Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this May 11 file photo.
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)
I have argued elsewhere that Catholic individuals and families should not suppose that their lives as Catholics are all that dependent upon what the Pope says in his homilies, speeches, instructions, exhortations, let alone his extemporaneous interviews. While it's true that the Pope is the universal Pastor of all Catholics, most don't spend their time reading his encyclicals or tuning in to his homilies. I don't consider this unnatural, and I don't think that the day-to-day faith life of Catholics need to be tethered to everything the Pope says. I personally find reading the lives of saints or reading Holy Scripture considerably more engaging and edifying.
Having said that, I disagree with those who would suggest that everything the Pope says or writes should be considered sacrosanct and off limits to critical discussion. Just as a stalwart and faithful bishop by his example can empower his priests to make a clear and articulate defense of the whole Faith, so a stalwart and and faithful Pope can strengthen the spines of his bishops to do so too. ... And vice versa.
Just as the priest is the figurehead of a parish, and the bishop of a diocese, so the Pope is the spokesman for the entire Church. What he says is therefore important, even if the spiritual lives of the faithful are not directly centered on the words of their Pope. Why is it important what the Pope says? Because he speaks for Christ, for the whole Church, and for all Catholics. He speaks for you and me.
These thoughts were in my mind as I read a recent article by James V. Schall, S.J., "The Washington Post 'explains' Pope Francis to us" (CWR, July 5, 2016):
On July 2, 2016, the Washington Post carried an interesting Editorial entitled, “The Pope’s Welcome Surprises”. The Editorial is short and can be read in a few minutes, and what follows presupposes acquaintance with the Post Editorial itself. That this Editorial is written is not a particularly great “surprise”. It reveals, in my opinion, just how responsible non-Catholic observers understand what the Holy Father has been saying and doing. Whether they have him exactly right can and should be debated.[Hat tip to JM]
What follows here is one man’s “reading” or “re-reading” of what is said and implied in this Post Editorial. This “re-reading” and “re-writing” is not a parody or a critique of what the Post wrote or what the Holy Father may hold. It is putting in my own words what can fairly be taken to be what at least some of the public hear the Pope saying. Others may see it differently, but I think what follows comes close to what is implied in the Editorial:“The Pope Surprises the World”Again, this is how one man reads the minds that composed the Post’s Editorial. I take it to be a fair interpretation. [emphasis added -- PP] As such Editorials on the intentions of Pope Francis multiply in the world press, it seems to be up to the Holy Father to clarify himself for the benefit of everyone. Because of the high profile of this Post Editorial, I do not think ‘the Vatican’ bureaucracy can any longer perform this clarifying task. In this sense, the Editorial is welcome as a basis of deep reflection about the nature of the Church.
Under Pope Francis, the Catholic Church now, in principle, accepts the liberal/humanist concepts of modern morality and justice. This view emphasizes state authority (positive law), unlimited moral freedom, theoretic relativism, and universal tolerance.
Francis has not yet formally managed infallibly to install these principles--such as the feasible goodness of divorce, the gay life, abortion, and the denial of any dogmatism or rigidity. He is a severe critic of inequality in all forms, a champion of the downtrodden. He approves ecology’s concern with earth’s dwindling resources. He is systematically working his way through these issues and will, no doubt, soon define these concepts in formal ecclesial terms.
This ‘Francis’ revolution in the Catholic Church is unexpected but welcome. It is long overdue. The old order of doctrine, tradition, and unchangeable moral principles can gradually be set aside. This new freedom and scientific understanding of the Catholic Church are what we now witness in the memorable words of this Argentine pope. They come from the last place from whence we might expect the long-awaited modernization of this venerable but stubborn institution.