Papal contentment with bland secularities
By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 24, 2023
There is no question that Pope Francis is a Catholic believer. He has devoted himself to the service of the Church. At times of tension he has emphasized that the integrity of the Faith consists in resolving disagreements within the Church cum Petro et sub Petro. And he has frequently emphasized the importance of Catholic staples such as the sacraments and devotion to the Mother of God. At the same time, when addressing the problems of the world, it is a consistent off-note in this pontificate to resort to secularizations of the Christian message, to reduce rallying points to purely natural values.
We see this once again in the Pope’s vision of the way forward for Europe in his March 23rd audience with delegates representing the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). Phil Lawler gives an overview in Pope Francis: a different vision of Church role in European project (see the full address, which is very brief). This has also been a signal feature of encyclicals such as Fratelli tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship) in 2020 and Laudato Sí (On the Care of Our Common Home) in 2015. This tendency has also been repeatedly evident in Francis’ handling of intramural problems within the Church. Thus he has frequently criticized as “rigid” those who adhere strictly to Catholic faith, morals and ritual, while offering approval and increased status to those who are most intent upon “adapting” Catholic teaching and ritual to the desires of those who do not accept all that the Church proclaims.
It is difficult to explain these complexities in Francis’ character and commitments, and we have no choice but to live with them. But Francis’ most obvious tendency as Pope is an insistence on addressing those who do not share the faith in almost exclusively natural terms, with an ever-diminishing willingness to actually proclaim the Gospel.
What can be said for this?
I do not mean to suggest that nothing can be said for this. God reveals Himself to us in two ways, first implicitly through the things He has made—that is, through the natural law—and second explicitly through what we call Revelation proper, culminating in the life, death, resurrection and teachings of Christ. The correct understanding of both has been committed very specifically to the Church Christ founded, which is without any historical doubt the Catholic Church, the Church safeguarded in Faith by Peter and his successors. The point here is that urging the principles of the natural law upon all men and women, even if they are not Christian, is certainly a key component of the mission of the Church. And that is why there is at least something to be said for Pope Francis’ approach to addressing a no-longer-Christian world.
In fact, if this were only one of two equal components of Pope Francis’ world strategy, far fewer questions would be raised about the Pope’s priorities. But what Francis does not seem to realize—what, in fact, he seems almost deliberately to refuse to realize in the interactions with others that we have been able to observe—is that the human person typically finds it very difficult to understand and embrace the natural law without the assistance of grace. As a case in point, while the natural law has been “felt” to some degree by every person who has ever lived, and it was even philosophically known in the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, it was never widely reflected in personal and social living patterns until it was clarified, reinforced, and exceeded in the order of grace through the coming of Christ and the ministry of the Church.
For this reason alone, two questions arise: First, while the natural law is in theory a lingua franca for all people in all cultures, we must ask whether the proclamation of the natural law alone is a viable approach for moving large numbers of people to live differently. Second, while a natural awareness of good and evil is certainly proper to human nature as created by God, we must ask whether the mission preached by Christ and committed to the Church is primarily a mission in service to the natural law.
Clearly the answer to both of these questions is “no”. And this answer has consequences. It means that while the Church’s understanding of morality is firmly rooted in the natural law, the Church’s Divinely assigned message is to preach the Gospel so that Christ might be recognized as our Savior and we might participate in the life of grace. The Catholic mission is not a natural law mission; it is a mission of total transformation through our response to something we cannot learn from the natural law at all. I mean the infinitely sacrificial love of God.
Unfortunately, there is another aspect of Pope Francis’ emphasis on a largely natural approach by the Church to the world which makes it suspect no matter how important the natural law is, or how good it is to uphold it. For Francis’ approach has not only been through the natural law, but through the natural law as presently recognized in today’s dominant culture. Even where the culture is ignorant of the theory and practice of the natural law in general, this or that aspect of natural law will be recognized and emphasized in some way as “obvious”. Consider, for example, the abstract notion of “fairness” which, while often applied incorrectly, is widely held today.
Sadly, in our own dominant culture, the whole theory of law is diametrically opposed to the concept of natural law. Whereas, hundreds of years ago, the understanding was widespread that any human law contrary to the natural law is null and void, our own culture believes only in the authority of positive law, that is, the enactments of State power. Our entire legal system is based on this assumption, from which there is no appeal, except in some cases to other human constitutional enactments which, in this or that governmental form, serve to restrict the waywardness of current policy makers. But it is all purely human; it is all purely declaratory by human governors.
Every culture will almost inescapably pay unknown homage to the natural law in certain ways that are, in any given moment, fairly commonly accepted within that culture. In our culture, we retain ideas of human dignity and human rights which, while perhaps honored most often in the breach, are flogged forward to justify individual personal desires which are directly contrary to the natural law. In this way, one badly-understood aspect of the natural law undermines another. Still, in some ways reality seeps through in any culture, despite being honored often only in the breach. Thus, in our contemporary culture, “human dignity” as manifested in “human fraternity” as well as “stewardship of the environment” for the “common good” are recognized and honored in easily discernable ways.
As a result, what we find in Pope Francis’ efforts to speak to both Catholics and the whole world today is precisely an emphasis on those things which, very broadly speaking, the surrounding culture already accepts. In other words, Pope Francis has a very severe tendency to preach to the world by making it his choir, that is, by nearly always saying what the world will welcome. Not to put too fine a point on it, in contrast to his immediate predecessors (Benedict XVI and John Paul II) and probably the majority of all popes throughout history, Pope Francis has nearly always, with respect to the dominant culture, tended to serve as a weather vane decorated with Christian symbols.
This is maddening—often even infuriating—but there is nothing that we can do about it except to pray and control our tempers while assimilating whatever good there is in what has been offered to us. In other words, as St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:
See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil. [1 Thes 5:15-22]
Committed Catholics today live in a world largely without encouragement, and in a Church largely without any unified encouragement. We remain blessed, of course, by the presence of all who give evidence of a counter-cultural fidelity—all those in whom the light still shines, nor has the salt lost its savor. But we ought not to be fooled by the pervasive shift in emphasis away from what Christ Himself has revealed in order to stress what others want to hear or to piggyback on popular causes. And I will once more explain exactly why we should not be fooled.
It is because even the best theories of men are relatively useless things, and a purely human appeal is an appeal without grace. Effective Christian discourse is based on a recognition that we are neither converted nor saved by human trends and ideas. To the world we must always be as Paul was to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:20): We must be ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. And so we must beseech others on behalf of Christ: “Be reconciled to God.”
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Posted by: dkmayernj8551 -
Mar. 26, 2023 8:03 AM ET USA
Compare a very similar point made by Washington in his Farewell Address: "And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
Posted by: CorneliusG -
Mar. 26, 2023 5:48 AM ET USA
"There is no question that Pope Francis is a Catholic believer". You lost me right there. It's a huge question, but if it really wasn't you wouldn't be taking pains to say it wasn't.
Posted by: Gramps -
Mar. 24, 2023 8:29 PM ET USA
Precisely the problem: "with an ever-diminishing willingness to actually proclaim the Gospel". IMHO, Francis is a coward. He says what others want to hear (fanatics about sexual perversions, climate, socialist government) , and encourages them by promotion (McIlroy, Martin), but fails to recognize and fully support the "average" catholic who is just trying to get to heaven (trads, Chinese, religious). Again an again he fails, seemingly on purpose, to preach the Good News to all. Pathetic.