Last week, I attempted to give some background and a little criticism regarding recent media commentary surrounding Pope Francis’s “political position.” This will be an issue for years to come, no doubt. It would be realistic to assume that academics will be attempting to define the political implications of Francis’s papacy for at least the next half-century. Regardless, we know one key and unchanging factor: Francis is neither a liberal nor a conservative. Both are misrepresentations of Catholic political thought.
Now, however, let us turn to something that should not be so polemical: the issue of whether Francis or any of his initiatives are trying to change Church doctrine. The answer is simple and unqualified: they aren’t.
Before getting into depictions of doctrine and rhetoric in the media, allow me to note one thing. The distinction between doctrine and rhetoric is not meant to downplay the role of rhetoric.
There is no doubt that Church rhetoric is important. It determines how people, including Catholics, view and understand the Church. It also sets out the practical ways that clergy relate to people. As James Martin, S.J., noted in an Oct. 18 article in America Magazine, there is a noteworthy difference between “welcoming” the LGBT community and “providing for” that community. The phrasing is not a matter of Church doctrine. It’s rhetoric, but it matters.
During Francis’s papacy, there have been various media mistakes regarding whether what Francis has said is changing doctrine or not. It happened after his famous off-the-cuff remarks — “Who am I to judge?” — on his flight back from Brazil after World Youth Day last year. The media has misinterpreted him many other times.
Another issue, however, is whether Francis belongs with “liberal Catholicism” or “conservative Catholicism” and whether siding with one over the other could signal doctrinal changes. (Keep in mind that such a political distinction doesn’t really exist.)
Especially in the wake of the synod’s conclusion, various media outlets have focused coverage on “a church deeply divided” between the above groups, to use a phrase from an Oct. 20 article on NPR’s website. Francis has commented on this perception, too: “Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other … (And) it was necessary to live through all this with tranquility.”
As Francis notes (and the history of Catholic political thought indicates), the perception of division is a surface-level issue. The point of the synod was dialogue and discussion in a spirit of collegiality. Even if there are differences of opinion among the bishops about how doctrine will be implemented, these differences should not cause a schism. Contrary to popular belief, Catholic doctrine is wide enough for there to be disagreements about how it should be interpreted. That does not mean we can simply reject the Vatican’s stance, but rather that the Church doesn’t have an official “party line” on how to respond to the demands of doctrine.
The failure to understand the distinction between doctrine and rhetoric leads some to fear that a change in rhetoric could signal a change in doctrine. I think this fear is mostly rooted in doubt that the Church can stretch its heart big enough to let so many people in without changing its own nature. This is a fear that bishops have expressed and a misunderstanding that the media has picked up.
Raymond Cardinal Burke, for example, has expressed concern over whether a conciliatory tone towards divorced and LGBT Catholics might confuse other Catholics on doctrinal issues — namely, the belief that marriage is between a couple that could procreate and that the couple should remain together for their natural lives. Will a merciful and welcoming yet doctrinally-sound response from the Church confuse the faithful? Maybe it could, but that’s not a courageous or hopeful approach to faith.
Some media outlets have certainly displayed the same misunderstanding. For example, ThinkProgress published an article on July 28 about Francis’s comments on the war in Syria. The headline sums up the article: “Did The Pope Just Challenge The Church’s Position On War?” No, not exactly.
The pope made an appeal to sensibilities regarding the violence in Syria. Who can blame him? The Syrian conflict is senseless and has dragged on for more than three years now. It is a brutal conflict and most certainly does not meet the strict qualifications of a “just war.” Francis saying “never war, never war!” does not undo Just War theory. War should never be used if we can help it. That’s a belief rooted in mercy, but it doesn’t change the Church’s position that war is a last resort in dire circumstances.
Francis is a dynamic pope. The media and the public have found plenty of comments to make on his papacy, and it won’t stop anytime soon. I think, if anything, American Catholics should take Francis’s own words as advice regarding the storm of misunderstanding swirling about the pope: it’s necessary “to live through all this with tranquility” until all the misinformation gets sorted out.
Part 1 of this piece was published on page 9 of the Oct. 22 issue.