Pope Francis on secularism, terrorism and the synodal Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 14, 2016

In his interview on December 7th with the Belgian Catholic weekly, Tertio, Pope Francis touched on a number of important points. I promised in last Friday’s Insights message to discuss it this week. As usual, his answers were somewhat confused, but he did give us a great deal to think about. As it turns out, three questions were of particular interest to me.

Secularism and Laicism

Responding to a question about the modern effort to separate religion from public life, including education, Francis immediately noted that “this is an old-fashioned mindset” bequeathed to us by the so-called “Enlightenment” in the eighteenth century. He tended to distinguish “secularism” from “laicism”, yet the two words can actually be used interchangeably, so it is necessary to focus on the examples he gave rather than the terms used.

In the Pope’s opinion, “a secular State is a good thing; it is better than a confessional State, because confessional States finish badly.” One is tempted to ask whether there is any kind of State which does not finish badly. The deeper truth is that government works well only when three conditions are fulfilled: (1) Those who govern have a virtuous respect for the Natural Law; (2) Those who govern are competent; and (3) The obstacles to the common good are not so great as to render the efforts of government futile. The Catholic Church does not insist on a confessional State, but neither does she think that a confessional State is necessarily a bad thing.

But the Pope’s main point is both valid and important to the world today. Regardless of the type of government, when political theory and government policy refuse to recognize the transcendence of the human person—instead seeking to eliminate the influence of the human relationship with God—then the State does not respect the human person. In explaining this Francis used the term “asepsis”, which is the medical process of eliminating bacteria from a patient so that medical operations can be performed without risk of infection. By this he means to insist that transcendence is not a bacterial infection. “Therefore,” Francis said, “sending to the sacristy any act of transcendence is a form of ‘asepsis’, which has nothing to do with human nature, which cuts from human nature a good part of life.”

Religious War and Terrorism

The Pope was also asked, given his emphasis on interreligious relationships, what he had to say about the links between religion and terrorism or religion and war. Here the Pope continued down a theoretical trail he had already cleared, refusing to admit that terrorism and war can come from authentic religion. Since it is impossible for religion to proclaim “a god of destruction, a god of hatred”, it follows that “terrorism and war are not related to religion.” This is a restatement of the Pope’s strategy of recognizing the theoretical good in all religion while dismissing evil acts as “distortions of religion”.

As he has done in the past, Pope Francis emphasized that such distortions are the work of a minority of fundamentalists, and that “all religions have fundamentalist groups.” Unfortunately, the Pope’s position requires a kind of spiritual sleight of hand. When someone raises a hard question about an actual religion, the Pope replies with assertions about the theoretical essence of true religion. The Pope clearly wants to serve the interests of religious unity in taking this approach, but his responses deliberately ignore the real issue of concern.

In fact, the price of such diplomacy is very high, because it forces the Pope to maintain three fictions: First, that there are no false religions in the world which actually promote certain forms of evil; second, that Christianity is just like all other religions with respect to the potential for terrorism; and, third, that the principles of sound religion can never be used to justify war. These fictions make it considerably harder for those concerned about Islamic terrorism to take legitimate steps to protect themselves against it. They also obscure the unique position of Jesus Christ, who in fact founded a particular Church with a particular set of beliefs, all of which really do come from God, and so are actually true.

The Synodal Church

Finally, in response to a question about his idea of “the Synodal Church”, Francis offers insight into his vision of the Church in general, and the papal office in particular. In some ways his approach is a continuation of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which picked up where Vatican I left off because of war, and articulated in a masterful way the nature of the episcopal office. The Pope is clearly correct in implying that authentic Catholic renewal cannot develop along the lines of corporate branch management. Each bishop must become the living guarantor of the priestly, prophetic and kingly character of the Church in his own diocese. And all together must operate collegially cum Petro et sub Petro, to enliven the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ.

Alas, however, nearly all the words in the preceding paragraph are my own. This does seem to be what Francis is saying, but he has never expressed it so coherently. He rightly recognizes the synodal character of the Eastern churches as something to be more fully recovered in the West. He clearly hopes to see this synodal character within both each diocese and the universal Church, for he knows that Peter, and Peter alone, “is the guarantor of the unity of the Church.” Thus the Pope sees the Petrine office as one of accompaniment and listening to all the local churches. These favorite themes are somewhat vague, but in this case he expresses the necessary dynamic beautifully:

Therefore either there is a pyramidal Church, in which what Peter says is done, or there is a synodal Church, in which Peter is Peter but he accompanies the Church, he lets her grow, he listens to her, he learns from this reality and goes about harmonizing it, discerning what comes from the Church and restoring it to her. [Emphasis added; it is this phrase, easy to miss, which ensures the Catholicity of Francis’ ecclesial vision.]

It is true that Peter, in listening to all that goes on within the various communities which make up the Church, must perform the task of “discerning what [truly] comes from the Church and restoring it to her” whenever, in some measure, it has been misunderstood, distorted or lost. But as we know by now, Pope Francis is less interested than many popes have been in restoring to Catholics those aspects of the Church that have become muddled or lost through the onslaught of secular culture. Rather, he likes to stir things up, and he finds considerable satisfaction in what he calls “unity in diversity”—even when this diversity raises serious questions about principles of faith and morals.

Loose ends

Doctrinal and moral diversity, in the best sense, would consist in a variety of legitimate insights into Divine Revelation and the natural law, according to the genius of each time and place. But doctrinal and moral diversity also frequently boils down to the acceptance of error and sin, which is a different matter altogether.

At times, the Pope’s grasp of key principles appears to be in doubt, as when he asserts that the agreement of two-thirds of the fathers at the Synods on the Family somehow constitutes a “guarantee” of the principles expressed in Amoris Laetitia. This, of course, is not true, as the Church has learned on several occasions, most famously during its troubles with Arianism, which all but a few bishops either passively tolerated or eagerly embraced, and also during the crisis of Conciliarism in the fifteenth century, which resulted in the creation of anti-popes.

At other times, Francis appears to be disingenuous. After all, he was quite willing during the Synods on the Family to employ strategies calculated to push the bishops to approve what he wanted to hear. Moreover, after limiting the text of Amoris Laetitia to what was approved by two-thirds of the bishops, he has privately pressed bishops around the world to adopt principles and implement policies which were not stated in the apostolic exhortation and which, in fact, failed to receive approval by two-thirds of the participants in the synods.

Sometimes keen insights, on being articulated, can cause considerable confusion. It can take time for the intellectual dust to settle. But confusion far more frequently degrades or destroys insight. In yet another interview with Pope Francis, we find both insight and confusion. Still, we can learn something from taking the trouble to sort things out. Interviews are not acts of the Magisterium. They are often very interesting, but their value consists in our Christian ability to “test everything [and] hold fast what is good” (1 Thes 5:21).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: skall391825 - Dec. 20, 2016 3:22 PM ET USA

    This should be required reading in senior Catholic High School--fat chance, though.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 14, 2016 11:08 PM ET USA

    "Confusion far more frequently degrades or destroys insight...Still, we can learn something from taking the trouble to sort things out...Value consists in our Christian ability to 'test everything [and] hold fast what is good'" (1 Thes 5:21). I am reminded of my training for the diaconate in the mid-1980s. McBrien's "Catholicism" was one of the required textbooks. I knew a lot was wrong with the book, but at the time I was not equipped to sort it all out. Years later the deception became clear.