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How do we react when the Pope fails to express our top concerns?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 15, 2015

Pope Francis’ in-flight interview on January 15th touched on a number of issues that have profound social implications: Freedom of religion, reconciliation among different religious groups, freedom of speech, the exploitation of children, and the misuse of nature, including climate change.

Because handling each of these issues properly is dependent not only on right principles but also on human knowledge and prudential judgment, a relatively broad range of opinion is possible. And certainly, no matter which aspect of a given issue the Pope chooses to emphasize, even many Catholics will take at least partial exception to it. But prudent Catholics can recognize the difference between the Holy Father committing an error and the Holy Father failing to state what is uppermost in their own minds.

For those whose faith is easily upset, it is perfectly acceptable to ignore all non-Magisterial statements without fear of missing something essential to the Faith. Even for Magisterial statements, the reader must learn to distinguish matters of faith and morals from opinions which depend on human knowledge and prudence, for by their very nature the latter cannot bind us. But especially in non-Magisterial statements, where far less care is taken to treat an issue comprehensively, readers need to learn to make distinctions.

Here is one kind of distinction: It is very important to avoid claiming that some statement is erroneous when its only fault is not having made the point we consider most important.

Example 1: Interreligious Relations

Two examples out of many in the most recent interview will make this distinction clearer. First, in speaking on greater mutual respect among the different religions (for the Pope had altered his schedule to take advantage of an invitation to visit a Buddhist temple), Francis lamented the distrust of other religious groups characteristic of his own upbringing. Then he said:

The Church’s respect for other religions has grown a great deal; the Second Vatican Council spoke about respect for their values. There have been dark times in the history of the Church; we must not be ashamed to say so because we are also on a journey. This interreligiosity is a gift.

Some will be seriously unhappy with this emphasis. There are many good Catholics who judge that the interreligious pendulum has swung too far, and that every opportunity should be taken to warn against the serious threat of religious indifferentism. They may also think that a papal side-trip to visit a Buddhist shrine does not pass the Catholic time and energy test. But preferring a timely expression of concern about religious indifferentism to an expression of interest in mutual respect is not at all the same thing as believing mutual respect among religious groups is an immoral goal, or that interest in it is a theological error.

Nor does this preference require the belief that no other religion has any legitimate values, or that Catholics should not respect legitimate values even when they encounter them in other religions. We usually see these things quite clearly when thinking of our own personal relationships with non-Catholics—especially with friends and family members who do not share our faith—but we tend to lose sight of them when we undertake a kind of cosmic parsing of the Pope’s statements.

Translation: If Pope Francis said X when I think Y is so important, he must be wrong, untrustworthy, deficient in faith, or immoral.

Example 2: Climate Change and Ecology

To consider another example, when asked about his new encyclical, Pope Francis made several interesting comments on the process of its drafting and the sources of some of his insights (Note: Popes seldom write their encyclicals by themselves; but they do guide the process and assume a very definite ownership of the final text.) Francis also mentioned the impact he hoped the forthcoming encyclical would have on the next climate meeting in Paris, since he regarded the last one in Argentina as lacking in courage.

At the beginning of his response, he also said something that could be considered a fairly loose point:

I don’t know if humans who mistreat nature are fully responsible for climate change but they are largely responsible for it. We have taken hold of nature, of mother Earth, to some extent. An elderly farmer once said to me: God forgives always; sometimes he forgives humans but he never forgives nature. We have exploited nature too much.

This is obviously an imprecise, off-the-cuff remark, but it suggests two important things. First, there is a good deal we do not know about climate change, its causes, and how much human mistreatment nature can absorb without massive danger. Second, it does not take irreversible climate change for Christians to know that their “dominion” over nature must be exercised as a stewardship for God. As such, it involves moral and prudent decisions which respect God’s creation. These decisions are a participation in God’s creative power; they must avoid destroying nature through selfish use.

Francis mentioned deforestation of the Amazon and soil depletion as two examples. And why not? After all, wilderness preservation, crop rotation, and reforesting are already known to be workable approaches. The neglect of these and many other things is a failure of stewardship. The Soviet Union ultimately failed (for better or worse) because it raped its land and depleted its resources in the thirst for power and control, essentially bankrupting an already corrupt system. But there are always powerful groups that approach creation in just this way; it is a repeated tragedy in human affairs.

So there is much to consider. But here, once more, we may argue that climate change is a poor choice of emphasis for a pope, especially when environmental issues are so frequently championed by the very “pagans” who are all but blind to the truly human ecology which Catholicism demands. Why help them seize the moral high ground?


We should, of course, also recall that Pope Benedict tied life issues and environmental issues very closely together, and that Pope Francis has already indicated that the tragic waste of the unborn is a prime indicator of what is wrong with our view of nature as a mere instrument for our own desires. But because we may not connect all the dots, we always need to remember the very point I have been trying to make with these examples.

That is, we need to recognize our unfortunate tendency to become deeply annoyed whenever the Pope says something other than what we think he should have said on the occasion in question. It is frighteningly easy to complain as if what the Pope has said is false, or as if it shows his stupidity, or as if it reveals his true colors. Too often this is really the Not Invented Here Syndrome at work. The Pope has not taken up our cause, so we tune him out.

Within broad limits, we may cherish our own priorities. Obviously we must remain open to God’s call in our own particular sphere. But we must also reject such an impoverished way of reading the Pope. We must let our chief pastor stretch our understanding whenever possible. Above all, we must resist the tendency to assume the Pope is fiddling while Rome burns—just because he has not voiced our own favorite fears.

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: AgnesDay - Apr. 18, 2016 11:47 AM ET USA

    If you had the kind of world you described in the first paragraph, the Church would never have had a the kind of mess it now deals with. All we have left is to pray and maintain our trust in Christ, who said He would never leave us orphans.

  • Posted by: Saved by Grace - Apr. 17, 2016 9:20 AM ET USA

    Your first paragraph says it all! We the laity can only imagine, in most cases, this kind of world. It does not exist. Without it we have to have guidelines to lead us! I believe that's why Jesus, giving the keys to Peter, spoke of the Church binding and unbinding. He knew we would need firm guidelines (rules if you will) to have the discipline to live holy lives!

  • Posted by: pvanderl7463 - Apr. 16, 2016 12:16 AM ET USA

    Bravo! Thank you! Brilliant!

  • Posted by: toothin - Apr. 15, 2016 11:02 PM ET USA

    It seems the case that the Pope does not expect great changes or not all he hopes for from the annulment changes. He certainly is pushing for communion for the divorced, but he hides his comments in footnote. Rather cowardly. he is very angry with anyone who teaches the ideal, but forked tongue praises ideals. He promotes the need for healing, but not the discipline of taking medicine and facing the fall out of all the bad effects of a life of bad habits. who is going to pay the price? not Pope

  • Posted by: toothin - Apr. 15, 2016 10:56 PM ET USA

    The church ministers can promote family life by preaching, teaching and fostering groups etc. but the reality is the lay people must act with supervision. The priests end up being the gate keepers and must have rules. The pope opens the door, people barch in, what priest is going to act like a policeman. Who will support him. Not the pope. Who wants to be priest in that situation. Not me. I am fifty years a priest now and still active. I look forward to retirement to avoid the chaos and pain.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 15, 2016 10:47 PM ET USA

    It is true that as we seek ever increasing levels of _being_ through spiritual perfection the "rules" (I prefer to call them guideposts) are less viewed as obstacles than as channels to freedom from sin. The "rules" are not evil, but are good. They delimit on the one hand, but expand on the other. For what is not bound is loosed. For example, vice could not be more discouraged then by the "rules" prohibiting it. Virtue could not be more encouraged than by the "rules" promoting it. I like rules.

  • Posted by: FrFred - Jan. 21, 2015 7:00 AM ET USA

    I'm quite sure there's a faulty translation in the quote under the climate change section. As I've heard the saying before, in my native Spanish, it would be more accurately translated "God always forgives; Man sometimes (forgives); Nature never (forgives)." This is theologically much more comforting than the translation in the article, although empirically I'm not sure we could say that nature never forgives.

  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - Jan. 19, 2015 4:26 PM ET USA

    Why do so many of us think that everything the Pope says refers to the United States? His is a global pastorate. Consider where he was in the world and the dismal ecological record of the major powers in the region. For all we know, Pope Francis may have high praise for the way the U.S. has handled these matters. Our record on this stuff is far better to the point that many radically want to go overboard with it.

  • Posted by: Deacon0101 - Jan. 18, 2015 9:34 PM ET USA

    The of-the-cuff remarks have a detrimental effect on the people in the pew. I am a member of the clergy and when little 80 yr old Mrs. Smith hears from her favorite news person that the pope said "such and such" she has no idea of the theological intricacies that are involved. She is just scandalized by what the pope said and is reported by her favorite news person, who, of course, is always truthful. My point is, your logic is quite well expressed for an intellectual audience, but what of others?

  • Posted by: rbole0745 - Jan. 17, 2015 11:19 PM ET USA

    I will wait to read the full text on climate change but most people have understood this to be a political issue that is full of corruption and outright lies to justify its conclusion. Just read the emails made public to see how they reveal that they made the data fit their foregone conclusion. If the Pope accepts that "scientific" data, then I will have a problem believing any statement that would follow. How can we get truth to follow from lies?

  • Posted by: veniteadoremus1822 - Jan. 16, 2015 10:14 PM ET USA

    "I don’t know if humans who mistreat nature are fully responsible for climate change but they are largely responsible for it." Just one problem. Pope Francis never said this specifically with respect to all climate change. These are words that are put into Pope Francis' mouth and later parroted across various religious and secular websites. Here's was was really said: "You had said a word that requires a clarification: mostly. I don't know if it's all, but mostly, for a large part."Considering the original "set up" question came from a liberal Catholic journalist from America Magazine, I don't see how we ever arrived at the conclusion that our Holy Father said that human beings are mostly responsible for climate change. It is not a stretch to conclude that a journalist with an agenda changed what Pope Francis said and then published the statement as a direct quote. Various news organizations then republished it and now it's all over the Internet. Pathetic.

  • Posted by: kwonbbl1 - Jan. 16, 2015 9:10 PM ET USA

    It reminds me the current President in US. All through his presidency, he was as if he was on a perpetual campaign trail, promising false promises, rather than understanding the problems the nation facing and the word presenting and get down to solve problems - not alone with no real power, but cultivating a modicum of leadership so that people on the street and power brokers of the Congress may listen to him.

  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - Jan. 16, 2015 4:32 PM ET USA

    Does this Pope really make more potentially divisive statements on non-doctrinal issues and things that are personal preference, eg, "I get annoyed when people say parents should take crying babies out of the sanctuary (at Mass)," or does the media just promote them more? I'm not sure. But re: this article, honestly, the use of the word, "rape," seems a bit gratuitous to me.

  • Posted by: filioque - Jan. 16, 2015 4:27 PM ET USA

    To say that humans are "largely responsible" for climate change is just plain wrong and is unsupported by the evidence. If anyone thinks there is evidence for humans driving the climate, produce it. The UN IPCC hasn't after 25 years of mighty effort. The pope is apparently about to do what his predecessors wisely avoided: buying into the anti-human carbon-restriction policies that will hurt the poor more than anyone.

  • Posted by: AimezLoyaute - Jan. 16, 2015 11:38 AM ET USA

    The problem I and many others have is that the popoe's actions cannot be explained away as oversimplification or mere misunderstanding. Like Scrooge, we cannot explain what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears as a bit of undigested beef and humbug. Rather, his Socialist-esque remarks show the pope is NOT on our side when it comes to illegal immigration(flooding Italy with Muslims), Global "warming", and opining on limits of free speech. What next? Marriage? Uhh...

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 16, 2015 10:52 AM ET USA

    At this point of the pontificate of Pope Francis there is a body of evidence. It is difficult to reconcile this body of evidence in a manner consistent with any pontificate to date. The issue is not so much "The pope has not taken up our cause, so we tune him out." Rather the question is why do so many folks have the disconcerting sense that perhaps there are things being said that ought to be "tuned out"- or better unsaid? Even cardinals with impeccable reputations are struggling here.