you consider it possible that there is a “cannot” hindering me.

            In my view this borders on the ridiculous; i might lack mercy in many situations; but never ever i would be showing such a lack of mercy to claim someone is a knowing dissenter if i think it is possible, that he/she just cannot/did not yet understand.

            Cause if someone does not understand something, he/she clearly cannot dissent from that, as he/she is unaware what it actually is.

            And yet you think you act with mercy.

  5. chris dorf says:

    At 57 my entire life as a cradle Catholic has been observing infighting between ‘nebulous groups’ referred to as conservative Catholics, Liberal Catholics, Biblical fundamentalists, born again Evangelicals, anti-Catholic ex-Catholics…who did I leave out? If this is all confusing for a person that reads the Bible and believes that Jesus is the Son of God, how does this seem to those who are not christian believers? Yes, times are complicated these days.

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