Catholicism is a religion of the paradox, of distinctly opposite ideas that nevertheless are both affirmed in their totality. One and Three. God and Man. Virgin and Mother. Sacrifice and Meal. Another of these dualities is the relationship between doctrine—what the Church teaches—and how the Church puts these teachings into action in its pastoral practice.
This question was most recently taken up by the Church in the Second Vatican Council, which set out to present the truths of the Faith in a way that would make them more understandable to modern people. But the proper relationship between the teachings of the Church and her pastoral practice is still a point of contention. On one side of the debate are those in the “camp of doctrine.” The highest ideal of those in this camp is the presentation of Church doctrine as a set of abstract propositions to which others must assent. In the other camp are those who seem content to throw out or ignore any Church teaching, so long as such rejection seems to serve a higher pastoral purpose.
Rather than picking a side in this ongoing debate, Pope Francis transcends it and is providing the Church with a constructive way forward. A good example of his strategy can be found in his General Audience from Wednesday, February 2, 2022, which was dedicated to the subject of the Communion of Saints. Pope Francis stated that this is an important subject to discuss because it is something that Catholics affirm in the creeds, but often misunderstand; he humorously related a story of a child who thought that the doctrine merely meant that the saints receive communion. The Pope went on to re-center the doctrine of the Communion of Saints on the person of Christ, pointing out that the honor given to a particular saint or to the Virgin Mary is only because of their relationship to Christ. Even the miracles of the saints flow from this relationship, rather than from anything inherent to saints themselves.
Right after talking about the great saints who work signs and wonders through Christ, Pope Francis immediately raised a point relevant to the average person in the pew: this Communion of the Saints is the Church, and the Church is made up of all baptized believers—not merely of the perfect. How often do we look at the saints and think of them as almost another class of persons, distinct from ordinary individuals such as ourselves! How often in our recitation of the Creed do we say we believe in the Communion of Saints, and mistakenly exclude ourselves from that blessed communion! By emphasizing Christ, into whom we are all baptized, Pope Francis brings to the forefront the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness, clarifying that it is a universal call for all baptized members of the Church.
Those who feel that they are worthless or are failures should trust in their baptism; the Church teaches that baptism brings the individual into union with this beautiful Communion of Saints. Pope Francis dives further into this teaching, pushing it to its limits. Often, it can seem that our self-perceived exclusion from the Communion of Saints is justified. Sometimes we sin, and sometimes that sin is great. The full weight of it presses upon us, and we feel worthless. The pope knows this, and so he poses a rhetorical question: “Father, let us think about those who have denied the faith, who are apostates, who are the persecutors of the Church, who have denied their baptism: Are these also at home?” These maximal sinners—what is their relationship with the Church?
Pope Francis affirms the constant teaching of the Church: through the indelible mark of baptism, even these people remain, in some sense, within the Communion of Saints. Christ left his mark on these people in baptism, and that mark remains with them despite their sin (CCC 1272). Baptism represents an existential change in our very nature. What if a person denies their baptism? Truly it is nothing. The words of men cannot destroy the mark of God. This is a message of hope to sinners; we remain in relationship with others in the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints, even in our sin. Though sin may make us feel estranged from God, we are never alone; He walks with us.
Pope Francis’ teaching not only brings words of consolation to sinners; as he makes explicit during the audience, it also has an evangelistic dimension. Drawing on St. Paul, he explains that we are all one body through baptism. If even one member suffers, the whole body suffers, just as all rejoice when one is honored. The baptized are all in a relationship with one another by virtue of our relationship with Christ our head. Therefore, we are brothers and sisters. Since baptized believers are in such a communion, what is the proper response to a brother wandering, straying in his sin? Should he be cut off? No! We should instead go out to him, reach out to him, accompany him, and walk with him to healing.
Once again, in this audience, we see that the doctrine and the pastoral practice of the Church are not at odds, but are actually complementary. In his teaching, Pope Francis downplays neither the doctrines of the Church nor its pastoral practice. Rather, it is precisely through diving deep into the doctrines of the Church and their implications that the pastoral dimensions of the teachings become clear. Contemplation of doctrine leads to proper practice.
The Pope’s address caused no small amount of consternation among radical Catholic reactionaries, who pointed to alleged contradictions between the teachings of Pope Francis and that of his pontifical predecessors (which can easily be sorted out through a charitable reading).
But more important than the particular criticisms is the manner in which the reactionaries criticized the Pope. Taylor Marshall, who seems to be the impetus behind this latest attack, cited chapter and verse from previous catechisms, papal documents, and Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Concocting arguments by mashing together various quotations that have been ripped out of their proper context is a misuse of doctrine. Such misuse of Church teaching shows that Marshall and other reactionaries have a flawed understanding of doctrine. For them, it is merely a set of scattered metaphysical propositions to which believers must give their assent. In this view, doctrine is something that only exists in the head. In contrast, Pope Francis’ view of doctrine flows naturally from ideas into action. For the pope, doctrines are not merely intellectual, but should govern our conduct.
We can see an example of this natural flow from contemplation to action at the end of the pope’s audience. During the audience a disturbed man began interrupting the pope, yelling and screaming at him. Although he was removed from the audience hall, Pope Francis acted on what he had just been teaching. He recalled this man at the end of the audience, recognizing him as a “brother,” just as all Christians become brothers and sisters in baptism. And he also reaffirmed that all Christians suffer when one suffers. Recognizing that this man was suffering, he did not wash his hands of him and write him off, but instead offered a prayer for him. It is a gift of Divine Providence that the Pope had the opportunity to exemplify the true meaning of the Communion of Saints—helping a suffering brother—just after he had taught on this very subject! This is what Church doctrine is for: leading us to charitable, pastoral action.
Joseph Sherer was baptized in his teens and was led by the Holy Spirit to the Catholic Church not long after. He is an attorney based in Texas, and enjoys volunteering to teach at his local parish.