To understand Pope Francis, you have to understand the Jesuits

Rome, Italy, Jun 25, 2017 / 04:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Discernment is one of the words Pope Francis repeats most, especially when speaking to priests and seminarians.

He often expresses his desire for greater formation in discernment – a concept that may seem obscure without an understanding its importance to the Pope’s Jesuit formation.

“When a Jesuit says ‘discernment,’ they’re employing a term that has a very rich spiritual tradition within the Society of Jesus, so you can presume a lot in that,” Fr. Brian Reedy, SJ, told CNA in an interview.

Fr. Reedy is a US Navy Reserve chaplain and is pursuing a doctorate in philosophical theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University. He holds a licentiate in theology from Boston College.

He explained that discernment is something St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, emphasized profoundly in his Spiritual Exercises, which form the “backbone” of Jesuit spirituality.

In fact, St. Ignatius twice in the spiritual exercises has an extended discourse on how to carry out discernment properly: what it means, what its limitations are, and the rules that govern it.

“One of the things that’s very interesting about discernment is that while it does have a very polyvalent meaning, you can usually presume that when a Jesuit uses the term, when they launch it, it has these rules at least playing the background in their mind,” Reedy said.

So when it comes to Jesuits and discernment, what are the governing rules, and how can we use them to understand Pope Francis?

Rules of Ignatian discernment

One of the first things to keep in mind when it comes to discernment is St. Ignatius’ distinction between  categories of people, Fr. Reedy said, explaining there are different rules for people take the faith seriously, and those who do not.

“If you are somebody who is living a life where God is not really on the scene and the teachings of the Church aren’t really important you have one set of rules. But the reverse situation for somebody who does take their faith life very seriously and God is at least sought after … then we have a completely different set of rules,” he said.

Another distinction, he said, is between proper and improper objects of discernment, meaning that “some things you can discern and other things you can’t.”

When it comes to the current discussion on marriage, Fr. Reedy noted that in his spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius himself speaks specifically about discerning marriage after you have contracted marriage “as an example of one of the things you can’t legitimately discern.”

This, he said, is because “after you are married, you can no longer legitimately discern being married or not, because you’ve made the decision; it’s not a proper object.”

What can be discerned, by a tribunal, is whether or not the marriage is valid.

“That’s a different question than discerning whether you want to be in a marriage still,” Fr. Reedy said. “For Ignatius that question doesn’t make any sense; in fact, it’s offensive to the process that you would discern changing a state of life that you have already committed yourself to.”

The same thing goes for priesthood and the religious life, he said, explaining that St. Ignatius uses that example because “once you’ve made that commitment, what you discern is how to live the commitment.”

“That’s what you would actually be discerning, because discernment is, fundamentally in Jesuit spirituality, the application of doctrine and teaching to the practical applications in somebody’s life. So it’s making practical that which is theoretical.”

There are then certain “guiding rules” that help in the carrying out of proper discernment.

One of St. Ignatius’ rules Fr. Reedy cited is that sin can never be discerned, using the example of committing murder.

“You can’t discern to murder,” he said. “In fact, it’s offensive to the process that you are pretending to discern choosing an absolute evil.”

What can be legitimately discerned is whether or not to kill, because “if you and your family were under immediate threat from somebody, then the father could in the moment discern whether it was possible for him to take lethal action. That’s permitted.”

In terms of Catholic moral theology, Fr. Reedy said it exists between the camp of what is “permitted” and what is “transformative,” and that beyond the permitted sign lies what is “forbidden.”

Things that are forbidden cannot be discerned, and “you only ask to be free from them,” he said. From there, the spectrum goes from what is simply permissible on one side, all the way to what is deeply transformative and engages the world like Christ on the other.

“In that realm, between what is permitted to what is transformative, there’s a lot of discernment of legitimate possibilities of things that are not against reason or against God or the Church,” he said, adding that one can never really discern between good and evil, but “only between relative goods.”

One key rule of discernment that is often forgotten is the guiding principle of “thinking with the Church,” Fr. Reedy said. This means that “whatever you discern, you’re not only thinking about the moral law and how that functions, but also specifically thinking with the Church.”

Francis is a man ‘steeped’ in Jesuit tradition

Pope Francis “is completely steeped in Jesuit tradition and is a man completely of the exercises,” Fr. Reedy said, explaining that one of the first things he tells people when he speaks about the Pope is that “you can hear the spiritual exercises active in what he says.”

In listening to Pope Francis “you can hear a Jesuit who has contemplated the life of Jesus,” the priest said, noting that Francis’ pedagogical or didactic style “is very much patterned on Jesus’, who often gave very oblique and obscure answers to questions.”

Christ did this, he said, “to specifically avoid a kind of legalism that just wants a solid answer that can then be manipulated in some way,” whereas true discernment means “you’re not interested in rules for the sake of rules, (or) tools that can be manipulated or used as weapons; what you’re interested in is finding the best, the truest, the most holy, the most transformative.”

In essence, “you’re always looking for what is the spirit of the law: why does the law exist, what it is, what is it trying to do?”

What can be done is to “have people trained in what the rules are, why they exist, and how to help these people engage that system in a way that can contribute toward their holiness, to their growth in conforming to Christ.”

Fr. Reedy said that for him, one problem he sees in the Church right now is that some people, in their interpretation of the Pope’s actions, are “trying to put on the table, calling under the umbrella of discernment, the actual consideration of sins, of evils.”

“I’ve never gotten the sense that that is what Francis is saying,” he reflected, explaining that in his view, given Francis’ background, what he is is trying to do is to “train people in this: in the proper camp of moral reasoning, which extends from permitted all the way to transformative, how to help people function there in a way that can be messy, but also prevent them from crossing the line into what is forbidden.”

But what about Francis’ ambiguity? Is that a Jesuit thing?

Part of the confusion surrounding Pope Francis’ sayings and writings is that his language can frequently be ambiguous and imprecise, leaving people scratching their heads trying to figure out what he actually meant.

But for Fr. Reedy, this isn’t a Jesuit quality so much as it is a personal limitation of the Vicar of Christ.

“Francis is a complicated character. He’s not a precise theologian, so I think some of the ambiguity and imprecision just comes from his own training and background, which the Church just has to be patient with,” he said.

Secondly, the priest said that if we reflect on scripture, we see that the Pope uses a style that is very similar to what Christ himself often used, especially when he senses a “Pharisaical attitude.”

“When he senses that somebody’s asking a question in order to pin something down in a way he fears is going to hurt somebody else” Francis gets obscure, he said, explaining that the Pope is “very sensitive” to having doctrine “turned into a weapon of sorts.”

And so was Christ, he said, noting that “Jesus had very harsh words for those people.” Even though the Pharisees were technically faithful, upstanding Jews, “they also had a problem in the way that the viewed law; they saw the law first and the needs of the people second, and Jesus challenged that and so is Pope Francis.”

“I think people should stop pretending that Jesus was crystal-clear when he said things all the time,” Fr. Reedy said, noted that Christ “specifically said at times that he was intentionally being confusing. He would say that he was using parables so those other people over there wouldn’t understand – he would say that.”

However, even though Christ could at times speak cryptically, he was clear when pressed on important topics, such as the Eucharist and the meaning behind his words “this is my body,” and that to enter eternal life his disciples must “eat my flesh and drink my blood.”

So when it comes to Pope Francis, Fr. Reedy said people have to take into account “the Jesus-like way he teaches,” which he said is often at play in the Pope’s speeches.

But there is also an element of manipulation when it comes to the Pope’s ambiguity which must be addressed.

“I think (the Pope’s) ambiguity is being manipulated,” Fr. Reedy said, explaining that in these cases, “I think we need to continue to push for greater clarity.”

This doesn’t mean we’ll get the clarity immediately, he said, but when it comes to particularly problematic issues “we need clarity. We need a line to be drawn saying we’re not talking about Catholic divorce.”

This isn’t referring to somebody “who was in a valid marriage just rupturing that marriage, pretending it’s dissolvable against the explicit words of Jesus, and just starting a new one and saying that’s okay.”

“We’re not talking about that … I don’t think we are, I don’t think the Pope is,” he said, because if we look to the rules of discernment of St. Ignatius of Loyola, “I don’t think we can legitimately discern that.”

“So I’m confident that that’s not what the Pope is saying and I think that we should continue to ask for clarity, but not rush to clarity so that we can feel good about ourselves.”

What is needed, he said, is “to defend the truth so that we can become good.”

14 Comments

  1. When the pope’s most famous catch phrase is the theme of gay pride parades around the world, worn on shirts and carried in banners as they celebrate their right to live in sin, – you’ve got an ambiguity problem… to say the least!

  2. Discernment, the meaning of the action itself reaches far into human history. Biblical wisdom indicates discernment as an inherent capacity in man to identify moral truth. Insofar as a transformative discernment within the Church up to the forbidden line of sin it is seemingly apparent in Pope Francis. What is actually apparent is error. For example in AL Ch 8 304. “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: ‘Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects'”. The error in quoting ST 1a2ae 94, 4 is that Aquinas is referring to the practical exercise of justice which requires deliberation of the conditions of an act. The principle Justice on a speculative level, a universal principle does not change. Comparing the sacrament of marriage understood as an indissoluble principle to application in acts is mistaken. If marriage is ratified meeting the sacramental requirements there are no peripheral after the fact acts that can nullify it. Evidence alone tangible and substantiated proving a sacrament was not realized can be offered for declaration of nullity. A priest cannot discern such evidence if it doesn’t exist. The Pontiff is providing a premise that the more we examine details of a marriage the more frequently we encounter defects, now understood by him as exceptions is a false conclusion leading to speculation that we will inevitably find exceptions to the rule, the indissolubility of marriage. The Pontiff is in effect dismantling the principle itself. What Pope Francis has succeeded in instituting is an increasingly universal admonition to all clergy to attempt a discernment that is beyond their capacity. The priest can only at best rely on his value judgment of the D&R’s conscience. The inevitable outcome will be precisely what has occurred in those National Bishops Conferences that have implemented permission for this value judgment, some Conferences now simply leaving the decision to the conscience of the person. Transformative discernment is valid insofar as it sanctifies the person within the Body of Christ. We can only determine whether our discernment is true or false precisely within the Commandments given by Christ. To “reduce” Christ’s words to transitory rules is a clear repudiation of the permanence of God’s holiness, his goodness revealed to us for all eternity. The specious argument that “we don’t know what he really meant,” using the example that he spoke in parables to prevent many from knowledge of the meaning is falsehood added to falsehood. Any of us can understand those parables if we are spiritually inclined. Those who reject truth remain blind. The parable in this manner elicited holiness from those so disposed keeping others confounded. Pope Francis is really applying a principle borrowed from Peron, That reality is more important than ideas. It become for the Pontiff reality is more important than rules. In this instance transforming the Commandments of Christ into trivia. Transformative discernment understood by the author as well as the Pontiff is effectively a repudiation of the Gospels and consequently of Jesus Christ.

  3. When you allow people who are living in a state of sin to believe that they can receive communion worthily and without committing a sin that is not ambiguity – that’s just spreading error.

  4. This pope is steeped in 1970s liberation theology Jesuit-speak.
    Jesuit-speak is purposefully never clear. It is confusion masked as deep thought.
    It is meant for the reader / listener to come away feeling like the village idiot because he must do mental and theological gymnastics to figure out the smallest point.
    This is the way I was taught at Boston College in the 1970s. It’s nothing new.
    It was BS then and it is BS now. Fr Reedy knows this quite well.

  5. He is the quintessential Vatican II pope. That’s all you need to understand him. This is the Vatican II church. Do this, but don’t do it. Don’t do this, unless you want to. This is true, except that it isn’t and who knows anyway, Pastoral concerns. rainbows unicorns and lollipops.

    St. Ignatius probably wouldn’t like to be blamed for all this nonsense.

  6. I have met too many priests who deny the existence of the devil, never is there a greater proof of the devil’s existence then a priest who denies this, most of these priests have been Jesuits. Ironic, but keeping in thinking with intelligence and temptations thereof, with demonic influence, no not really…
    Pope Francis seems to think that not clearly defining what is and what is not, will help people by not causing pain. But when a child is told not to touch a hot stove as not to be burnt, the parent is acting out of love for the child. Not to clearly defining things as they are, is an intellectual temptation not seen in ordinary folk such as,, carpenters and fishermen. It’s definitely Jesuit-esc and the father of lies is behind this confusion. The devil likes to fish in confusion laden waters.

    • Let your speech be yes yes and no no, anything else is from the evil one!

      Not only are we not clearing up what is muddy, we are muddying up what is clear.

      I can’t fathom the deep levels of well deserved disdain that future generation will heal on this age.

    • Actually one thing that Pope Francis has said very clearly and repeatedly is that the devil is real and very active especially in the so-called “transgender” ideological movement.

  7. I live near Gonzaga Catholic University, Spokane, WA. In getting to know some of the students I’ve discovered indifferentism is a major heresy they now practice.

  8. Fasting used to be considered essential as a way of disciplining the desires of the flesh. It can,indeed, in these days, be used as a means of exacerbating them. Nevertheless, some scripturally-inspired leanness in clerics, might help develop a deeper spirituality – and be recognised as such. Silence, or studied brevity, rather an endless series of learned theses, also can arrest attention.

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