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Caveat emptor? Sandro Magister, Robert Sarah, Charles Chaput on Pope Francis

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 24, 2017

Magister on The Last Things

That inveterate Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister wrote an excellent column on Friday entitled “World’s End Update. The ‘Last Things’ According to Francis”. He began by noting that Pope Francis’ atheist interviewer, Eugenio Scalfari, has claimed that:

Pope Francis has abolished all the places we were supposed to go after death: hell, purgatory, heaven… The universal judgment that is in the tradition of the Church therefore becomes devoid of meaning.

Magister then went on to cite one audience or homily after another in which Pope Francis has at least rather deliberately restricted his recognition of the four last things to, well, heaven. Magister deftly noted Francis’ rather careless use of Scripture as well as the strong contrast between his frequently-expressed ideas and the teachings of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, especially in the encyclical Spe Salvi. For all that, Magister does admit: “It is extremely doubtful that Pope Francis really wants to get rid of the ‘last things’ in the terms described by Scalfari.”

That’s an important caveat, evocative of the same dilemma we constantly face here at CatholicCulture.org. It is unlikely that the Pope really intends to deny Catholic teaching. It is far more likely that he merely wishes to introduce a certain latitude in our dealings with others, to increase the likelihood that they will find us encouraging rather than (to use an apt term) “forbidding”. By extension, of course, Francis wants others to find Christ encouraging rather than forbidding.

The real caveat here, however, is that while this interpretation may be quite valid, the proposed approach is very foreign to what Sacred Scripture teaches about how we are to treat darkened intellects and deeply-rooted sins. The key question for me is not whether Pope Francis wants to deny Catholic doctrine; that could never be proven in any case. Rather, it is whether, at its core, the Pope’s representation of the Gospel (perhaps we can agree to call it permissive Catholicism) ends up making Christ and the Church significantly less effective. Might not the Church appear deficient in life-giving witness, seemingly afraid to tell people what they most need to hear? Is such a Church capable of generating a love for God and a thirst for holiness?

Sarah on The Liturgy

You already know that the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah, was strongly rebuked by Pope Francis for attempting to clarify—within his own area of authority and expertise—how bishops are to understand the Pope’s recent document on liturgical translations, Magnum Principium, especially in its relationship with an earlier document issued by the CDW under Pope John Paul II, Liturgiam Authenticam.

With high-ranking churchmen such as Cardinal Marx crowing that the latter document was a dead end anyway, a remark which nothing in the text of Magnum Principium justified, Cardinal Sarah though it best to explain more clearly what Pope Francis had stipulated. So Sarah had every right to be shocked by the treatment he received as a result.

But the caveat here is that he most certainly was not shocked. Everything about the way in which Magnum Principium was issued and received indicated that the purposes of this document were “pure Francis”, another document in which what the Pope hopes to achieve is not what the text actually states. Magnum Principium was issued not in collaboration with the head of the relevant congregation but through one of Cardinal Sarah’s subordinates, and without any effort to keep the Cardinal informed. It was immediately greeted by all the usual suspects as yet another release from the bondage imposed by bad old popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It was rather obviously intended to be less a clear statement than another one of this pope’s signals, a signal that liturgical change in the name of “the people” was going to be warmly welcomed in Rome.

I say that Cardinal Sarah was not shocked simply because we know he is not stupid. He had already been down this road in recommending that priests say Mass ad orientem during Advent, a legitimate option that is right there in the books. Yet Pope Francis rebuked him strongly for that, indicating clearly that this pope typically opposes whatever tends toward the sacral in the liturgy while favoring that which claims to be more in tune with the “real world”. All of this is well within the Pope’s authority, but Cardinal Sarah had to know that the most he could achieve by purporting to “clarify” the Pope’s intentions was to force Francis to be frank right from the start. This is how sacrificial lambs typically serve the truth, “that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:35).

Chaput on Pastoral Accompaniment

I was happy to see the following paragraph in Archbishop Charles Chaput’s excellent First Things essay commemorating Pope John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor:

Thus a pastor is not acting mercifully if he says, out of a misguided desire to help someone struggling with a difficult choice, “Don’t worry, as long as your heart is in the right place, God will understand.” Or even worse: “I dispense you from the law in this case.” The pastor has no power to launder a sinful choice into a morally acceptable one. In trying to do so, he commits a serious injustice. He also sins against charity, because he makes the problem worse by stealing the truth from the person he seeks to help.

In this instance, what caveat could there possibly be? Only that Archbishop Chaput has been rather obviously passed over for the red hat, considering he is an archbishop in a traditionally cardinatial city. When Pope Francis passes from the scene, it may well be too late to extend Chaput’s influence. It goes without saying that this matter is, and should be, in God’s hands. But William Butler Yeats captured our situation exceedingly well when he wrote in his poem “The Second Coming”:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

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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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 25, 2017 9:10 PM ET USA

    "Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity." Yes, I thought. That certainly sounds more like the present moment than I expected. I will definitely use this. - Steve Skojec, One Peter 5 "The Center Cannot Hold" 10/25

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 25, 2017 5:36 PM ET USA

    This clash of paradigms, or worldviews, is day by day becoming more clear: liberation theology versus Catholicism. We already know who will win in the end. The problem is the pain in getting there.

  • Posted by: ILM - Oct. 24, 2017 7:16 PM ET USA

    I am sad.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Oct. 24, 2017 6:27 PM ET USA

    The more positive scenario is that Pope Francis does not intend to deny Catholic teaching, as suggested in the article. The more negative scenario is that Pope Francis does, but he knows that he cannot openly do so. Thus, he creates the type of confusion that the usual suspects use to deny Catholic teaching using the back door that the confusion that his words and actions open for them. A third plausible scenario is that the pope does not know what he is doing.