There is a trend in Pope Francis criticism that makes a big deal about the fact that “anything [the pope says] can be made to sound orthodox”. I’ve seen Feser and now Dan Hitchens bringing it up as if it were a profound point.
In an article called “Pope Francis Forgets” Hitchens says:
practically any statement can be reconciled with Church teaching, if you try hard enough. Give me a minute, and I can probably explain why a papal remark such as “States must be secular” or (of some cohabiting couples) “they have the grace of a real marriage” can be given an orthodox interpretation. Indeed—to move from real examples into a thought experiment—“Jesus Christ is not the son of God” could be given an orthodox interpretation if you really want one. (It all depends on the meaning of “son”…)
Prior to Hitchens article, Ed Feser wrote:
it does not suffice to come up with some strained or unnatural interpretation that avoids strict heresy. That is a much lower standard than the Church herself has applied historically, and would rule out very little. To take an example I have used in the past, even the statement “God does not exist” could be given an orthodox interpretation if you strain hard enough. You could say: “What I mean when I say that is that God does not ‘exist’ in the sense of merely having or participating in existence, the way other things do. Rather, he just is Subsistent Being Itself and the source of the existence of other things.”
Yes, anything can be made to appear orthodox by taking it out of context, equivocating on the meaning of terms, interpretations that “stretch” the truth, etc. But has Pope Francis done that? Is Pope Francis misleading people on doctrine via the above tricks?
Pope Francis’ magisterium doesn’t offer the mere appearance of orthodoxy based on moving goal posts and equivocation. They aren’t superficial word games. They demonstrate continuity at a deep level of principle and organic continuity with tradition. The problem is really that there are contradictory ideas about what actually constitutes orthodoxy.
Francis’ critics keep criticizing him for being confusing. But there are at least two different sources of confusion. A person can be confused because another person really is confusing. But a person can also be confused because he or she just doesn’t understand. The source of confusion can be from within just as much as from without. Is it Pope Francis that is confused, or is it his critics that are confused?
If one’s understanding of orthodoxy or theology is too narrow then it will be massively confusing trying to force the square peg of reality into the round hole of one’s limited theological imagination. One must always ask the question: is the pope really unorthodox or is my understanding of orthodoxy too limited? What is more probable, that the pope is a heretic or that I’m not the world’s greatest theologian?
This takes us back to Feser’s post. Because his main point rests on the presumption that once or twice a pope has fallen into or nearly fallen into heresy. In one case the pope corrected himself, and in the other case the pope was admonished by subsequent popes. However, those are two instances out of hundreds where the heretic was not a pope (if that’s even possible) but a person or group that refused to follow the magisterium as the authentic interpreter of doctrinal development. Anyway, the example of two previous popes is moot because Pope Francis has not corrected himself, and the idea of future popes admonishing him is purely hypothetical. And this leads to a deeper problem with the assumptions behind all the complaining about the pope being confusing.
It’s that they comprise a kind of cult of clarity that doesn’t seem to have any basis in history or sound theology. They seem more inspired by a kind of rationalism that clings to past certainties in a way that makes impossible the actual development of doctrine because they want to judge the present magisterium (the only kind there is) by the past, which really amounts to their own interpretation of the past. Feser articulates the principle like this:
A theological statement – especially when made by a churchman to a mass audience – should be clearly orthodox on a natural reading, not merely arguably orthodox on some creative reading.
But why? If that were true then nothing new could ever be said. All any “churchman” could say is what has already been said before. There could be no room for novelty, no possibility to be surprised by new insights or new applications to new circumstances. This is a formula for keeping doctrine safe, clear and impotent.
Now compare Feser’s principle with this one from Pope Francis:
Tradition is like roots [of a tree], which give us nutrition to grow. You will not become like the roots. You will flower, grow, give fruit. And the seeds become roots for other people.
This more traditional metaphor for the organic development of doctrine would be impossible under Feser’s principle. For Feser, the tree must always resemble the roots, must look like the roots, must be judged by the roots. But that’s not how growth works. Fed by the roots, the tree blooms in unexpected directions sprouting flowers and fruit. And then becoming new seeds that will become roots for others.
The roots are absolutely necessary for organic growth but the tree cannot be judged by its resemblance to the roots. We must allow the tree to grow and bloom as it will.
Pope Francis’ principle seems much closer to the gospel. After all, Jesus said we should judge a tree by its fruits, not by its roots.
This cult of clarity that is the basis of so many criticisms of Pope Francis and his supposed “ambiguity” ignores or forgets the actual cost of that doctrinal clarity, where it actually exists. Joseph Ratzinger once wrote that “every one of the big basic concepts in the doctrine of the Trinity was condemned at one time or another.”
The clarity and stability that we now enjoy with doctrines like the Incarnation or the Trinity came at a price. It was paid for in blood and sweat and fighting and confusion and uncertainty and ambiguity for decades or even centuries. As a result, these are some of the most stable and secure doctrines we have. They don’t appear to develop much anymore because there was already so much development in the early centuries of the church.
But in other areas of doctrine and theology, the great turmoil is still to come or is happening now. One can’t expect that kind of clarity and stability for every magisterial pronouncement without paying the same price. The devotees of the Cartesian Magisterium, though, want their “clear and distinct” ideas for free.
Uncertainty and ambiguity are surely part of the growing pains of the living Church. By ignoring or denying this, the reactionary critics of Pope Francis have shown that theirs is an allergic reaction to the Church being an actual living body.
Husband, father of six, idea-tinkerer, graduate school drop-out, amateur dabbler in philosophy and piano. Previously lived amongst Canadian Christmas trees, now lives surrounded by cacti and coyotes. Brian is a co-conspirator of Where Peter Is.