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A fundamentally sterile papal autobiography?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 19, 2024

Today is the official release date of Pope Francis’ autobiography. According to advance extracts published on the Vatican website, the Pope once again endorses homosexual civil unions, writing that “It is right that these people who live the gift of love can have legal coverage like everyone else.” I see two serious issues here which demand reflection.

The first issue may actually be the larger issue even if it is less in need of correction. I will state it in the form of a question. What sort of a pope writes and arranges for the publication of his own autobiography? Surely this is ill-advised if only because it is not a “good look” for a successor of St. Peter: Even if such a step does not infallibly signal hubris, it necessarily raises serious questions about humility. To the best of my knowledge, no other pope has taken such a step, and few bishops or cardinals. At the very least, it is astonishing for a pope to take time away from his extraordinarily heavy responsibilities to write, even with professional assistance, the precious story of his own own life.

Even among lesser Churchmen who have been canonized, anything approaching autobiography is extraordinarily rare. In the two cases of which I am aware, unobjectionable purposes were made clear right from the outset. St. Augustine is by far the most famous example, and of course he entitled his autobiography The Confessions. This is no exercise in self-congratulation; it is primarily an admission of the sins, worldly attachments, and confusions that so long delayed his conversion. Above all, it is a work which pays absolutely no attention to any time when he may have been treated badly. Augustine knows he is a sinner, and so occupies himself with praise for the mercy and the glory of God.

The only other example I know is the Apologia Pro Vita Sua of St. John Henry Newman, which was written when he was still a simple priest and long before he was named a cardinal, but this was not really an autobiography. Rather, as the title suggests, it was a defense of his course of life—that is, his behavior—against the constant charges of duplicity and mendacity levelled against him by Anglicans following his conversion to Catholicism. In this work, Newman tries to explain the stages of thought that led him to convert, and how careful he was at every moment specifically not to mislead anyone about his convictions, doubts or intentions as they developed slowly over a period of years, and again how careful he was, in the period of doubt before he gave up his Anglican living, to discourage any in his care from “going to Rome”. In defending himself on this score, he was also very deliberately and obviously defending the reputation of the Catholic Church—a Church which most certainly did not, as was commonly believed, use Newman as an agent provocateur while he was in Anglican orders.

Civil Unions: The moral problem

But Pope Francis has forged ahead with a project that will only be seen as another indication of hubris. Worse still, the preliminary quotations make it clear that his autobiography addresses a number of pet issues, including his endorsement of civil unions for homosexual couples (see Pope defends same-sex blessings, civil unions). There is nothing new about this, of course, but one marvels that it is possible for a pope to write something like “it is right that these people who live the gift of love can have legal coverage like everyone else.” And since Pope Francis seems to have no inkling of how a good Catholic ought to approach this issue, the choices open to us are either correction or confusion.

Francis’ inclusion of this sentiment in his autobiography, as deliberately highlighted in the preliminary publicity, must seriously mislead the faithful unless they realize that he suffers under an illusion that can only be described as bizarre for a high-ranking Catholic prelate. In many ways, and here again, Francis has indicated his assumption that the only reservation Christ or the Church can possibly have about same-sex coupling is that Our Lord never thought to authorize priests to sacramentalize it. Indeed, this is the same negative principle that appears to animate the recent text on blessings for same-sex couples, Fiducia supplicans: The focus in that document is a distinction between liturgical and non-liturgical blessings, which prevents the use for same-sex couples of liturgical blessings associated with the rite of matrimony, while allowing purely personal blessings.

In other words, in both Fiducia and in the quotation from the forthcoming autobiography, the moral dimension of same-sex “coupling” is totally ignored, as if irrelevant. This Pope has a magnificent ability to blur the issues, an ability which generally serves to undermine Catholic moral convictions. One would think, from the way the Pope speaks and writes, that civil unions of two homosexuals who love each other are actually morally good arrangements for morally good relationships that just happen to be unaccountably omitted from the Church’s sacramental system.

The purpose of civil unions as socially and politically conceived is to elevate and validate in law an intimate sexual relationship which does not fall under the heading of Christian marriage. One wonders why anyone cares about this in an age of simple no-fault divorce, when people can change their “permanent” partners as frequently as they wish. But clearly the idea of a state-recognized union or, even better, a union that is recognized as specifically “marital”, is important to those who seek public validation for relationships that are not what marriages have always been understood to be, whether in the sacramental sense or the sense of the natural law.

Civil Unions: The natural and political problem

Let us now turn to this issue from the point of view of the good of the civil community. If the desire for tax benefits were the driving factor behind the rise of civil unions, it would be simple enough for the State to provide tax benefits to people who adopt the economy of sharing a domicile. The State might even have a legitimate interest in offering such tax breaks if, for example, there were an acute housing shortage. But on the whole everyone, including Pope Francis, seems to have forgotten why, throughout history, so many political entities have decided to adjust laws and tax codes to support married couples. It is for no other reason than that the family is the fundamental unit of society—indeed, that society as a whole depends directly and obviously on healthy family life, which alone can contribute a fundamentally positive psychological and sociological stability to the commonwealth as a whole.

That the health and stability of the family is critical to the health and stability of the social order—and therefore to the health and stability of its political expression—is not very hard to prove. In a healthy society it can be proved positively; and in an unhealthy society (like our own), it is daily proved negatively. All we have to do is consider the epidemic rise in both psychological disorders and criminal activity in our own social order since: (a) Divorce became common; (b) Contraception and the use of pornography became rampant; (c) Abortion became approved in law; and (d) Sex and gender ideologies which depend purely on perceived personal satisfaction became normative. The result is that family life has rapidly dissolved; children are considered secondary to personal self-fulfillment; authentic family life (consisting of a permanently married father and mother with their children) is rare and in some places practically non-existent; and both the psychological problems of children and the sociological problems occasioned by an unstable citizenry have reached pandemic proportions.

An astonishing ignorance

It is nothing short of astonishing that Pope Francis would write and publish his autobiography, but it beggars belief that he can use it to to push yet again ideas which exhibit not only such inconsistency with Catholicism but also a complete ignorance of the rudiments of a healthy social order. Such inadequacy is rooted in a false understanding of human nature and, consequently, of both freedom and the good. This false understanding includes a myopic ignorance of the reasons for which healthy human governments have so typically favored marriage-and-family in their laws and tax codes. Every healthy, non-ideological civil order has understood the inseparable connection between the foundation of society in authentic family life and the success and endurance of any political entity.

Of course, it has not always been thought politically necessary to privilege marriage in a society only if a couple has children. It has typically been enough, in recognizing the uniquely fruitful character of marriage, to surround it with some sort of protection, and encourage nature to take its course: That is, to produce stable and healthy families to nurture stable and healthy citizens. In an age of such intense technological rejection of natural processes, however, it is already becoming advisable in some regions to offer economic incentives to reproduce (for example, in Finland, Estonia, Italy, Japan and Australia). This is, in its own way, a recognition of the need for some form of family life to replenish a healthy population in any given country, and in that sense it is at least a rudimentary worldly recognition of the fundamental civic reality I have been discussing.

Sadly, Pope Francis has given ample evidence that he is incapable of seeing these fundamental issues clearly. Again and again he advocates solutions which will play well in our modern secular culture, preserving only the most minimal formal Catholic requirements. How astonishing it is that we have as the visible head of the Church today a man who apparently does not understand such basic realities of eternal and temporal life, and so is incapable of applying fruitful remedies to either the ecclesiastical or the civil order. And yet he remains convinced that he has something to offer the Church and the world in an autobiography.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rfr46 - Mar. 25, 2024 5:21 AM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus: I do not disagree in theory with your distinction between immediate intent and underlying motivation. But does it make a difference here? If a thief breaks into my house in the night, steals my money, beats my family and drives off in my car, his immediate motivation may be to have a better life or to rectify past perceived injustices. But he is still a dangerous thief and should be removed from society so that he will not hurt others. Regarding PF, mutatis mutandis.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 24, 2024 2:05 PM ET USA

    rfr46: I will continue to argue this point by making distinctions. One's immediate intentions and one's underlying motivation are not necessarily the same thing. Clearly, for example, Pope Francis intends that homosexual couples should be able to contract civil unions, and that homosexual couples should be able to receive blessings. So, yes, we often, even typically, can grasp the specific immediate outcomes that a person intends, by virtue of their advocacy of those outcomes. But it is difficult to extract underlying or ultimate or overall intentions, and especially motivations, from a person's advocacy for this or that. Intention becomes particularly difficult to gauge when one one thing is a consequence of another, and the person advocating something does not perceive the related outcomes. Moreover, it is not possible to judge motives, apart from any explanation of motives that a person might give. Thus Pope Francis could intend civil unions and blessings for same-sex couples out of a desire to show as much love and concern as he possibly can for those who are same-sex attracted, without realizing that these positions undermine the Church's moral credibility, our proper understanding of the natural law, and the common good. Or he may believe that we do not need to interpret the natural law and the Church's moral teaching in a way that excludes civil unions and blessings for homosexual "couples". Or he may reject and wish deliberately to undermine the traditional Catholic understanding of both Divine Revelation and the natural law. Or he may disagree with the Church's teachings on sexual morality but pretend otherwise. In any case, immediate intentions can often be read, though not always. What we cannot read or judge is the unexpressed "deeper intentions"; that is, we cannot claim to know the unexpressed motivation behind that intention, unless the actor in question understands his motivations clearly and explains them to us. To claim that we grasp and are in a position to condemn another's inner motivations is to claim that we read that person's inner life to the point of distinguishing confusion from ultimate intent, which is to pretend to be God. Lest all this serve to confuse anyone, I should emphasize in concluson that none of these difficulties prevent us from judging that somone one is wrong in advocating a certain position; far from it. The right and wrong of things is often very clear. What is unclear is the personal motivation of the person who is advocating that something is right or wrong. People can (and frequently do) advocate even good things from bad motives (such as self-interest, for example); and of course they very frequently also advocate bad things from good motives (because of their confusion about the nature of the good).

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Mar. 22, 2024 5:16 AM ET USA

    God gave me a brain to deduce intent from another's repeated actions. Pretending that one cannot understand the purposefulness of another's actions is self delusion and can be an obstacle to appropriate counter action.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 21, 2024 11:56 PM ET USA

    Sorry, Jeff. I was not clear in my comment. I was supporting El Padre's assertion that a man who rises to the papacy in the modern age cannot be thought of as ignorant of Catholic faith and morals. I was not supporting his additional assertions. Francis has been conditioned by Peron, liberation theology, and training in Modernist theology. Many of the older clergy never seem to discover a way to rise above their faulty indoctrinations. A failure in priestly formation and immersion in Catholicism

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 21, 2024 5:45 PM ET USA

    Randal Mandock: Of course, Randal. Part of a confessor's job is to help you discern the gravity of your sins, which he may be able to do through this sort of give and take. Even then he will not always be correct in the opinion he forms, but that remains between you and him. But watching a person's actions from afar, we may form tentative opinions if we know a person well, or we may take his own declaration of motivations at face value, but we are hardly in a position to publicly judge his real motives, or the degree to which his words or actions arise from confusion, or weakness, or a deliberate commitment to evil. We can judge that something someone has said or done is wrong; we cannot judge his motivations, unless he declares them to us. This is what it means to judge not, lest you be judged.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 21, 2024 5:25 PM ET USA

    Sorry Jeff, but I must support El Padre in only 500 characters. (1) Every time I confess my sins at a pre-Conciliar parish or oratory, the priest judges my intentions: advertence of intellect, consent of will, grave matter. (2) A person's "fundamental option" can be known through his decisions and actions. Francis' career-commitment to liberation theology is continually renewed by his encouragement of Communism. (3) The Communist Manifesto clearly and simply spells out the goals of Communism.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 21, 2024 5:15 PM ET USA

    Retired01: You make a sound observation, for those who personally contribute to the moral and spiritual confusion. But in defense of clerics who simply prefer not to engage the Pope publicly, I can understand all those who simply continue to teach truly and administer their parishes and dioceses well, since (as a general rule) a cleric (or a religious) does not have the same freedom as a layman (nor should they have the same freedom) to be directly critical of the Pope. The possibility of causing scandal among those who are not tuned in is significantly greater than for a layman. In this case, discretion is often the better part of valor. But fidelity is always required.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Mar. 21, 2024 2:23 PM ET USA

    Excellent article, and I would also ad, how astonishing it is that we have so many cardinals, bishops, priests, religious and members of the laity that do not appear to share your thoughts about what the head of the Church is doing. Their silence is so overwhelming, that it loudly speaks of either their complicitly, their ignorance, their naivete, or their lack of courage.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 21, 2024 12:56 PM ET USA

    CorneliusG: Clearly you are implying that Pope Francis is an anti-pope. However, the evidence is indisputable that Francis was legitimately elected pope. It makes things even worse to assert that the person occupying the See of Peter is not really the pope. It is important to realize that the Divine dispensation protects even the papacy in only very limited ways--only in ways absolutely essential to the fundamental identity and life-giving character of Christ's Church.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 21, 2024 12:50 PM ET USA

    padre3536: I sympathize with everyone's frustration (including my own), but it is IMPOSSIBLE for any of us to judge the INTENTIONS of another. Therefore, it is always better to assume ignorance or ineptitude rather than deliberate evil in those set over us in the Church.

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Mar. 20, 2024 9:40 AM ET USA

    please stop saying it is due to 'ignorance', you know that is not the case, please don't witness something that is not true, witness the truth, that it is a deliberate rebellion and repudiation against the Beloved, [premeditated and planned and phasedly unfolded], scattering not gathering with the Beloved....blessings of Passiontide

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Mar. 20, 2024 5:44 AM ET USA

    Per your last paragraph Doctor Jeff, it seems clear that Pope Francis was not being truthful when he said in his first days as Pope that he likes to make a mess. More and more it is evident that he doesn't really like it, he just can't seem to do anything else except make a mess.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Mar. 20, 2024 5:04 AM ET USA

    Indeed, he consistently says/does the opposite of what a Pope should say/do . . . hmmm, there must be a word for someone who consistently acts diametrically opposite to a Pope, but I can't think of it now.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Mar. 20, 2024 12:25 AM ET USA

    Together with Phil, a tour de force. Has there been in recent memory any Pope so totally lacking in self-awareness? I had to blink twice to convince myself that I had indeed read "autobiography" in the news drop.