Pope Francis and the Doctrinal Ideologues

There is a reason the Creed is recited every Sunday. And to defend and hold to doctrine is not only not ideological, it is part and parcel of being a Christian.

Pope Francis leads the "Regina Coeli" prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 21. (CNS photo/Massimo Percossi, EPA)

This past Friday, Pope Francis gave a homily, the central point being (as summarized by Vatican Radio) that True doctrine unites; ideology divides. So far, so good. But the homily, which was based on the Holy Father’s reflections on the day’s readings and on the Council of Jerusalem, which convened in 49 A.D. to address the serious tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians, contains some curious and pointed remarks quite evidently aimed at the current situation. From the Vatican Radio summary:

The reading describes two different kinds of people: those who had forceful discussions but with a good spirit, on the one hand; and those who sowed confusion:

The group of the apostles who want to discuss the problem, and the others who go and create problems. They divide, they divide the Church, they say that what the Apostles preached is not what Jesus said, that it is not the truth.

The apostles discussed the situation among themselves, and in the end came to an agreement:

But it is not a political agreement; it is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that leads them to say: no things, no necessities. Only those who say: dont eat meat at the time, meat sacrificed to idols, because that was communion with the idols; abstain from blood, from animals that were strangled, and from illegitimate unions.

The Pope pointed to the liberty of the Spirit that leads to agreement: so, he said, the gentiles were allowed to enter the Church without having to undergo circumcision. It was at the heart of the first Council of the Church: the Holy Spirit and they, the Pope with the Bishops, all together, gathered together in order to clarify the doctrine; and later, through the centuries as at Ephesus or at Vatican II because it is a duty of the Church to clarify the doctrine, so that what Jesus said in the Gospels, what is the Spirit of the Gospels, would be understood well:

But there were always people who without any commission go out to disturb the Christian community with speeches that upset souls: Eh, no, someone who says that is a heretic, you cant say this, or that; this is the doctrine of the Church. And they are fanatics of things that are not clear, like those fanatics who go there sowing weeds in order to divide the Christian community. And this is the problem: when the doctrine of the Church, that which comes from the Gospel, that which the Holy Spirit inspires because Jesus said, He will teach us and remind you of all that I have taught [when] that doctrine becomes an ideology. And this is the great error of those people.

These individuals, the Pope explained, were not believers, they were ideologized, they had an ideology that closed the heart to the work of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles, on the other hand, certainly discussed things forcefully, but they were not ideologized: They had hearts open to what the Holy Spirit said. And after the discussion it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.

Pope Francis final exhortation was to not be afraid in the face of the opinions of the ideologues of doctrine. The Church, he concluded, has its proper Magisterium, the Magisterium of the Pope, of the Bishops, of the Councils, and we must go along the path that comes from the preaching of Jesus, and from the teaching and assistance of the Holy Spirit, which is always open, always free, because doctrine unites, the Councils unite the Christian community, while, on the other hand, ideology divides.

A few things come to mind. First, this reflects the theme, stated often by Francis and those close to him, that the recent Synods and Amoris Laetitia reveal a fresh and surprising move by the Holy Spirit that to quote Cardinal Walter Kasper doesnt change anything of church doctrine or of canon law – but it changes everything (emphasis added). That sort of statement, of course, is along the lines of saying that 2+2 can equal 5 in theology.

Cardinal Schonborn, in an October 2015 speech, directly compared the recent Synods to the Council of Jerusalem, saying that first-century gathering was the model for the method of Synod. And, as reported by Catholic Culture:

This first synod was marked by dramatic conflict: similarly, bishops need to speak clearly and boldly and listen to one another attentively at synods, Cardinal Schnborn said. Animated discussions should not be feared.

While theological debate is important, the conflict at the Council of Jerusalem was solved when Peter made a decision. The others accepted Peters decision in silent humility, and then some of the apostles spoke of the works of God that they had witnessed. The Church then received the decision of the council with joy.

The implication, it appears, is that 1) the Synods have the same clout as Councils, 2) the recent Synods solved some sort of conflict, and 3) once the pope makes a decision, there should be humble silence only. Period. (Even if it means mischaracterizing how the actual voting went down.)

Another example of the surprising Spirit can be found in Francis’ homily of April 28, 2016, summarized by ZENIT, in part:

This is the way of the Church when faced with novelties, the Pope said. Not the worldly novelties of fashion, but the novelties of the Spirit who always surprises us. How does the Church resolve these problems? Through meetings and discussions, listening and praying, before making a final decision. This is the way of the Church when the Spirit surprises us, Pope Francis said, recalling the resistance that emerged in recent times during the Second Vatican Council.

That resistance continues today in one way or another, he said, yet the Spirit moves ahead. And the way the Church expresses its communion is through synodality, by meeting, listening, debating, praying and deciding. The Spirit is always the protagonist and the Lord asks us not to be afraid when the Spirit calls us.

Secondly, returning to Francis’ recent homily, one has to ask: who are these fanatics who go there sowing weeds in order to divide the Christian community? Francis appears to be insinuating that those who question certain things he says are very likely heretics and fanatics who use doctrine to divide the Church. This is, unfortunately, his way of argumentation, which is really just rhetorical jabbing. By all appearances, he has no interest in clarifying what he has clouded.

Thirdly, how does doctrine become an ideology? The problem, in part, is that Francis’ use of the term ideology is something like a shotgun blast: it sounds powerful and gets attention, but the exact target can be hard to locate. But it is clear, in keeping with the first point, that Francis sees ideology as being closed to the Holy Spirit. However, can true doctrine be ideological? It’s an interesting question. On one hand, it’s true that claiming a doctrinal statement captures is the entirety of the mystery of Faith is incorrect, even dangerous; it is true that saying a particular school of theology perfectly and completely expresses the Faith has an ideological character; it is unsound and unwise.

But adherence to true doctrine, it seems to me, cannot be ideological simply by holding fast to true doctrine. (There is, after all, a reason the Creed is recited every Sunday, to give just one example.) On the contrary, to defend and hold to doctrine is not only not ideological, it is part and parcel of being a Christian. So, for instance, if someone claimed that holding to the Church’s teaching that God is One (in nature) and Triune (in Persons) needs to be open to other views, would it be ideological to hold fast to the Church’s basic doctrine? Of course not.

Fourth, there are some very basic problems with the comparison made between the Council of Jerusalem and the recent Synods and the Apostolic Exhortation. Here are just a few:

1) The Council of Jerusalem did not debate or change any teaching about the moral law. It was focused on the ceremonial law and rituals, especially regarding circumcision.

2) The key points of contention at the recent Synods involved core moral issues relating to sexuality (fornication, adultery, homosexuality), as well as the essential nature of the sacraments (especially matrimony and Holy Communion).

3) The matters of circumcision and eating foods sacrificed to idols had not been addressed by Christ during his time on earth.

4) The matters of marriage, divorce, and remarriage had been addressed by Christ during his time on earth (Matt 5:31-32).

And, as I pointed out a month ago, in making several points about the nature of the Magisterium and its relationship to the deposit of faith: Insinuating that the Church can change teachings simply because Pope A or Pope B decides he wishes to is problematic, to say the least; this is especially the case when the matter at hand has to do with the very nature of the sacraments, the proper role of conscience, and the life of grace (as I’ve discussed elsewhere).

In sum, put bluntly, I see such homilies and addresses as exercises in posturing and polemics and not very sound polemics at that. Put together (and I’ve only noted a few here), they add up to a collection of blustering statements meant to shut down any and all questions about Amoris Laetitia and related matters. What would be funny if all of this wasn’t so serious is just how heavy-handed, clumsy, and even bush league so much of this stuff has been (see, for instance, these ridiculous remarks by Cardinal Maradiaga, one of Francis’ closest advisors).

Which brings me to a post by Matthew Schmitz, one of the editors of First Things, titled Burying Benedict. Schmitz writes:

Though Benedict is still living, Francis is trying to bury him. Upon his election in 2013, Francis began to pursue an agenda that Joseph Ratzinger had opposed throughout his career. A stress on the pastoral over against the doctrinal, a promotion of diverse disciplinary and doctrinal approaches in local churches, the opening of communion to the divorced and remarriedall these proposals were weighed and rejected by Ratzinger more than ten years ago in a heated debate with Walter Kasper. For better or worse, Francis now seeks to reverse Ratzinger.

One of Schmitz’s key arguments, which I think is right on the mark, is that what we are seeing, in this pontificate, is a re-engagement of Cardinal Kasper’s longstanding conflict with Ratzinger/Benedict XVI over the nature of the Church and pastoral practice. That is also a point made by Tracey Rowland in her exceptional new book Catholic Theology(T&T Clark, 2017), and which she touches on (albeit in more general terms) in my recent interview with her:

CWR: What are the essential differences between the Communio and Concilium movements? And how has the debate, or clash, between the two shaped the current theological landscape?

Tracey Rowland: First of all they have a totally different understanding of Christs exhortation to his apostles to read the signs of the times. Embedded within this is a different understanding of revelation. As a caricature one could say that the Communio theologians look at contemporary cultural movements from the perspective of the magisterial teaching of the Church while the Concilium types look at the magisterial teaching of the Church from the perspective of contemporary cultural movements. The Communio types believe that when Christ told his disciples to read the signs of the times he was telling them that he, Christ, was the sign of the time. He was making an eschatological point. He was saying to his disciples understand that you are now living in the Christian era, understand that the Incarnation has happened, understand that God has assumed human nature. He was not saying it is important that you keep abreast of changing social currents and correlate the Christian faith to them.

Secondly, while the Communio and Concilium style theologians agree that Catholic theology represents a synthesis of faith and reason, they prefer different philosophical partners for theology. Karl Rahner predicted that given there are so many different philosophies currently in play Catholic scholars would be tempted by what he called a gnoseological concupiescence the desire to hook up Catholic theology to all manner of fashionable philosophies. A very significant difference between the Communio and Concilium scholars is thus found in their choice of philosophical partners. For example, the Communio types are not remotely attracted to cultural Marxism.

Thirdly, as you indicated above, the two groups have a different attitude towards the cultures of modernity and post-modernity. While not eschewing every single aspect of these cultures, the Communio theologians (like the Radical Orthodoxy theologians with whom they overlap on a number of fronts) are much more critical of these cultures than the Concilium style theologians.

Fourthly, the two groups have different attitudes toward magisterial authority and other issues in ecclesiology such as the nature of the Petrine office and the priestly ministry.

Schmitz, in concluding his essay, states:

Though he is usually portrayed as spontaneous and non-ideological, Francis has steadily advanced the agenda that Kasper outlined over a decade ago.

In the face of this challenge, Benedict has kept an almost perfect silence. There is hardly any need to add to the words in which he resoundingly rejected the program of Kasper and Francis. And yet the awkwardness remains. No pope in living memory has so directly opposed his predecessorwho, in this instance, happens to live just up the hill. This is why supporters of Franciss agenda become nervous whenever Benedict speaks, as he recently did in praise of Cardinal Sarah. Were the two men in genuine accord, partisans of Francis would not fear the learned, gentle German who walks the Vatican Gardens.

And so the two popes, active and emeritus, speaking and silent, remain at odds. In the end, it does not matter who comes last or speaks most; what matters is who thinks with the mind of a Church that has seen countless heresies come and go. When Benedicts enraptured words are compared to the platitudes of his successor, it is hard not to notice a difference: One pope echoes the apostles, and the other parrots Walter Kasper. Because this difference in speech reflects a difference in belief, a prediction can be made. Regardless of who dies first, Benedict will outlive Francis.

Ironically, while Francis talks about clarifying doctrine, there’s simply no doubt that Amoris Laetitia, despite all protests and posturings, has instead confused, disturbed, and confounded with its ambiguities and problematic assertions. Insistence that this is all about pastoral issues is misleading, at best, since doctrine and practice go hand in hand; you need not be a theologian to see the essential relationship between what you believe and how you live (it might even be that not being a theologian is helpful in this regard). This pontificate has been divisive in ways few could have imagined prior to 2013. In addition, while Francis likes to talk about the people, it’s fairly evident that he has little patience for those people who dare question his questionable statements and actions, no matter how carefully, formally, or respectually they do so. His impatience with theological precision and doctrinal clarity is unsettling. As I noted back in December 2015:

I can only conclude that, for whatever reason, this pope has a deep aversion to theological precision (and, thus, clarity) and is quite impatient with how doctrine and dogma impede his vision of how things should be in the Church. This is troubling on several counts … First, following the logic of Francis’ various remarks, the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (for starters) were pharisaical and unnecessarily complex, and thus stand opposed to his vision of mercy. Whether or not Francis cares about such a logical progression and conclusion is, of course, an entirely different matter.

And it’s not just about burying Benedict; it’s also about ignoring St. John Paul II. In the meantime, there is the name-calling, the scolding, and the vague appeals to the Holy Spirit.

About Carl E. Olson 1055 Articles

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to “Our Sunday Visitor” newspaper, “The Catholic Answer” magazine, “The Catholic Herald”, “National Catholic Register”, “Chronicles”, and other publications.

6 Comments

  1. By his own words – Pope Francis might pause and reflect that what he and his team are peddling is false doctrine. If it wasn’t so – he would not be questioned and held to account by people who obeyed and revered Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

    But alas – to promote Kasper-ism is a sign of being divided from Christian faith itself. As Kasper pronounced in his work “God in History” (1967): “The God who sits enthroned over the world and history as a changeless being is an offense to man.”

    No man can make a more arrogant statement than that. And Francis says Kasper’s theology is “theology on its knees”?

    That shows one of two things about Pope Francis: he is either a dupe of Kasper (not likely – because Pope F is not stupid or ignorant); or he knows that Kasper teaches has long been seen and critiqued as arrogant, and he is giving Kasper the facade of humility, while K exports his theology of arrogance worldwide.

    shouldn’t wonder why he is so

  2. “‘Jesus always responds to hypocrites and ideologists with reality: ‘this is the reality; everything else is either hypocrisy or ideology. The reality was that the coin carried the image of Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.’” ‘Warning all Christians who at times are hypocritical, Pope Francis stressed how problematic this sin is for the Church. “’The hypocrite is capable of destroying a community. While speaking gently, he ruinously judges a person. He is a killer,’” the Pope said” (June 6, 2017 Casa Santa Marta). All of us must face the truth regarding this Pontiff. The duality of doctrinal adminitions affirming the glory of martyrdom, the existence of Satan, devotion to the BVM is in opposition to his accusing the defenders of Christ’s words revealed in the Gospels, longstanding moral doctrine upheld by all the Pontiffs preceding him as sinners, and as “killers.” We must face the truth. What the Pontiff says is irreconcilable. Irreconcilable with the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI his immediate predecessors. Reason must conclude what the Pontiff says on one hand generally affirming aspects of Catholicism is a ruse to soften his harsh condemnation of those of us who affirm the Deposit of the Faith and Apostolic Tradition. With us stand the community of Saints who witnessed to the faith many with their blood. Who can possibly believe this Pontiff is inspired by the Holy Spirit? If it cannot be. Then the conclusion is clear.

  3. We are without a shepherd whose direction, whose voice, whose teaching is recognized by his sheep as being one of clarity, but alas, one of dangerous ambiguity. Whether is it planned or accidental, is debatable, and secondary to our immediate needs.
    For bringing clarity and understanding to such an aberration within God’s Church I find Pius VI’s Auctorem Fidei a tremendous comfort and guide.

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