Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

A sin today, but not tomorrow: the curious doctrine of Pope Francis

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 29, 2023

“Today it is a sin to possess atomic bombs; the death penalty is a sin,” Pope Francis told a gathering of Jesuits in Lisbon earlier this month. These are stern, clear, uncompromising statements. But, the Pope continued, “it was not so before.”

Thus in the past, the Pope tells us, it was not (or at least not necessarily) sinful to have nuclear weapons or to execute a convicted criminal. But now, he tells us, it is.

If something which was not sinful in the past is sinful today, can it work the other way around? Can something which was once sinful become morally acceptable—perhaps even welcome? Pope Francis was confronted with that question during the same meeting in Lisbon. One of the Jesuits in attendance asked about young people who identify as homosexuals:

They feel that they are an active part of the Church, but they often do not see in doctrine their way of living affectivity, and they do not see the call to chastity as a personal call to celibacy, but rather as an imposition. Since they are virtuous in other areas of their lives, and know the doctrine, can we say that they are all in error, because they do not feel, in conscience, that their relationships are sinful?

The Pope’s answer was not nearly as strong and clear as his condemnation of the death penalty. But he certainly did not confirm the age-old Christian teaching that homosexual acts are immoral. Instead he expressed his impatience with what he sees as an undue preoccupation with “sins below the waist.” But after calling for “sensitivity and creativity” in pastoral care, he concluded by saying: “Everyone, everyone is called to live in the Church: never forget that.”

Yes, certainly everyone is called to live in the Church. Including homosexuals. Including executioners. Including generals who manage stockpiles of nuclear weapons. But everyone is also called to live by the teachings of the Church. And Pope Francis is not shy about pronouncing some teachings. So why did he avoid a direct answer to the question about the morality of homosexual acts? His explanation was revealing: “It is clear that today the issue of homosexuality is very strong, and the sensitivity in this regard changes according to historical circumstances.”

Historical circumstances change, certainly, and public attitudes change with them. But fundamental moral principles do not change. If adultery and fornication and sodomy were wrong in the 1st and 10th and 16th centuries, they are wrong today. Recreational sex may be widely accepted—even applauded—in a decadent society. But the Church is not (or should not be) governed by popular trends.

Which is why so many Catholics are distressed when the Bishop of Rome seems to suggest that Church teachings may be influenced by changes in secular thought. If “the issue of homosexuality is very strong”—and it is—might that not suggest the need for greater clarity on fundamental principles?

During the same question-and-answer session, when he complained about “reactionary” American Catholics who resist changes in Church teaching, Pope Francis made another reference to how secular thinking might influence doctrine:

Here, our understanding of the human person changes with time, and our consciousness also deepens. The other sciences and their evolution also help the Church in this growth in understanding.

Developments in the sciences can clarify our thinking on questions (such as—significantly—when human life begins). But the sciences do not really change “our understanding of the human person” in any fundamental way. It is difficult to understand what the Pope means here—unless perhaps he is referring to the shifting consensus of popular opinion among scientists, which today calls for greater acceptance of homosexuality.

Pope Francis cites St. Vincent of Lérins as his authority for the claim that Church teaching changes over time. But St. Vincent, like St. John Henry Newman, insisted that Church teaching develops rather than changes. A doctrine may be clarified, or expanded, or rendered in more precise language; but it cannot be reversed. A doctrine is like a plant, which may grow and bloom and bear fruit, but can never become something different from what it was originally. An acorn can become a mighty oak, but not a maple.

In an excellent article on the proper understanding of St. Vincent, which appeared in First Things last year, Msgr. Thomas Guarino writes that he would “counsel the Pope to avoid citing St. Vincent to support reversals, as with his teaching that the death penalty is ‘per se contrary to the Gospel.’” My copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, lacking the latest change ordered by Pope Francis, teaches (#2266): “The traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.”

Whether the death penalty should be invoked in particular circumstances is a prudential question. But if the Church traditionally supported the right and duty of the state to punish criminals, then the death penalty cannot be “per se contrary to the Gospel”—unless that traditional teaching was simply wrong. And if the Church was wrong in the past, we have no guarantee that the Church will not be wrong again in the future. Or for that matter in the present.

Just this past Sunday we heard a Gospel reading about the solid rock on which our Church is built. For centuries our guarantee of the integrity of Catholic doctrine was the teaching magisterium, guarded by Peter’s successors. When Pope Francis questions traditional teachings—and mocks those who see the magisterium as a “monolith”—he undermines all teaching authority, including his own.

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: bertha - Aug. 31, 2023 12:05 PM ET USA

    Phil has hit the nail on the head when it comes to the squishy manner in which Pope Francis deals with what is solid doctrine. God save us from compromise! Perhaps it is this popular consensus thinking that is another way to pave the road to Hell.

  • Posted by: IM4HIM - Aug. 31, 2023 11:50 AM ET USA

    If the Pope does not approve of the right to self defense, then why does he have guards at The Vatican and when he travels? The right to self defense is a legitimate right for individuals, families and countries. Of course the specific circumstances around any individual case may vary and impact the degree of guilt for the actions. But once again the Pope comes across as a politician eager to please the masses with his pleasant words.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Aug. 30, 2023 11:01 AM ET USA

    Someday we'll understand the reason why the Holy Spirit has afflicted us with this anti-American, anti-traditionalist Argentinian in the Chair of Peter. Until then we pray for him daily that he will keep his mouth shut about things he doesn't understand, especially as they impinge on human sciences. Well, physical sciences too.

  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 30, 2023 9:14 AM ET USA

    In the US alone "sins below the waist" directly resulted in bankruptcies of 24 dioceses - so far, closings of thousands of parishes and schools, with many millions of innocent souls worldwide harmed by the scandals. Q: "Can we say that [active homosexuals] are in error, because they do not feel, in conscience..." A: Are any sinners, including murderous dictators, in error if they don't feel it in their conscience? Only well-formed conscience can tell right from wrong, based on Faith and reason.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Aug. 29, 2023 8:19 PM ET USA

    "can we say that they are all in error, because they do not feel, in conscience, that their relationships are sinful?" Exclusionary religion at its finest (i.e. everyone else is a sinner no matter their "feeling conscience".) Confused may be too nice an evaluation.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Aug. 29, 2023 8:07 PM ET USA

    With apologies to WFB - Pater Si, Magister No.