The problem with doctrinal obscurity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 28, 2017

The most important thing I read while on vacation this month was Phil Lawler’s June 23rd commentary, “A papal commission reconsidering Humanae Vitae? No, but...”. This is not because Phil proved anything, but because he raised exactly the right question: What is going on, under Pope Francis, with the Pontifical Academy for Life and the John Paul II Institute in Rome?

Earlier this year, before the changes in leadership of these two organizations, three professors at the JPII Institute, including the Vice President, wrote a book entitled Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating: A Handbook for the Pastoral Care of the Family according to Amoris Laetitia. Published this year by Emmaus Road, the book sits on my desk. I have not had time to do it justice, but the intent of these authors is very clear: To situate the reading of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation within the Tradition of the Church, and in accordance with the Church’s perennial moral logic.

In the Introduction, the authors ask as their very first question, “What are the criteria that allow a coherent reading of Amoris Laetitia?” They answer: First, the context of what was approved by the two Synods on the Family which prompted the document; second, the context provided within the document itself, rather than the introduction of a contemporary individualism foreign to the Church; and third, the context provided by the Tradition of the Church.

The last section of the chapter on “Accompanying” is entitled “A Path of Conversion in the Perspective of the Possible Reception of the Sacraments” (emphasis added). The last section of the chapter on “Integrating” is entitled “Integration: Building One’s House upon the Rock”. And the last section of the chapter on “Discerning”, which is entitled “Conclusion” and consists of the very last paragraph of the entire book, includes these words:

Discernment, therefore, does not consist in making exceptions to some general rules, but in finding ways to guide and accompany people along a path. Now, a path is a path only if there is a destination. Without an endpoint, people will not be travelling on a path; rather they will merely be wandering around. The object of discernment is therefore not the destination in itself, but the way by which to arrive at it” (p. 121).

There is no question about what these three authors are trying to do. They wish to express the truth of Christ, certainly. But in the contemporary context, they are trying to set the standard for a Catholic interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, much as Xavier Rynne (Francis Murphy, C.SS.R) and a great many other secularized Catholic theologians and journalists attempted to set the standard for an uncatholic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.

The pastoral consequences of doctrinal obscurity

It is by now obvious where Pope Francis fits into all of this, especially in light of his refusal even to grant an audience to those cardinals who have grave misgivings about certain aspects of the text of Amoris Laetitia (and doubtless other grave misgivings about the changes in focus and leadership the Pope has introduced into the JPII Institute and the Pontifical Academy for Life). No responsible critic will baldly assert that the Pope himself rejects any past Magisterial teaching, but in describing the Pope’s special focus, as he has expressed it repeatedly from the beginning, fewer still would object to the following summary: I am a son of the Church, but we do not need to emphasize moral issues. We must invite others to experience the love of Christ. Those who insist on doctrinal and moral clarity are at best sadly misguided in their rigidity. They reject or undermine the love of Christ by adhering to their own human systems of thought.

In this context, Phil Lawler is right to wonder—and wonder very seriously indeed—about the direction that is now being taken in Rome as a whole, and in the JPII Institute and the Pontifical Academy for Life in particular. The JPII Institute was created as a continuation of the legacy of Pope St. John Paul II, who was so capable of formulating authentic and complete expressions of Catholic truth which even those malformed by our contemporary culture can grasp, most notably his emphasis on the human person as a moral actor and his theology of the body. These two institutions together were designed, in effect, to creatively expose and address the lies about reality which dominate the secular West.

But, overall at least, Pope Francis has chosen a substantially different pastoral approach. Sadly, it is an approach which presents two enormous problems. The first is that it devalues one of the most important aspects of the Gospel, as reiterated again and again not only by Christ but by all the inspired authors of the New Testament. I mean the message that acceptance of Jesus Christ entails a heartfelt change in perspective, from the worldly to the Divine, which in turn demands a fundamental effort to dramatically alter our way of life, as befits those who wish to be Our Lord’s friends:

You are my friends if you do what I command you…. If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me…. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. [Jn 15:18-24]

These words presuppose tremendous preaching, tremendous service, tremendous love. But they allow no room at all for downplaying the manner of life which Our Lord so clearly requires us to live, nor for hiding the fact that we can be set free only through our acceptance of Him who is not only the Life but also the Truth and the Way. If we doubt this, it is time to reread the epistles, especially the most practical sections of St. Paul, St. Peter and St. James.

Those Catholics who, in the misguided name of pastoral care, prefer to downplay or even conceal hard truths end up attracting to the Church only those who are convinced that Christ accepts their moral outlook. Accordingly, these persons are also convinced that critical moral attitudes emanate only from those who control particular parts of the Church politically or who are fixated on past historically-conditioned teachings. This myth enables them to mistakenly value their own rectitude in their certainty that both time and eternity are on their side. They insist that the official teachings of the Church must eventually change—and when they do it will prove that all those who reject these teaching in our time are actually far ahead of the moral curve.

The perils of crying “Lord, Lord”

The result is not that the Church’s teachings ever do change, but that too many even in authority pretend that they certainly will, or that these teachings should not be permitted to make anyone uncomfortable, or even that present Church teaching ought not to cast doubt on what they see as their own superior grasp of moral reality. This entire “pastoral” approach is, in fact, the primary cause of the crisis of Faith since the mid-1960s—the conviction that the Church’s teaching authority is an anachronism and that everyone can choose to believe whatever the dominant culture mistakenly suggests is true. Morality is reduced to whatever honors the prevailing social consciousness. It is expressed not by the Holy Spirit but by the Spirit of the Age.

This enormous error, so often thoroughly rooted in pride and sensuality, is the primary cause of the rapid decline of the Church over the past sixty years and more. It is most dramatically revealed in the immense priest shortages in dioceses which have not stood against the secular tide; in the collapse of so much of Catholic religious life; and in the endemic intellectual infidelity which passes for Catholic higher education in most academic institutions today. Too many in positions of Catholic trust have salved the consciences of those who, deep down, reject Christ as their Lord and Savior. At the same time, they have marginalized, discouraged, and even driven away those who accept Him—those who are eager, despite their lapses into sin, to embrace His authority over how they are to live.

An approach to the Gospel based on these misconceptions may at times be animated by a misguided charity, such as a reluctance to unnecessarily alienate those who are not yet ready to live the Faith. I assume this is in the case with Pope Francis. But much of Pope St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate were written precisely to prevent such a mistake. Unfortunately, we have also seen this same “pastoral” approach used again and again as a cover for the moral refusals of theology professors, bishops, clergy and religious (and so many lay persons). What may begin sincerely ends in a kind of doublespeak which conceals moral corruption beneath a cloak of assumed righteousness. Whether done sincerely out of a misguided love or not, this is still the method used by those who refuse to recognize their own sins when they minister to those who share in them, even as they single out the virtues they lack for categorical condemnation.

Under such circumstances, the faithful have no choice but to expend a huge part of their time and energy in parsing very carefully what Churchmen say so as to distinguish it correctly from what Christ and the Church actually teach. This is always necessary to some extent for a mature Catholic spirituality, of course, but in our day it has hardened into a tragic way of life. I grant that it may serve as the perfect goad to holiness for some of us. But to many more it can only be a sentence of death.

Those who are sincerely confused may well be saved by their own ignorance in the end, an ignorance which stunts yet does not utterly destroy their life in Christ. But for those who know better, for those who actually have the care of souls and are not invincibly ignorant, the one truth that inspires my whole argument still applies: “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45f).

Or let me put this another way: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’,” asks Jesus Christ, “and not do what I tell you?”

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: Randal Mandock - Jul. 01, 2017 8:41 AM ET USA

    "...the faithful have no choice but to expend a huge part of their time and energy in parsing very carefully what Churchmen say so as to distinguish it correctly from what Christ and the Church actually teach." This is one of the primary reasons why I returned to the Mass of 1962: the battle in the U.S. particular Church against Christ's truth was as distracting from Him as it was taxing on the patience and the stamina. Besides, it's good to have a stronghold from which to continue the fight.

  • Posted by: susana8577 - Jun. 30, 2017 10:41 PM ET USA

    Favorite line: "What may begin sincerely ends in a kind of doublespeak which conceals moral corruption beneath a cloak of assumed righteousness."

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jun. 30, 2017 1:17 PM ET USA

    Quite correct, Dr. Mirus. The damage that the unleashing of these misconceptions, and the attempt to legitimize them, under the current pontificate can only do a catastrophic damage to the Church. A Church already deeply divided, and therefore seriously weakened in its ability to make disciples of all nations, by the use of the "Spirit of Vatican II" to promote these misconceptions when interpreting the Council. May God gives us the graces to remain faithful to the Gospel of Christ!

  • Posted by: bill.mureiko5646 - Jun. 29, 2017 12:37 PM ET USA

    Excellent and thoughtful article as always. It seems to me that a topic that will need to be covered fairly extensively in the coming years is how the faithful Catholic brings up children and grandchildren in this context. It's one thing for an adult to parse what the Churchmen have to say in light of the Church's authentic teaching; quite another for a 10 year old.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jun. 29, 2017 10:21 AM ET USA

    Pastoral care has taken on the task of salvation of ALL souls. Sadly this is not possible. When the Novus Ordo was revised there was much discussion over the phrase Pro Multis (for many) in the Eucharistic prayer. The same people that fought against that phrase are likely the same people who think they can guide all souls to heaven. God desires all souls to go to Heaven but the soul must attempt to follow God's will. Many will go to Heaven but not all.