Francis, the Pope of “Humanae Vitae”

It is the encyclical he has taken as a model, in spite of its being the most contested of the past century. Bergoglio is raising great expectations for change in the domain of marriage. But he too, like Paul VI, could decide in the end “against the majority”

by Sandro Magister

ROME, May 1, 2014 – Four popes all at once before the eyes of the world make a unique show. This is what went on stage on Sunday, April 27. Two of them in heaven, the Italian Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli and the Pole Karol Wojtyla. And two on earth, the German Joseph Ratzinger and the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio. So near, so different. The pastor, the warrior, the theologian. . . And the last? An enigma. More than a year after his election, he is still entirely to be deciphered.

Pope Francis certainly speaks a new language. In the morning homilies at Santa Marta, in the interviews, when he addresses the crowd, he drastically simplifies his language. In him the spoken has primacy over the written, even at the cost of being misunderstood. It is enough for him that everyone understands that conscience has an inviolable autonomy, that the Church does not want to interfere in people’s spiritual lives or condemn homosexuals, that proselytism is “foolishness.”

Many observant Catholics feel uneasy about these hatchet-chopped assertions of his. But it is thanks to these that his success on the outside is guaranteed. “Extra ecclesiam” Francis is the most popular pope in history.

And yet Bergoglio is anything other than tender with what he calls the dominant “uniform thought,” atheist and “libertine,” the “new opium of the people.” His vision of the world is apocalyptic, of a cosmic battle with the devil as the great adversary. He speaks of it often, especially in his morning homilies. He is not silent about his aversion to the advent of new self-proclaimed families without “the masculinity and femininity of a father and a mother.” He is inflexible in calling abortion an “abominable crime.”

But he is very careful never to allow his denunciations to coincide with laws, acts of government, judicial rulings, current events, opinion campaigns that in many countries attest on a daily basis to the advance of precisely the “uniform thought” that he detests. And this is enough for him to be kindly allowed to say everything, as long as it remains in the abstract.

Pope Francis is highly concrete, however, with other categories of reality, generators not of polemics but of consensus.

He went to the island of Lampedusa, a landing place for emigrants, refugees, and castaways from all over Africa, to shout: “Shame!” He will soon go to Cassano all’Ionio, to condemn the mafiosi who have a stronghold there. And then to Campobasso, the bishop of which is Giancarlo Maria Bregantini, whom he had write the texts of the Via Crucis of Good Friday at the Colosseum, full of compassion for the poor, the displaced, the unemployed. He telephoned the anti-clerical political leader Marco Pannella to express his support for the campaign for the just treatment of prisoners.

But where Francis has most revealed this style of his was in the basilica of Saint Peter on March 27, at the Mass he celebrated in front of more than five hundred Italian ministers, deputies, and senators. Not a smile, not a greeting. And a homily full of reproofs in which the key word was “corruption.” A word that in Bergoglio’s lexicon indicates the hardening of the sinner in his sin, whatever that may be, which blocks him from accepting the forgiveness of God. But which was understood by almost everyone, including the politicians present, in its contemporary meaning as the specific crime that goes under that name.

In a public opinion that not only in Italy but everywhere else is rather hostile toward politicians, this audacity of Francis duly increased his popularity. The targets against which he hurls his darts are the same against which so many, at least in words, obligatorily lash out. It is unthinkable that anyone would criticize the pope when he condemns the mafia or war.

The “who am I to judge” that has become the key to the narration of this pontificate certainly applies, as he has said, to the homosexual of good will who is in search of God, but on many other things and persons Francis judges and in spades, siding for or against and giving first and last names.

He did not hold back from aiming against Nunzio Scarano, the monsignor of the curia arrested for financial crimes but still awaiting sentencing, the stinging words: “He does not resemble the blessed Imelda.”

Nor is he silent when it comes to supporting the needs of workers, as he did on the Wednesday after Easter, when he came to the defense of the four thousand workers of the steel mill of Piombino at risk of closure.

It is with the masterful ability of an old-school Jesuit that Francis selects and arranges the times, places, and references for his statements. His activity is the same way. Everything can be found in it, even the most contrasting things, as at the IOR, where the rehabilitation of accounts entrusted to the pricey bulldogs of the multinational Promontory is paired with keeping the leaders of the previous opaque management on the board of supervision. But Francis’s ability consists precisely in turning this juxtaposition of sounds into alluring music kept always in suspension.

The adventure of the next synod of bishops, convened on the topic of the family, corresponds perfectly to this design.

On the question that has come to be the central object of the dispute, communion for the divorced and remarried, Francis continually alternates flexibility and firmness. When some of the leading bishops in Germany were sending out signals of a breaking of the ranks in favor of communion, the pope had another German, prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith Gerhard Ludwig Müller, give a stern order to halt in “L’Osservatore Romano.”

But then he brought forward, as the only speaker at the consistory called to discuss the question, yet another German, the cardinal and theologian Walter Kasper, who has fought for thirty years to relax the ban on communion. And he sided with him, warmly praising him even after other cardinals had risen up against him.

Bergoglio even applies this twofold register to himself.

He loves to reiterate his fidelity to perennial doctrine, in this case on the indissolubility of marriage: “The view of the Church is known, and I am a son of the Church.”

But then he seems to detach himself from it when he acts as physician of individual souls, in that devastated “field hospital” which the world is for him, so full of the wounded needing urgent care. As when he telephones a woman of Buenos Aires, married civilly after a divorce, who is distraught over the ban on receiving the Eucharist, to tell her to receive communion “with no worries” and to “go take it at another parish” if her pastor withholds it from her.

From the pope’s personal telephone conversations “no consequences should be drawn concerning the teaching of the Church,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has had to clarify. But this does not attenuate their impact on public opinion. The overall effect of Francis’s strategy is a driving crescendo of anticipations of change. Which will become even stronger when the synod of bishops meets in October with the task of gathering additional proposals. These will be examined a year later at a second session of the synod that will add it all up and offer ideas for solutions to the pope. Because it will be Francis, and he alone, who will have the last word and decide whether or not to approve communion for the divorced and remarried, the when and the how.

So the decision will come at the end of 2015 or at the beginning of the following year, not before, under the formidable pressure of a public opinion that at that point is likely to be almost exclusively expecting a yes.

There was similarly massive pressure for change in the 1960’s, when the pope had to decide on the legitimacy of contraceptives, with many theologians, bishops, and cardinals siding in favor. But in 1968 Paul VI decided against, with the encyclical “Humanae vitae.” An encyclical that underwent bitter contestation on the part of entire episcopates and disobedience from countless faithful. But that today Pope Francis – surprising here as in everything – has said he wants to take as his own frame of reference.

It is in fact worthwhile to reread with attention what Bergoglio said with regard to that encyclical in the March 5 interview with “Corriere della Sera”:

“Everything depends on how ‘Humanae Vitae’ is interpreted. Paul VI himself, in the end, urged confessors to be very merciful and pay attention to concrete situations. But his genius was prophetic, he had the courage to take a stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural restraint, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism. The question is not that of changing doctrine, but of digging deep and making sure that pastoral care takes into account situations and what it is possible for persons to do.”

The Francis enigma resides entirely in this formidable praise of “Humanae Vitae.” Because from this pope “taken from the ends of the earth” one can truly expect anything, even that on the question of communion for the divorced and remarried he may in the end make a decision “against the majority”: a decision reconfirming as intact the doctrine on indissoluble marriage, although tempered by the mercy of pastors of souls in the face of concrete situations.

When Bergoglio proclaimed John Paul II a saint on April 27, he knew very well what pope emeritus Benedict had said about his great predecessor a few weeks before:

“John Paul II did not ask for applause, nor did he ever look around in concern at how his decisions would be received. He acted on the basis of his faith and convictions, and he was also ready to take fire. The courage of the truth is one of the main criteria of holiness.”

As expert as he is in cultivating public opinion, Pope Francis is not the kind to be let himself become its prisoner.


This commentary was published in “L’Espresso” no. 18 of 2014, on newsstands as of May 1.


The highly contested encyclical of Paul VI of July 25, 1968, which Francis has indicated as his model:

> Humanae vitae


English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.


About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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