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.”
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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. 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 and coaching soccer.