Yes, the Pope is a Catholic. But he’s confusing other Catholics.
Blogger Mark Mallett has done a real service—and I mean this sincerely—by a long list of links to statements by Pope Francis voicing clearly orthodox Catholic beliefs on topics important to conservative Catholics, including abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, population control, ideology, and the existence of hell.
Sure enough, the Pope is a Catholic. But why is that noteworthy?
It’s difficult to imagine that anyone would have compiled a similar set of links to demonstrate that Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II held conventionally Catholic beliefs. Why is it necessary in the case of Pope Francis?
The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Pope Francis himself has raised the questions about his own orthodoxy, with a long series of provocative public statements. The world expects consistency from the successors of St. Peter; the duty of the Pontiff (and of every bishop) is to preserve intact the faith that has been handed down from the Apostles. When any Pope makes a statement that seems at odds with previous expressions of the faith, it is disquieting. When he makes such statements frequently—and, to compound the problem, declines to clarify them—the result is widespread disorientation. This is the phenomenon that I sought to explain in Lost Shepherd: not that Pope Francis is preaching heresy, but that he has spread confusion about the content of orthodox Catholic belief.
Take for instance the report circulated recently—during Holy Week, of all times—that the Holy Father had denied the existence of Hell. We still don’t know what the Pope actually said in his conversation with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari. We don’t even know whether the Pope knew that Scalfari planned to publish the interview (or his memories thereof). What we do know is that, thanks to the Pope’s penchant for offhand remarks, hundreds of thousands of people were told that the Pope does not believe in Hell.
Once that damage had been done—by Scalfari, I don’t doubt, more than by the Pope—how could it have been repaired? A prompt statement from the Pope, indicating that he certainly does believe in Hell and that Scalfari had misquoted him, might have helped. But such a statement (which was not forthcoming) would not have commanded the same degree of public attention. Of course the Pope believes in Hell. One expects him to believe in Hell. It’s a dog-bites-man story, suitable only for the back pages of the daily newspaper.
And after all what does Pope Francis believe about Hell? He has alluded to its existence on many occasions. Still it is possible that he might proclaim belief in Hell without accepting anything like the ordinary Catholic understanding of what Hell is. It would be theoretically consistent to say (as the Pope has said) that unrepentant Mafiosi go to Hell, and that (as he allegedly said to Scalfari) Hell is the annihilation of souls. So the potential for confusion would remain.
Alternatively, the Vatican might have remarked that Scalfari is an unscrupulous journalist, who was exploiting his personal friendship with the Pontiff to promote his own anti-religious agenda. There would have been a good deal of truth, I believe, in such a statement (which, again, was not made). But that truth would have prompted more pointed questions, about why the Holy Father had agreed to multiple interviews with such an agent provocateur.
One of the Pope’s most enthusiastic supporters, Austen Ivereigh, tackled the latter question on his Twitter feed, portraying the Pope’s interview as a template for the New Evangelization:
This superbly captures the Francis-Scalfari relationship. There’s a Christ-like vulnerability in a pope giving a geriatric atheist the freedom to twist his words. Some Catholics may hate it, but Francis is evangelizing (not proselytising).
Maybe Pope Francis was engaged in evangelization when he sat down to talk with Scalfari. But Christians are not the only believers who see in social media an opportunity for promoting their beliefs—or, in this case, their case for unbelief. When he published the claim that Pope Francis had denied the existence of Hell, Scalfari was engaged in his own evangelization, spreading his anti-Gospel. And he did this with finesse, trapping his subject in a box with no exit.
Yes, the Pope is a Catholic. But he sometimes sounds like a confused Catholic, and therefore a confusing Catholic leader. To recognize that problem does not require accusing the Pope of heresy; the confusion among the faithful is trouble enough.
And the confusion among the faithful—the sense of disorientation—is real. Regrettably, Pope Francis has compounded the problem with his acerbic criticism of the “rigid” Catholics, the “doctors of the law,” the daily Mass-goers, reverent altar-boys, rabbit-like breeders, pro-lifers, and defenders of marriage. These comments—and the nastier remarks by the Pope’s energetic champions on the social media—may bring a sympathetic smirk to the faces of liberal Catholics with master’s degrees from summer theology workshops. But they rattle the simple believers.
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