The So-Called “Francis Problem” Print E-mail
By Fr. Mark Pilon


Sunday, 05 October 2014

A number of my friends are more upset than I tend to be by what they call the “Francis problem.” That’s not to say that I don’t find some of the pope’s statements and actions troubling. The papacy is not the Church and the Church is not simply the papacy. The tendency in recent times is for conservative Catholics to make this identification, at least implicitly. This is one side effect of the pope becoming a superstar, treated almost like the Oracle of Delphi.

Cardinal Manning is reported to have said that he would like to read an infallible papal pronouncement each morning with his tea. When I studied in Rome with members of Opus Dei, some of them seemed to consider every word of John Paul II’s to be a solemn declaration of truth. During his papacy some of the more conservative bishops who greatly admired John Paul II, as I myself do, would basically make their homilies a series of quotations from recent papal statements, rather than citing the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church – for me, another negative side effect of a pope who always seems to be “on stage.” Pope Francis seems to be following that model.

My love for Cardinal Newman is a barrier to this incipient Papalatry. Newman did not come to the Church via admiration for the papacy, with which he struggled right up till he converted. Newman converted through his study of the Fathers and Sacred Scripture, just as Pope Ratzinger was more dependent on the Fathers and Doctors of the Church than even the great popes of the last century and a half.

Likewise, my faith does not depend upon the prudence or wisdom of the particular pope in the exercise of his office. I depend upon the Holy Father to defend the orthodoxy and, therefore, the unity of the Church, which is his most important function. That’s why the charism of infallibility applies only to his solemn doctrinal pronouncements. Of course, the pope is given special guidance by the Holy Spirit even when he speaking non-infallibly, but only when he is speaking out of the tradition of the teaching Church, which is particularly found in the Fathers and Doctors.

But there’s another reason that I can’t get too upset with the “Francis problem.” The “problem” is and has been much greater than any one man, even the one who happens to be the pope. It has to do with the proper relationship between law and grace, between the laws of the Church, which have to be consonant with the natural law and the nature of the Church and her sacraments, and the practice of pastoral charity.

A crisis seems to have arisen due to an abandonment of this proper relationship, where the law of the Church is now often seen to be in conflict with the law of charity, almost by it’s very nature. Because charity rules supreme, the resolution to this conflict has been to subordinate the rule of law to the rule of charity, as if the two are in conflict.

The pastoral solution makes law, which looks to the good of the whole – thus its concern with scandal – subordinate to pastoral concern with the plight of individuals, ignoring the problem of scandal.

All this began with the “pastoral solutions” to problems in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as Catholics massively practicing contraception, and divorced Catholics remarrying. The same problems are with us today, and, unfortunately, the same proposals for resolving them.

The “new” proposal regarding reception of Holy Communion by divorce/remarried Catholics by allowing them to follow their own conscience simply extends “the pastoral solution” applied to contraception. The hierarchy, generally, “solved” this problem either by silence, allowing social norms to displace the Church’s moral authority, or by suggesting that Catholics follow their own consciences.

Regarding divorce and remarriage, the solution in the 1960s was to recast annulment procedures to make it easier for divorced and remarried Catholics [note that they had to be divorced before seeking an annulment] to have their second union validated so they could lead a normal sacramental life.

The annulment procedures were liberalized, and the grounds for annulments were greatly expanded to include psychological factors. Today, the most common ground for annulment seems to be “lack of due discretion” regarding “the essential matters of marriage,” which is about as flexible as any tribunal wants to make it.

I wrote in the mid-70s regarding the dangers with this approach. Over time, it seemed likely to undermine the permanence of marriage. But there was no evidence then. There is now.

The annulment explosion did not divide people along liberal and conservative lines. As more and more people were granted annulments, I was sure it would become a way of life, and that young couples would soon marry with the implicit assumption that if it didn’t work out, they could always get an annulment – which has happened. Likewise other Catholics would come to see the whole annulment process as a farce and simply go out and remarry outside the Church. That too has happened. That’s why the new proposals are being made.

So today we have an American bishop who says:

Can we eliminate the necessity of having detailed personal interviews, hefty fees, testimony from witnesses, psychological exams, and automatic appeals to other tribunals?. . .In lieu of this formal court-like process, which some participants have found intimidating, can we rely more on the conscientious personal judgment of spouses about the history of their marriage (after all, they are the ministers and recipients of the sacrament!) and their worthiness to receive Holy Communion?

The Supreme Judge of the Tribunal in the Archdiocese of New York, made that same proposal forty years ago.

The problem in the Church is much, much broader than anything that may or may not emerge from the coming Synod. “Patience, obedience, prayer” sounds like a good approach.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary Seminary, a former contributing editor of Triumph magazine, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.

About abyssum

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