Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Pope Francis, ‘doctor of the law’

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 19, 2024

Pope Francis frequently scolds the “doctors of the law,” the legalists, the clericalists. But his autobiography Life: My Story Through History shows that he fits into those categories himself.

While the book is scheduled for publication today, substantial excerpts have already appeared in the Italian media. And nearly every outlet—including Vatican News—has called attention to the Pope’s comments on homosexuality. Notice how he reasons to his position.

In defending Fiducia Supplicans, the controversial Vatican document authorizing blessings for same-sex couples, the Pope acknowledges that some bishops have declined to follow the directive, but argues that there is no cause for alarm, “because the doctrine of the Church is not questioned.”

Actually quite a few bishops have protested that Catholic doctrine is questioned—or rather cast aside—by the new document. And one venerable Christian body, the Coptic Orthodox Church, has protested vigorously enough to break off ecumenical relations with Rome. But leave the theological debate aside for the moment. My concern here is the Pope’s method of reasoning. For the sake of the argument, let’s say that the defined doctrine of the Church—the letter of the law—is not questioned by Fiducia Supplicans. Is that a sufficient defense of the directive? Is the Pontiff not almost conceding that (as I argued in Lost Shepherd), his leadership is characterized by a pattern of walking right up to the edge of heresy and then stopping just short, insisting that there is no direct contradiction of Catholic teaching?

Dozens of bishops, hundreds of priests, and thousands of lay Catholics have agreed that Fiducia is at odds with the perennial tradition of the Church—a radical break from what has been believed “always and everywhere, and by everyone” in the Catholic world. A serious theologian, facing such a charge, would want to demonstrate that the critics were mistaken, that his thoughts actually were in conformity with the Catholic tradition. Instead Pope Francis makes light of the protests, saying that “if some brother bishops decide not to follow this path, it does not mean that this is the antechamber of a schism.”

What an astonishing thing for a Roman Pontiff to say—to defend his policies by saying that they are not schismatic! The role of the Bishop of Rome is to unite the brethren, to be the focus of unity in the universal Church, and to preserve the integrity of the faith. Yet here Pope Francis is defending a shift away from tradition, which has undeniably caused divisions among the world’s bishops, by saying first that it is not a denial of doctrine and then that it is not a cause of schism. Talk about damning with faint praise!

In another comment on homosexuality that appears in his autobiography, Pope confirms that homosexual marriage is impossible. There it is: that pesky doctrine again, the step that he will not take because it would violate the law. But civil unions are good, he argues, because “it is right that these people who live the gift of love can have legal coverage like everyone else.”

Actually homosexuals already do have legal coverage “like everyone else,” even in states where same-sex unions are not legally recognized. What they don’t have is the special benefits that the state offers to marriage, in recognition of that unique relationship which is founded on human nature and on God’s law. That is why, in 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) taught that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.” Obviously Pope Francis is tossing aside that Vatican pronouncement. But again, leave that aside and focus on the logic of the Pope’s argument.

The Church teaches that a homosexual relationship is seriously disordered, insofar as it is based on gravely sinful behavior. What we’re talking about here is not simply a friendship that might be called a “gift of love.” Any sexual relationship outside of marriage is ultimately damaging to the people involved; the Church cannot look upon it as a “gift.” For the people caught up in such relationships, true pastoral care would require helping them to break off their unnatural relations, not encouraging them to think of it as the equivalent to a sacramental marriage.

The Pope’s allies assure us that in approving of civil unions, and encouraging blessings for same-sex couples, the Pontiff is not changing Catholic doctrine. The letter of the law remains intact. But the Pope’s public statements conflict with the spirit of the law, with the logic of Catholic teaching, with the tradition of the Church, with the sense of the faithful.

So how can the Pope’s allies justify these departures from the perennial teaching? Simply: by reminding us that Francis is the Pope, to whom we owe obedience. So we are asked to accept a novelty, not because it is clearly based on Scripture or sacred Tradition, not because a logical extension of previous teachings, not because it is universally accepted, but simply because the man who propounds the new teaching holds a high ecclesiastical office. This is clericalism on a grand scale, employed to defend a ‘doctor of the law.’

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 21, 2024 6:01 PM ET USA

    "feedback" raises a good point in his comment below. When a bishop commands a priest to sin, the priest has no other choice but to disobey the unlawful command. If this priest obstinately refuses to obey the bishop and commit the sin, he becomes "canceled". A "canceled" priest is one less vocation. Thus the artificial construct of a need for female "lectors", "acolytes", and soon deaconesses in the Novus Ordo world. The pre-Conciliar world suffers not from these constructs & has many vocations.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Mar. 20, 2024 1:17 PM ET USA

    You hit it, Mr. Lawler! Francis does everything through merely his canonical authority, that is his legal authority to do whatever he wishes. Theological reasoning in his documents has been weak or absent, which is why he refused to answer the Cardinals‘ dubia. He refuses to dialogue with the faithful, while insisting on dialogue with ideological opponents of the faith. Now he asserts homosexual couples have a good (“the gift of love”), which the magisterium has always taught was mortal sin.

  • Posted by: bertha - Mar. 20, 2024 11:44 AM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler has once again provided readers with a clear and succinct analysis of the Pope's latest silliness. As someone who has been a great fan of several Popes including John Paul II, I find the real novelty is not the document but the man they call Pope Francis. Let us pray for him and maybe he will see the LIGHT!

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 20, 2024 9:48 AM ET USA

    "Some bishops have declined to follow Fiducia, but no cause for alarm, because Church doctrine is not questioned." Francis lets individual bishops reject Fiducia but at least two of them already announced that they will force priests to bless homosexual couples. Abp Lackner of Salzburg: "Priests cannot refuse same sex blessings," cdl. Cobo of Madrid: "Priests must fully apply Fiducia." Bishops are free not to violate their conscience but priests don't have the same freedom. This is a nightmare.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Mar. 19, 2024 5:13 PM ET USA

    Your words deserve a wider audience than will read them, no matter how much I may underestimate the size of that audience. I am routinely gobsmacked most especially by the lack of sufficient ability or intellect within the clerical ranks that you (and I) feel the need to propound what should be glaringly obvious.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Mar. 19, 2024 3:44 PM ET USA

    This is an excellent analysis. One scenario is that this pontificate is attempting to render Catholic sexual morality (doctrine) irrelevant to pastoral practice. But if Catholic sexual morality does not guide practice, what is its use, other than to serve as a point of discussion among moral theologians? Moreover, since actions speak louder than words, how long before this doctrine is seriously questioned? We are already seeing this questioning among members of the Church hierarchy.

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Mar. 19, 2024 12:11 PM ET USA

    Wonderful witness, Mr Lawler! The Gift of Love is God's in which He Wills and Declares, "Let us make man, male and female, in Our Image and Likeness, each to leave their family and to become one in matrimony multiplying HIS 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙜𝙞𝙛𝙩 𝙤𝙛 𝙡𝙤𝙫𝙚 - 𝙘𝙝𝙞𝙡𝙙𝙧𝙚𝙣 - to the ends of the earth"! SS-unions are not a gift of love, they are but rigid and backward lust present with rationalizations, et al, but there is neither gift nor love in said, blessings of Saint Joseph and his Solemnity!