November 1, 2020 - Pastor Message05/18/2021
“As you hedge round your vineyard with thorns, set barred doors over your mouth. As you seal up your silver and gold, so balance and weigh your words. Take care not to slip by your tongue and fall victim to your foe waiting in ambush” (Sirach 28:2426).
I don’t know if Pope Francis has ever taken a psychological personality assessment, like the classic Myers Briggs, but, if he did, I’d be willing to bet he would fall solidly in the range of an extrovert. I say this because he loves being with people and draws energy from interacting with others. He also has a habit of thinking out loud and processing his thoughts, not internally through silent, personal reflection, but externally through conversation with others. This latter characteristic has the downside of sometimes creating confusion about where the pope really stands on an issue and how his views should be taken by the faithful. A clear example of this popped up recently in an interview which Pope Francis gave for an upcoming documentary, Francesco, in which he made some remarks in support of civil unions for same-sex couples.
If you are interested in what the pope actually said and the full context in which it was said, I would direct you to the following articles on the Catholic News Agency website: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/contextof popesciviluniondocumentarycommentreported14270; https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/popefrancis homosexualitycommentsheavilyedite dindocumentary novaticancommentoncivilunion88210. It is beyond the scope of this brief column to go into detail on the content of the pope’s comments, nor do I have any inside information about what goes on in the pope’s mind. Given the pope’s habit of speaking off the cuff and letting whatever thoughts pop into his head come tumbling out of his mouth without considering the ramifications of his remarks, especially as a hostile media is always waiting to take anything even remotely controversial that the pope might say and twist it to push its own agenda, my purpose in this particular column is to give us all a framework within which to evaluate the pope’s remarks whenever he speaks or writes regarding their level of authority and whether we can, should, or must believe them.
At the peak of the pope’s authority is what we call papal infallibility, that is that we believe that the Holy Spirit can guide the pope to pronounce a truth about faith or morals that cannot be in error. Popes exercise this level of authority very rarely, and do so only when making explicitly clear that it is their purpose to do so, as Pope Pius XII did when he infallibly pronounced that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven, for example. Such truths must be believed as a matter of faith by the Christian faithful. Pope Francis has thus far not exercised this level of authority at all during his pontificate.
The next level of papal teaching authority involves the exercise of their ordinary teaching office, such as in papal encyclicals. This can be definitive, that is that the pope, again under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, intends that this particular teaching resolve some controversy of the faith or expound upon some matter of divine revelation or authoritative Church teaching in such a way that it must be held definitively as true by the Christian faithful. This level of teaching can also be of a lower level, such as an exhortation on existing Church teachings or practical suggestions for living the faith in current circumstances. The faithful are required to give this lower level of papal teaching “religious submission of the mind and will,” that is that at the very least they should not publicly contradict the teaching and, even more, should accept it as true unless overwhelming contrary evidence proves otherwise. Pope Francis teaches at both of these lower levels all the time in his many encyclicals and other writings as well as his homilies and public audiences.
The lowest level of papal authority, if it can even be called that, is personal opinion. We need to remember that the pope is not only the successor of Peter, the rock on which Christ promised to build his Church, but, like Peter, also a flawed human being. He has a limited personal worldview. His personal opinions are affected by those limitations, and thus, while we always owe the pope respect and consideration, his personal opinions do not compel religious faith or obedience. Unfortunately, Pope Francis often speaks on this level publicly, which is where much of the confusion comes from as people assume he is teaching authoritatively when he is actually simply sharing his personal opinion. I would argue that his recent remarks on civil unions for same-sex couples fall into this category.
Pope Francis is who he is, for both better and worse. He will no doubt continue to say things that confuse and even shock us. We need to stop believing the media hype and panicking every time he does this as if he is completely changing 2000 years of Church teaching. We need to be able to interpret his statements properly so that we can apply them appropriately to our faith lives. I hope the above categories can help so that the true, authentic, and authoritative teachings of Pope Francis can lead us all together, under his leadership, to the kingdom we all serve.
Fr. Marc Stockton