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A response to my critics: Has Pope Francis poisoned the well?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 23, 2015

Regarding my essay “Francis on Communion: The Pope’s deeper questions and ours”, the vast majority of the responses were negative. The oddest thing about the responses, however, was that most of them criticized me for positions I did not take.

When something like this happens, it is necessary for the author to admit that he failed to present his ideas in a manner sufficiently clear to his audience. But perhaps the effort was doomed from the start. In this case, readers wanted (and clearly expected) that a sound Catholic writer’s first priority would be to thoroughly critique Pope Francis for giving the impression that it was acceptable for non-Catholics to decide for themselves whether or not they could receive Communion in a Catholic Church.

In fact, I commented on that impression in a previous essay (“The Pope's advice to a Lutheran woman with a Catholic husband on receiving the Eucharist”). I did not wish to pursue it further. Unfortunately, many readers assumed that since I was not opposing the Pope on this question, I must be attempting to sweep away traditional barriers to unworthy reception of the Eucharist. I fear that this assumption colored the response.

Revisiting the Discussion

It may do no good to insist that what I regarded as most interesting was the theological question Pope Francis had raised, namely how to respond properly to the intrinsic tension between the Eucharist as the end of our Faith and the Eucharist as the food that strengthens our Faith. The Second Vatican Council had already recognized, without perhaps realizing the tension inherent in its own statement, that the liturgical re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice and the gift of His Body and Blood is “the source and summit” of the Christian life.

Pope Francis seriously wondered whether the rules the Church proposes for reception of Communion will be different if she emphasizes the Eucharist’s character as the “source” of Christian life than if she emphasizes its character as the “summit” of Christian life.

In my earlier essay, then, I had wanted to explore what I regarded as an interesting and important theological question. I intended to probe the mystery, not poke the bear! Even looking back, I believe my conclusion was innocent enough:

It is too soon to draw any conclusions about whether or how Catholic discipline on the Eucharist might change in the future. I am not advocating anything other than the development of a stronger habit of study and meditation on the Faith, with less reliance on instinctive shortcuts. I certainly do not claim to have highlighted all the relevant considerations here. But I suspect the stimulation of such a habit is the most positive aspect of this pope’s unusual style of leadership. To me, Pope Francis has a remarkable ability to both annoy and prompt deeper reflection, at one and the same time.

But of course this conclusion must seem objectionable if what I was supposed to be doing was defending existing Eucharistic discipline against the depredations of the Pope! In that case, my mild expression of annoyance was doomed to be regarded as woefully insufficient. In short, I was almost universally faulted for not delivering the goods on a question I had no intention of addressing.

This situation clearly frustrated not only myself but my readers. But I also found it frustrating that some thought I was referring to dogmas as mere “rules”, when it was precisely the purpose of the essay to reflect on the very nature of the Eucharist as opposed to the prescribed guidelines for reception based on various goals and needs—rules, in other words, which have changed (at least in some ways) fairly often over the centuries. Here again, it was not deemed sufficient to write: “Obedient always to past definitions and even, while in force, to current disciplines, we need to grow in our capacity to revere the mystery.”

And why was this insufficient? Clearly because it seemed to many that Pope Francis himself had not revered the mystery.

Growing into the Mystery

Okay, I get it. Pope Francis often—too often, in my unexpurgated opinion—poses an unfair challenge to those who have committed themselves very deeply to what one of my correspondents rightly referred to as the Act of Faith. Let’s review: “I believe these and all the truths that the Catholic Church teaches because Thou has revealed them, who canst neither deceive nor be deceived.”

Now these truths are not optional. We can understand the truth more perfectly, we can improve the clarity with which we present the truth, we can increase the sensitivity with which we impart the truth, and we can even adjust those disciplinary regulations which are (or ought to be) designed to enable us to live more easily in accordance with the truth. All of these things can be adjusted based on a sound appraisal of human nature, a sympathetic reading of human needs, conscientious responses to new problems, and a self-awareness of our own imperfect tendencies.

But Truth is the mind’s conformity with reality. The propositions the Church formulates to express Divinely revealed truths are precisely framed so that a receptive mind can conform itself more easily to reality. This means that the truth is most definitely not a set of so-called “rules” which we can take or leave according to our whims, even if we happen to be the pope; nor is the truth some sort of hang-up of neurotic or fundamentalist souls, let alone neurotic and fundamentalist priests (of the type Francis said he fears when discussing priestly training on Saturday).

There is, I think, a limited but imprecisely identified legitimate target for everything Pope Francis says. Unfortunately, he has repeatedly described the failings of Catholics (and by extension, the failings of the Church) using the exact same terminology liberals use to dismiss conservatives or, more to the point, the same terms secularists use to dismiss people of faith. This confuses and hurts those who place a high priority on conforming themselves to everything the Church teaches. But, as I’ve said before, my own rule in response to this challenge is to emphasize the silver lining—that is, to seek the increase in understanding and grace that is always possible whenever we receive even unjustified criticism in a spirit of generous self-examination.

Could we be further along?

This time, perhaps, my remarks were simply too much out of sync with the prevailing mood of my readership. While I stand by what I wrote, and I continue to hope it contains insight into the reasons Eucharistic discipline can and does change from time to time, there are other things I could have said about the challenge Pope Francis presented. After all, are not the most faithful among us also smoldering wicks and bruised reeds, perhaps especially in these times? Pope Francis frequently speaks as if these alone lack the balance proper to a Christian, or as if he alone possesses this balance. Is this a mark of humility in the Vicar of Christ?

In my lifetime, it has been the pope who has claimed the greatest humility and the greatest affinity for the marginalized who seems to have the sharpest tongue for those who most want to love him. Let me be frank: In today’s culture, spiritually speaking, faithful Catholics have cornered the marginalization market.

And yet it is always fruitful to deflect our emotions into the contemplation of God, and so the intrinsic tension in the Eucharist remains for us to more fully consider. The Eucharist is at once both the means and the end, the source and summit, of our lives. It belongs to the pope and bishops to decide whether to strengthen or weaken the disciplinary emphasis on either pole in accordance with the needs of each place and time. By raising this issue, Pope Francis has once again opened a Christian mystery to reflection and prayer.

But I will close with a strong caution: Such reflection can bear its fruit only if it is rooted in the truth. How much more might we have gained if Pope Francis did not so often appear to be sniping at what orthodox Catholics would call the mind’s conformity with reality?

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 15 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: FrHughM - Dec. 27, 2015 2:28 PM ET USA

    I agree with Jeff – paradox of food versus fulfilment is a key issue & most ignore this. But the crucial development (which must show their interdefinition) has been begun in Familiaris Consortio 84. A communicant must “objectively”/publicly “signify” the “summit” of ecclesial life, for it to be his necessary food-“source”. Holy Communion reception is Jesus' Body manifesting sacramentally & communally. By so manifesting/witnessing our end we are drawn closer to it. Sanctification is sacramental.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Nov. 27, 2015 11:31 PM ET USA

    Jim.K: Since we're calling each other out by name, read the original article! I quoted directly from the Pope's statement to the Lutheran woman. She asked why she can't receive Communion with her Catholic husband. Pope Francis referred to a "journey" that Lutherans and Catholics are on. If it were a journey to personal holiness, as you say, there wouldn't be much sense in Lutherans and Catholics being on that journey together, now would there? Click the second link above and read the article.

  • Posted by: John3822 - Nov. 26, 2015 9:01 AM ET USA

    When the majority of readers are urging the opposition of the Pope, perhaps it's time for a different type of reader. The "appearance" that the Pope was sniping at faithful Catholics reminds me of the Pharisees who didn't appreciate Christ talking negatively about them. Rather than humility and examination of conscience in learning, there is the moat and defense that is thrown up. That is self-defeating.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Nov. 24, 2015 10:53 PM ET USA

    Francis loves to Kasperize issues to make us think. That's a fault. At least in the clear-as-mud way he goes about it, because it IS annoying and (unless one is an orthodox theologian) tends to turn people off or, worse, make them take a closer look at the poor Trads. He may well be attracting the Progressives (who have no roots and will fade away), but he also may well be losing those orthodox Catholics he is confusing. A net loss? Keep on trucking, Jeff, it's appreciated.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Nov. 24, 2015 10:23 PM ET USA

    Drjazz said; "The "journey" in question is that toward Christian unity, and had nothing to do with repentance from grave sin." I disagree. I think "the journey" is that of "attaining personal salvation." Issues such as reaching Christian Unity" belong to "the Church" i.e., the Pope, Bishops, etc. // JosephAnthony's comment re: the "doctrine of worthy reception of the Eucharist" is also beyond the scope of our individual competence -- otherwise we will all be "popes" -- or, perhaps, Protestants!

  • Posted by: VICTORIA01 - Nov. 24, 2015 9:49 PM ET USA

    sniping at what orthodox Catholics would call the mind’s conformity with reality? - I think it was St Thomas Aquinas in the Suma who was the orthodox Catholic who first wrote this.

  • Posted by: mcomstoc6740 - Nov. 24, 2015 9:47 PM ET USA

    Yes, Communion is the source of grace, but, unfortunately, those living in the state of mortal sin have, according to my understanding, cut themselves off from this source of grace. in fact, according to St.Paul their condition has become much worse.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Nov. 24, 2015 8:08 PM ET USA

    The problem with Pope Francis is the same problem stemming from Vatican II (another source for sniping). Are "faithful" Catholics hiding behind Pharasitical rules? Do "faithful" Catholics misunderstand Trent? What does it mean to be a "faithful" Catholic? Live the 2 Great Commandments while "organized religion" is for sissies? This certainly simplifies "rules" and distinctions like "source" vs. "summit".

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Nov. 24, 2015 6:12 PM ET USA

    I miss pope John Paul II and pope Benedict XVI. I grew up from young adult to old adult with them. They encouraged all of us to be better Christians. They worked hard to define and defend our faith. We didn't always follow the instructions but there was little doubt about the instructions. With pope Francis we seem to be confused and chastised over the same issues that the previous popes were so clear about. What is the deal?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 24, 2015 5:38 PM ET USA

    Sniping is a good word to describe the Pope's apparent disdain for many of us who donate to CatholicCulture.org. I thought I had my fill of such disdain when the "spirit of Vatican II" was continuously being imposed upon faithful catechists during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The JBC and NJBC decried the "ultraconservatives," select bishops refused to approve seminarians who were "too conservative," Ludwig Ott was rejected as NOT representing the Catholic faith, true doctrine was sneered at.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Nov. 24, 2015 5:08 PM ET USA

    The original issue was whether Lutherans might share the Eucharist and, if so, under what conditions. The idea of the Eucharist as "food on the journey" was raised by the Pope in his answer to the Lutheran woman. The "journey" in question is that toward Christian unity, and had nothing to do with repentance from grave sin.

  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Nov. 24, 2015 12:26 PM ET USA

    Dr Mirus, after reading Joseph Anthony's comment, maybe the essence of the debate does still need to be clarified. St. Paul in I Cor 11 seems to be very clear when he says we cannot receive Holy Communion if conscious of grave sin. However, a Lutheran not conscious of grave sin, and who believes Jesus is substantially present at the time we receive Him, is that a different case? My only purpose here is clarification.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Nov. 24, 2015 12:02 PM ET USA

    You are right, Jeff, the response was not to you, but to the continual "sniping" at faithful Catholics. The mystery of the Eucharist is so overwhelming that the mind really cannot grasp it. It is grasped, if at all, at a much different place than intellect alone. For my part, I try to focus on this, and I'm sorry to say, largely ignore the Pope. He does showboat on humility and his affinity for the marginalized, but excludes Catholics just trying to live out their faith.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Nov. 23, 2015 9:40 PM ET USA

    Having read your writing for years now, one article could not possibly make me lose confidence in you.

  • Posted by: JosephAnthony - Nov. 23, 2015 9:25 PM ET USA

    If I understand this article correctly, the author is raising the question of what exactly //is// the doctrine regarding worthy reception of the Eucharist, i.e. it is doctrinal that all objectively grave sins must be repented of prior to receiving communion, or is there room for those who are not yet at a place to repent of something gravely wrong to receive the Eucharist as food on that journey of repentance. That, indeed, is the essence of the debate. I believe that repentance is necessary.