Was Pope Francis Causing Scandal?
Just one verse each day.
A kind reader wrote last week saying it was all very nice that the Papal wedding ceremony—with some cohabiting couples—wasn’t as problematic as it initially seemed. But, he pressed me: hadn’t I avoided the real issue? That a public wedding ceremony, with the Holy Father presiding, even if canonically defensible had probably caused confusion and given scandal. Just look at the fawning-near-drooling coverage in the mainstream media. “Pope more inclusive.” … “Pope makes Church more welcoming to sinners.” … “Pope who said ‘who am I to judge’ refuses to judge cohabiting couples.” My friend ended his letter with a request that I “would address what …would be the purpose of acting in such a manner that could be a point of causing scandal or confusion.” These are good questions—so here’s a little round-up of things I didn’t get to say.
1. The Pope didn’t give scandal. To give ‘scandal’ one must do something evil or wrong which causes another person to sin (Summa Theologiae, II-II: 43,1) Usually proper scandal also involves enticing or inducing the sin of another—such as drinking to excess and directly drawing a friend into the same behavior. But the Pope didn’t do anything wrong. Instead he did something entirely consistent with the canonical norms on marriage. Further, as I argued last time, depending on how you read the sociological data the Pope may have done something we will remember as praiseworthy and highly important for the Church today. Time will tell. But, by definition, this is not scandal.
2. The Pope didn’t cause confusion. To cause confusion you’ve got to do something that specifically obfuscates, subverts, or undermines the teaching of a truth of the faith. But the Pope didn’t do any of these things. As a matter of fact, for those who want to understand, the Pope cleared up a number of things. To take just one thing: I’d be willing to bet there a number of the faithful out there who didn’t know before that you could get validly married when you’re not in the state of grace. Now we can argue about whether that is a good thing to know—or whether this causes instead some kind of moral hazard—but the fact remains that clearing things up sounds like the opposite of causing confusion.
What about those who don’t want to understand? The writers of those articles with the eager-beaver headlines about the Church going soft and changing its teaching? Well I have this to say: the Pope didn’t cause their confusion. This is what we’d call vincible or willful ignorance—because anybody who wants to know what the Church still teaches about marriage, cohabitation, or anything else can freely access a great deal of clear catechesis. Journalists and other intellectuals have no excuse for saying that the teachings of the Church are changing in any particular way—and no reason for it other than their own wishful thinking. Furthermore, their opinions and ideas have little to do with the health and vitality of the Church.
3. The Pope is not a politician. It is not the job of the Pope to ensure that every action or statement is proofed against someone claiming that it means what it does not mean. The mainstream media will intentionally spin what the Church does. This is so obvious it’s not even worth noting, but there it is anyway. Should the Pope be blamed because there are people who want to undermine the Church’s teachings on sexuality and use every opportunity to do it?
4. The Pope is seeking the lost sheep. The point has been made before, but I’ll make it again. Pope Francis understands himself to be undertaking a ministry to the prodigal sons. He is asking for a profound pastoral shift in the way we go about business as usual in the Church.
Evangelii Gaudium is perfectly clear about this. And yet in spite of this clarity, we sometimes find our first reaction is that he’s being too easy on the prodigal son. Which makes us, I’m pretty sure, exactly like the older son. This isn’t just a nice thought for personal reflection—this is a bold assertion about the entire condition of the Church. Pope Francis seems to believe that the entire Church has been acting like the older son.
5. The Pope thinks the key to social change is grace. Now this isn’t a new idea, and it isn’t even a shocking idea. But some of us, especially those of us who love books and ideas and the use of Reason, need to be reminded about this. Take legal abortion. We’ve been fighting the monster in this country for more than four decades. We thought we could fight it by the use of sound, secular arguments—arguments we hoped would be unifying because they didn’t depend upon Church or creed. But it hasn’t worked very well.
Consider instead how John Paul II fought communism. In 1979 in Victory Square in Warsaw he cried: “I who am a Son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul II—I cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost: Let your Spirit descend. Let your Spirit descend. And renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.” Just ten years later the Soviet regime crumbled. Yet we still cannot undo the evil of Roe vs. Wade.
Here, I think, is a way to understand what Pope Francis is up to with his pastoral agenda. He wants to sweep away bureaucratic ways of getting grace to people—as if these were methods of combat unsuited for a guerilla war—and focus instead on getting grace to people. Find the bare minimum. Feed the people. Because we can’t transform society if nobody is Christian. And we can’t get more Christians if we can’t get grace to them. It’s a strange idea, I admit—provoke a sacramental revival so as to take down the Goliath power structures of the culture of death. But then, strange as it sounds, this is exactly how it worked for the earliest Christians. And it just might work today.
Catherine Ruth Pakalukis an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion.She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010). She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.