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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