Previewing confusion? The Pope’s new book-length interview

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 08, 2017

On Thursday, the French edition of a new book-length interview with Pope Francis was published and available for sale on Amazon, if you have $49.95 to spend on a paperback. Catholic News Service (the news agency of the American bishops) announced and previewed the book on September 1st, highlighting some of the hot-button issues. Our own Catholic World News service picked up the story on the same day, emphasizing the Pope’s disclosure that he had received psychoanalytic counseling for anxiety nearly forty years ago. London’s Catholic Herald republished the CNS story two days later, making it more widely known worldwide.

To his credit, Pope Francis was fairly strong on sex-and-gender issues in the interviews. Referring to marriage, he stated “We cannot change it. This is the nature of things.” He emphasized that on the matter of marriage and gender, there is “critical confusion at the moment”. And he refused to accept the term “gay marriage”: “Let’s call this ‘civil unions’. We do not joke around with truth.” But when it came to clearly expressing certain other moral principles, the Pope’s remarks tended to ratify his tendency to obfuscate—to cloud rather than to clarify.

One of the most darkly humorous comments in the interview came when Francis noted that he still gets nervous, particularly when speaking to journalists on papal trips. To counter this nervousness, he said: “I begin with prayer, and then I try to be very precise.” But as everyone knows by now, precision is one thing this particular Pope rarely achieves. Moreover, it is certainly fair to say that it is precisely his unwillingness to be precise that constitutes the greatest weakness of his pontificate.

I use the word “unwillingness” because Pope Francis has been asked to clarify a number key remarks over the past few years but has steadfastly refused to do so, even to the point of applying the derogatory term “fundamentalist” to those who seek such clarity. In this latest interview, he states once again that the same fundamentalist mindset abhorred by Jesus is at the heart of “the battle I lead today with the exhortation” Amoris Laetitia.

Key examples

Unfortunately, the greatest confusion continues to swirl around Francis’ handling of divorce in the context of the Church’s sacramental discipline. In the interview, he repeatedly condemns a Pharisaical attitude of saying “no, no and no”, asserting that Our Lord followed “another logic” that went beyond prohibitions. But this emphasis proves, once again, to be extraordinarily misleading.

The first problem is that the Pope erects a straw man—namely, the consistently negative Churchman who never goes beyond prohibitions relating to forms of immorality that fall “below the belt”. It is all too easy to knock the straw man down, for the simple reason that he is a caricature which almost nobody recognizes in real life. Indeed, at least since 1960, whatever things might have been like in some other periods, the case has been quite the opposite. Yet Francis blames the straw man for clerical mediocrity, lazy adherence to “frozen norms”, and a failure to communicate the love of Christ.

The second problem is that the Pope persistently refuses to clarify his intentions, even to the point of condemning those with clearly legitimate questions. For example:

When I talk about families in difficulty, I say, “Welcome, accompany, discern, integrate…” and then everyone will see the doors open. In reality, what happens is you hear people say, “They cannot receive Communion. They cannot do this and that.”

Now of course everyone agrees that pastors and people alike must love those in unfortunate family situations and do their best to assist them in clarifying their situation, growing in grace and understanding, and moving at least by degrees toward living their baptismal promises in the fullness intended by Christ and His Church. I doubt that this point, in the whole history of the Church, has ever been at issue.

But the Church has consistently taught that those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment cannot receive Communion, for objectively they are living in a state of adultery, making a mockery of the Church’s sacramental life, and refusing to submit to the Church’s God-given jurisdiction over matrimony. This prohibition, moreover, is still part of Canon Law. Therefore, it is perfectly natural to ask whether the admission of such couples to Communion has suddenly ceased to be the scandal which the Church has heretofore consistently held it to be. Yet Pope Francis refuses to answer that question. Instead, he consistently condemns those who raise it as being precisely the kind of people whom Our Lord made it His Divine mission to oppose.

In addition, we continue to see confusion concerning at least two more key moral questions. Thus Pope Francis said that the Church needs to look into her theory of just war because “no war is just. The only just thing is peace.” But this entirely begs the question. The whole reason just war theory was developed, from the Patristic era on, was because war is so horrible and damaging that it was necessary for the Church to clarify for civil authorities the moral principles which must determine whether, as a practical matter, they are justified in engaging in warfare to put a stop to the enormous suffering and injustice perpetrated by an aggressor. On this the Pope is very far from even attempting to speak clearly. It is more charitable to accuse him of confusion rather than word games.

Selfishness

I will close with a consideration of Pope Francis’ statement that the biggest threat in the world is “money”. It is true that Our Lord said that we cannot serve two masters, God and mammon (which is the improper desire for worldly wealth, or covetousness) (Mt 6:24; Lk 16:13). When the interviewer asks why people do not listen to this message, which has been clearly condemned by the Church since the time of Christ, the Pope answers by saying that too many preachers do not want to preach about anything but sexual immorality.

Here the question is very pointedly ignored, for the interviewer stipulated that in fact the Church’s message has been clear and consistent on this matter down through history. But Pope Francis’ great insight assumes the exact opposite. It is all the fault of a constant (yet to the interviewer non-existent) preoccupation of bishops, priests and teachers with sex. Show of hands: Which has been more common in your Catholic experience of the past few generations, the denunciation from the pulpit of sexual sin or of institutionalized selfishness? Raise your fist if you have ever heard a sermon on the sin of contraception, which more than anything else underlies the destruction of the family in our time.

It is at least possible that what we encounter here is the unfortunate result of an ideological mindset, a mindset I discussed earlier this year (see In a nutshell: Liberalism and Modernism). I pointed out that those who tend toward modernism or liberalism, in the precise Catholic senses of those terms, have a very bad intellectual habit of relativizing what we rightly call intrinsic evils while absolutizing what we rightly call prudential judgments.

Nobody would deny how much harm material selfishness does in this world, nor the great suffering experienced by large numbers of people when they are deprived of an adequate living standard at least partially by their more powerful neighbors, nor how much spiritual damage we inflict on ourselves through material or monetary selfishness. But most of this (excepting the spiritual part) has become a self-serving modern mantra. It goes without saying that the Church must continue to condemn personal selfishness and insist upon constant growth in charity. The Catholic laity, through their expertise in various fields, ought also to transform endemic ways of doing things that are unfair or even punitive to others.

But the difficulty comes when we get down to cases. Each case of the use of wealth is in large part a prudential decision. It is easy to condemn selfishness but very hard, without resorting to ideology, to blame all problems on particular, selected manifestations of certain kinds of selfishness. Here the Church’s mission is to foster spiritual growth and commitment to the good, without ever slipping into the fashionable ideologies of the day, which almost by definition cleverly mask their own selfishness. They are, after all, embraced by many on the basis of whether they do or do not cast the blame upon some class of persons to which they themselves do not belong.

I do not accuse the Pope of being under an ideological spell. He breaks the mold often enough to escape so simple a diagnosis. He may well be right to emphasize, as he does later, that “the most minor sins are the sins of the flesh” whereas “the most dangerous sins are those of the mind [such as] hatred, envy, pride, vanity”. He is certainly right to insist that confessors should spend more time asking if a person prays, reads the Gospel, and seeks the Lord. Moreover, his constant emphasis on the use of the Sacrament of Confession is not only directly on target but profoundly inspiring. This alone is a great gift to the Church.

I must further stipulate that, strictly speaking, it is not theological evidence against the Pope’s position that Our Lady is reported to have said in her apparitions at Fatima that “more souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” But it is well worth considering the degree to which pride and vanity and rebellion against God are the reasons we refuse to accept the moral guidance of His Church, even on such apparently paltry matters as human sexuality.

We need to recognize how misleading it is to see the problems of our world purely in what we might call “macro socio-economic terms”—the kinds of things which governments in the modern world are so fond of taking into account, such as unemployment figures; and the kinds of things so many fundamentally irreligious people are constantly insisting that government should create “rules” or “programs” to correct. The weight of government on a fundamentally disordered culture will nearly always do more harm than good.

In our own case, it is precisely the destruction of the family, including all the infidelities which contribute to that destruction, that marks the great crisis of our time. It is at the micro level first and foremost that our culture is being torn apart, and this in turn impoverishes huge numbers of people from generation to generation, producing those macro statistics we are so fond of citing. Not only is sexual morality by its very nature very conveniently absolute (rather than relative or prudential) but it is also one of the great keys to strengthening the family—the care of which is not only the most fertile natural ground of both virtue and happiness but also, even in our time, the very best socio-economic safety net.

For this reason, and without accusing the Pope of any particular formal error, I will close on the plea that he might reassess his pastoral priorities, and make a point of bringing clarity and discipline to the most important things in life. It is easy to say that money is not the most important thing, and that the desire for money is a morally destructive form of motivation. This is easy to say because, in theory, we will be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees. But it is another thing altogether to identify with passionate precision the particular sins and moral misconceptions our culture must abandon, if it is ever to foster human happiness again.

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: Retired01 - Sep. 14, 2017 2:11 PM ET USA

    Excellent analysis Dr. Mirus. What is Pope Francis true position regarding homosexuality? On the one hand, he appears to agree with Church teaching. On the other hand, he makes two Americans, Kevin Farrell and Joseph Tobin cardinals. These two have praised Fr. James Martin for his book "Building a Bridge" (I have not read the book nor intend to) where he apparently suggests that the Church should change her position regarding homosexual activity as sinful. Thus, what are we to think?

  • Posted by: Athelstan - Sep. 12, 2017 4:23 PM ET USA

    Well said, Jeff.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Sep. 09, 2017 3:32 PM ET USA

    Francis isn't "right 2 emphasize...that 'the most minor sins R the sins of the flesh' whereas 'the most dangerous sins R those of the mind [such as] hatred, envy, pride, vanity'”. We have Jesus' testimony in Mt 15:19 & Paul's in 1 Cor 6:9 that sins of the flesh R serious enough to preclude eternal life (Mk 10:17, 19). Satan also uses the "Welcome, accompany, discern, integrate" approach so the question is whether Francis leads people 2 God. When Francis obviously contradicts Scripture, well...

  • Posted by: ahaggard138528 - Sep. 09, 2017 12:50 AM ET USA

    I have wondered when we might see a "This Disastrous Papacy Part 2". This appears to be it. Thank you Dr. Mirus. I hope more eyes are opened by this article and that people see how much we need to pray for the future of the Church, and that good and holy priests are elevated to its highest offices.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 08, 2017 11:10 PM ET USA

    "Yet Pope Francis refuses to answer that question. Instead, he consistently condemns those who raise it as being precisely the kind of people whom Our Lord made it His Divine mission to oppose." This observation perfectly encapsulates the condition of most U.S. universities: not merely denying free speech, but denigrating, condemning, and chasing out those who ask "difficult" questions.What Christ actually opposed was fanatical adherence to the _laws of men_ & the hypocrisy of the self-righteous