Is the Pope a Catholic or Just Latin American?

Very early this morning I listened to Ruth Alexander’s ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ on the BBC World Service (one of its ‘Inquiry’ programmes). I thought it was a fair-minded summary of something that is troubling many Catholics. As I’ve often been asked what I think about the matter, perhaps I could devote a few paragraphs to the subject today.

To simplify hugely, there is a footnote in Amoris Laetitia which many interpret as opening the reception of Holy Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. This interpretation is contrary to the Church’s traditional position on divorce and remarriage and the reception of the Sacraments thereafter (one cannot receive Holy Communion if one is in a state of mortal sin, eg. if one has rejected the Church’s teaching on marriage and contracted a second ‘marriage’ despite still being in a valid union— the subsequent relationship would be considered adulterous.) Catholic readers will be familiar with the Dubia or questions asking for clarification which four cardinals sent the pope, to which he has not replied, and the Letter of Filial Correction, signed by a group of theologians and priests and subsequently signed by various people online, to which he has also not responded.

I have followed closely the theological and canonical arguments put forward by representatives of both sides and what strikes me, overwhelmingly, is that there are two very distinct understandings of the Church and of the way in which the Church does theology. It isn’t a case of is the pope a Catholic so much as how is the pope a Catholic, what is his way of being Catholic and is it consistent with Catholic tradition?

To simplify hugely again, if one sees theology as essentially propositional, i.e. a series of truths to be proclaimed and assented to, one may have difficulty with the idea that theology can also be a process, sometimes messy, often anything but clear-cut, in which one engages. The difference between affirming a truth as absolute and then applying that truth to a particular situation is something most of us agonize about at times. We don’t doubt that what the Church teaches is true, but how do we ourselves apply it in the situation in which we find ourselves? Some will make heroic sacrifices; others won’t. Personally, I read that footnote in Amoris Laetitia with that thought in mind, seeing it as addressed primarily to pastors. It is a bit woolly, which we are not used to seeing in papal documents, but coming from a pope who wants his priests to ‘have the smell of the sheep’ about them, I suppose it is not surprising.

I don’t think Pope Francis has changed the teaching of the Catholic Church (he certainly doesn’t think he has), but I do think his way of doing theology (and as a result, his understanding of the Church and her mission) is very Latin American, the complete antithesis of the propositional model that we in the West have cultivated for centuries. His vision of the Church is less focused on Rome, less formally structured than we are accustomed to. I would go further and say that he seems less interested in sex and more interested in justice and mercy than we may be quite comfortable with; and when a pope breaks the mould, it is bound to be disconcerting. I wonder whether an important underlying question is, have we really grasped the catholicity of the Church and what it means to have an Argentinian as pope? The questions Pope Francis has addressed, the way in which he has responded to them, the very things that infuriate some of his critics, seem to me exactly what one would expect from a pope who has had to confront a political and economic complexity most of us have never experienced.

I cannot end without mentioning my unhappiness at the divisions that seem to have opened up in the Church, with various factions arguing for or against the pope, often arrogating to themselves a degree of infallibility regarding doctrine that is extraordinary. To me that isn’t Catholic, and when it is accompanied by vituperative and slanderous/libellous remarks, I know it does not proceed from a concern for truth. As a very ordinary Catholic, it is my duty to pray for the pope, to do my best to understand and uphold the teaching of the Church, and to follow in the footsteps of the Master as best I can. Ultimately, it is our fidelity to Christ and the love with which we have lived our lives that will count. In short, what matters is holiness; nothing less is asked of us; nothing less will do.

Note: I know many people will take issue with what I’ve said, especially as I’ve tried to write as briefly and non-technically as I can. Please could I ask you to keep your comments succinct and courteous?

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20 thoughts on “Is the Pope a Catholic or Just Latin American?”

  1. “he [Pope Francis] seems less interested in sex and more interested in justice and mercy than we may be quite comfortable with…” May we try to follow Pope Francis’ example.

  2. “I would go further and say that he seems less interested in sex and more interested in justice and mercy”.
    I agree and as a Protestant I think this is why Pope Francs is more appealing than some of his predecessors to non-Catholics and indeed to non-Christians,

  3. Thank you, I’m glad I’m not the only one dismayed by the apparent in-fighting and divisions among Catholics over this document. There seems to be an absence of love in the discussions and as St Paul might say, without love I am a noisy gong, or words to that effect!

  4. Excellent. Congratulations – especially for your courage in writing this.
    Based on my experience with Latin Americans, they have been brought up differently from us , or visa-versa, with a fundamentally different way of looking at things.
    Hooray for the Cardinals – and the Holy Spirit – who have given us an Argentinian Pope. None of us is too old to learn….

  5. I do not worship in the Roman Catholic Church but as a Christian, albeit a rather poor one, what happens elsewhere is of great interest.
    As an observer and from what little I understand you have made a perfect summation of the situation and indeed a generous and brave one.

  6. Very well put, sister.
    If all we do is follow rules then we can hardly say we’re following the Master. At the same time we need clear rulings that free us from relativism and self-delusion.
    I remember our university chaplain giving us advice the Sunday before Ash Wednesday: “According to the rules you can have a four ounce meal and an eight ounce meal and an unlimited meal. This is more than many students would eat anyway. My advice is that at some point during the day you should feel hungry, so you should adjust your normal food intake accordingly”. Interestingly this chaplain wasn’t a Jesuit, but a very Jesuitical approach nonetheless.

  7. Good morning Sister.

    All I can say is “I do not know what to think.” Certainly, Pope Francis is different than his predecessors but who are we to say he is wrong? There is only one Judge.
    I am one of those Catholics who is divorced and remarried and has, hopefully, gone about it properly in the eyes of the church. Only time will tell.
    I believe we should keep the Holy Father in our prayers. We have no concept of the pressure he is under.
    Thank you for being there for us.
    God speeed.

  8. Dear Digitalnun,

    Thank you for writing today. I hope to be able to learn more about Amoris Laetitia, Dubia, and the Letter of filial correction you refer to.

    As holiness is all that is asked of Christ’s followers I hope to know exactly what this means especially as I begin my 60th year.

    Thank you and all sisters, who post and pray on Facebook.

    Best Wishes,

    Dolores Devlin

  9. The word ‘pastoral’ gets short sharp shrift, and one can understand why, as it has, in a sense, been hijacked by the ‘sensus infidelium’ as a euphemism for a relativistic, free-for-all. So, in that case, maybe the word ‘personalist’ would be better?

    If so, what seems to be lacking in the debate, is a personalist approach, and that, dear sister, is exactly what you seem to be exemplifying…

  10. I believe that Pope Francis is a Catholic, but one who has got his hands dirty with, and understands, the sheep. One thing that most people understand that the Church has strong rules and people appreciate knowing where they stand. Unfortunately, some are not prepared to follow Pope Francis in showing some mercy to the sinners.

    When one is young, things are black or white, right or wrong, but as one ages you learn to discern the many shades of grey or indeed colours. Everyone who marries intends to marry until death do us part, but things can go wrong. A former girlfriend of mine was thrown downstairs when pregnant with her second child, and consequently left her abusive husband. In order to get a maintenance order made against him she had to get a divorce even though she was a Catholic. She was not the guilty party.

    My sister is engaged to be married for the first time but she is marrying a divorcee who has no faith and who divorced a long time ago after a nine year marriage. Officially, of course, there is no way that she can marry in church but she has broken no other’s marriage, and has not been married herself, so I wish there was some way around it with the help of a pastor who works with and understands us grey coloured and smelly sheep rather than insisting that we are perfectly white or black and sin free.

  11. An interesting question. Pope Francis is undoubtedly a Catholic and the Pontiff. He came out of the blue perhaps when he was elected, perhaps unexpectedly himself and to many, who had only just digested the, life and effect of Pope John Paul 2, himself an outsider as Pontiff, whose radical vision, seemed (to me anyway) of spreading God’s love to change over the fairly long service as the head of the Catholic Church.

    By this, I mean he seemed to move towards what might be described as a more Conservative model than his predecessor, and one that had to cope with many revelations in his later years of widespread abuse, which seemed to be being used to bring the Church into disrepute and to demonize all things Catholic.

    It must have horrified him that the Church was, despite all that it did to deal with the allegations, seemed to be rocked by new scandals, as time went on.

    Pope Francis seems to me to have a less ‘conservative’ way of expressing his ministry, and the evidence to me as an outsider is an expression of a change of culture, from secrecy to one of a more open and transparent ministry, which has forgiveness and mercy and pastoral care for all people, and for God’s creation than had been evident to me in Pope John Paul 2, or even Pope Paul or Pope Pious the 12th. Who was Pope when I was a child.

    I don’t believe that Pope Francis is any different than those Popes, in his holiness or in defending the doctrine of the Church, he just seems to express himself in a more humane and vulnerable way – his kindness and personal faith shines a light in the world, that is much needed. I pray for him, as I do for our own Anglican Arch Bishops Justin and John in England, along with other Christian and leaders of other faiths and none.

    These are my personal impressions and thoughts, I value Pope Francis’ example and ministry hugely. I am impressed with his personal humility and determination not to be cowed by criticism, but to do his best to lead the Catholic Church to reflect the teaching of Jesus Christ, centered on his Love and Compassion and care for all. It seems to me, to be grace filled, I am human, and can truly say, that Pope Francis is someone that I can identify with as a true Servant of Jesus Christ.

  12. Such an interesting read about an issue which I had only barely grasped. Thank you for your clear synopsis. Along with many, I’m sure, I share your unhappiness about the divisions which have opened so unpleasantly.
    You say that the Pope ‘seems less interested in sex and more interested in justice and mercy than we may be quite comfortable with’: yes! and thank heavens!!

  13. I, too, find it interesting that so many celibates seem to define faithfulness to Church teachings more in reference to rules about sex than other vital Christian teachings. More progressive Catholics perhaps have a different concept of “sensus fidelium,” one that includes those of us who struggle with the rules made by celibates for those who are not, especially as the role of women changes.

  14. Excellently thought out as always. Having been in pastoral situations I was often aware of times when sticking to the letter of the law as it were was entirely inappropriate and unChrist like. It was on that basis I understood the problematic paragraph. Perhaps only those not at the coal face of pastoral work can think differently. Hope that makes sense one of my darker periods and lucid thought can disappear

  15. Pope Francis has done more in his short period of office to spread the Lord’s message of peace and love for all than any other Pontiff in living memory. He has a feel for the needs, hopes and shortcomings of the common people. He has gained the respect of followers of many different beliefs. Although he continues to uphold Catholic principles on most issues, he does realise that rigidity cannot be sustained fully. As the Lord pursued forgiveness throughout his life and teaching, I cannot see what harm there is in allowing sinners to receive the Sacrament. What does it matter in the eyes of the Lord if one is divorced, remarried, gay or whatever as long as one loves the Lord with all your might and your neighbour as yourself. Love, peace, kindness, compassion and consideration for others are key to being a good Christian. But in the end, God forgives all.

  16. My parish chartered a bus to bring people to a protest against civil marriage for gay people. They have never chartered a bus to go and protest the fact that there are thousands of children in this city who live in poverty. In my church they prayed for flood victims in Texas and Florida but did not mention people in flooded parts of Asia. There have so far been no prayers for Rohingya Muslims. This is the Roman Catholicism Pope Francis is seeking to reform. His actions are remarkably like those of the man who pointed out the hypocrisy of the pharisees, ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, and threw the bankers out of the temple. Clearly God loves the church, He sent us Francis.

    • At the end of Mass every Sunday, my parish recites a prayer for the victims of religious persecution. (I personally use the time to recite the prayer of St. Francis.) It sounds like a wonderful idea, until you reach the last few lines and realize that we are only meant to be praying for Christians…

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