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Correct the Pope? Or assist him in his Catholic mission…

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 19, 2022

It seems to me that there are two primary ways to respond when any pope writes something in one of his officially-promulgated texts which at first strikes us as incorrect. The first way is to assert that the pope is wrong (and perhaps begin immediately to alert all who will listen to this “fact”). The second way is to consider carefully how a statement which strikes us as questionable could be understood (perhaps even better understood) to be perfectly true. A case in point arises from those who claim that, in his Apostolic Letter on the Liturgy (Desiderio Desideravi, June 29, 2022), Pope Francis has misstated the requirements that must be fulfilled for someone to receive Communion.

The passage in question is the first two sentences of paragraph 5:

The world still does not know it, but everyone is invited to the supper of the wedding of the Lamb (Rev 19: 9). To be admitted to the feast all that is required is the wedding garment of faith which comes from the hearing of his Word (cf. Rom 10:17).

I have encountered the argument that there is a “natural meaning” to this passage which asserts that a mere expression of “belief” is sufficient to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, which is to say that no moral commitment or repentance of sin is required. To the contrary, the argument continues, the Council of Trent taught that “faith alone” is insufficient for the reception of Communion (which is certainly true in the sense intended in its context). Therefore Pope Francis has taught something that can only be understood to be wrong.

There are two grave problems with this argument: The first is the assertion of a “natural meaning” to the Pope’s words which reduces the understanding of the word “faith” (or words “garment of faith which comes from the hearing of the Word”) to mere belief in certain doctrines without any corresponding moral commitments or change in life. And the second problem is the assumption that the word “faith” must always be used in the same sense as the Council of Trent was using this word when the errors of the Protestants were uppermost in the Council’s collective mind—that, in effect, we are never to understand “faith” under any other aspect or in any other way.

Natural and spiritual meanings of faith

Both assumptions are unjustified. In the first place, most people today—and especially well-instructed Catholics—do not use the term “faith” in a univocal “natural” sense of mere “belief in doctrinal propositions”. While it is true—and has always been true historically, I think—that the term “faith” is sometimes used as a synonym for “belief”, it is also true that even in our own contemporary “natural” usage the word has several other meanings. When someone says “I have faith in Mr. Jones”, he does not mean that he believes a series of doctrinal propositions. He means that he trusts Jones. When a Catholic young man says to his fiancée, “No, we cannot use contraception when we are married because I accept the Catholic faith”, he does not mean primarily that he believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God but rather than he is obedient to the moral injunctions which he knows come from Christ through the Church.

So even at what we might call the “natural” level of ordinary conversation, the departure point for the protest against what Pope Francis wrote leads down a false trail. But if we consider the whole phrase “the wedding garment of faith”, we find ourselves at once in Christ’s parables, in which the lack of a wedding garment signifies a complete lack of respect and preparedness for the occasion. And things get even worse if we consider the matter more theologically. For while there have been many distortions of the concept of “faith” over the centuries—and while the Church was rightly very sensitive to its theological reduction to mere “intellectual belief” in the sixteenth century—faith as proclaimed by Jesus Christ and as explained throughout the New Testament (most clearly but not exclusively in the letters of St. Paul) very clearly involves three things. Faith in Jesus Christ is:

  • Belief in Christ’s teachings;
  • Trust in Christ’s promises;
  • Obedience to Christ’s commands.

Note how well this understanding explains that famous passage in the Letter of James which touches precisely on this subject, though from a slightly different angle:

So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. [Jas 2:17-18]

In other words, the apostles simply could not conceive of any real (or living) faith in Christ that does not involve a radical transformation of our lives and our actions. Neither can I. Neither, I hope, can Pope Francis.

Self-evidently, if we credit Pope Francis with even this rudimentary understanding of the meaning of “faith” (a living definition, as it were, apart from a scholastic definition or a common usage in theological manuals), then it is wholly gratuitous and even bizarre to assume that he intended the term in some common “natural” sense, or even that he should have realized that this is how it would be invariably understood. As I have indicated, even in our “natural” (or normal) use of the term today, the argument is unconvincing.

Accusing the Pope?

By the way, the remainder of paragraph 5 in Desiderio Desideravi reads as follows:

The Church tailors such a garment [the garment of faith] to fit each one with the whiteness of a garment bathed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14). We must not allow ourselves even a moment of rest, knowing that still not everyone has received an invitation to this Supper or knowing that others have forgotten it or have got lost along the way in the twists and turns of human living. This is what I spoke of when I said, “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 27). I want this so that all can be seated at the Supper of the sacrifice of the Lamb and live from Him.

Pope Francis may not be the greatest pope who ever lived. He may, as a man, misunderstand many things. I have had occasion myself to offer clarifications, and obviously I am choosing to do so here. But clarification of an officially promulgated papal text is infinitely superior (and infinitely safer) than a condemnation of its errors along with advice to ignore it, whatever we may think of a particular pope. This is especially true when, if we will but remove our own blinders, further investigation can lead to an enrichment of our Catholic understanding.

In any case, as the previous quotation demonstrates, the voice of Desiderio Desideravi does not sound like that of a pope who is trying to minimize the personal and even ecclesiastical transformation that Holy Communion can bring about. Ever mindful of such a stupendous invitation, we should strive in every respect to “discern” in the Eucharist that “this is my body, given for you” (1 Cor 11:29; Lk 22:19).

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 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: meruss8663 - Sep. 22, 2022 5:17 PM ET USA

    I want to thank you, Dr. M., for your deeply thought out and nuanced opinion on, in this instance, yet another unclear statement by Pope Francis. I'm very sympathetic to the simply stated reply of rfr46. Still, I think you set a good example, at least for me, by not just giving up on trying to give a charitable interpretation to something said by Pope Francis. Thank you.

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Sep. 22, 2022 3:17 PM ET USA

    Dr. Jeff, as u noted in follow up, "the behavioral component which is part of the complete understanding of faith" isn't what I see as a constant problem with this pontificate, but rather the Cessation of Behavior which is part of the complete understanding of faith. Sure, all are welcome, but no one gets to sing I Did It My Way.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Sep. 21, 2022 7:33 PM ET USA

    With apologies and all due respect, it appears that, if it takes this many electrons to clarify, Rome, we have a problem.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 21, 2022 3:27 PM ET USA

    I might also have pointed out in this article that to suppose that Pope Francis does not think an authentic faith requires Christian action is also a wild misreading of all of the criticisms of his pontificate. The general complaint against this Pope is not that he is some sort of quietist but that he frequently approves what so many of us regard as deficient behaviors while disapproving of what so many of us regard as the most valuable behaviors in our current situation. If that criticism is accurate (and I myself think that it is), then the argument I have vetted in this commentary misses the real problem by a huge margin. But perhaps that's a discussion for another day.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 21, 2022 2:54 PM ET USA

    Please note that the whole point of my bringing up the wedding garment question was to indicate how difficult it would be for any well-educated Catholic writer to refer to the "wedding garment of faith" without showing his recognition of the behavioral component which is part of the complete understanding of faith, as is particularly evident throughout the New Testament. Or look at it this way: In this parable above all, it becomes clear that not just any attitude gets you in; it requires a practical commitment to the meaning and value of the marriage feast, a commitment which is ordinarily expected to be manifested outwardly. As a simple matter of textual interpretation, it is a wild misreading of the sentence in question to make the gratuitous assumption that Francis was using the term "wedding garment of faith" to indicate mere assent to a conveniently selected set of doctrines or the simple appropriation of the name "Catholic". We should not be blinded by a dislike of the Pope into refusing to admit the overwhelming likelihood that Francis understands this to be a Scriptural reference which goes far beyond the philosophical concept of faith in isolation from hope and love, or faith without works, or (above all) faith that is not taken seriously in transformation of life.

  • Posted by: jjlynch56698710 - Sep. 21, 2022 1:57 PM ET USA

    Ah... But he acts as if he believes exactly what the critics are saying. Nancy Pelosi a case in point.

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Sep. 21, 2022 1:05 PM ET USA

    I reread the wedding garment parable. It seems very strong on the idea of doing it the way Jesus says to do it. The stubborn guest at the end is likened to the earlier murderers who were executed, and Jesus asks him, in the Douay and KJV, how did u get in here dressed like that? Implying, how did my ministers allow your false leaven into My church? Rather than, it's perfectly fine if maybe u don't know any better? And the clincher, many are called, few are chosen. No one ever chooses bad fruit.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Sep. 21, 2022 12:19 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, I admire your scholarly and charitable interpretation of PF's blunder, but at a certain point, one must admit that translating his words to mean what he almost certainly did not intend them to mean is ultimately unpersuasive. As usual, the simplest explanation is the most accurate: he is wrong and is a bad pope.

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Sep. 21, 2022 10:52 AM ET USA

    The truth is that there is 'informed' faith and 'un[in]formed' faith - informed is faith wedded with agape; uninformed is faith unwedded/divorced with or from agape - so the argument they made is correct, there are blinkers as to what the Theol. Virtue of F, H, L are and their nature.... Aquinas the Angelic Doctor speaks of these: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/nature_grace.ix.i.vi.ii.html