Saturday, January 6, 2024

Pope Francis: Author of Confusion

Image by Vectorportal.comCC BY.

Anyone who follows this blog (so, you know, all one or two of you) knows that I've had a complicated relationship with the papacy of Francis. I was born into the Catholic church, the first in my family to be so, and while there is much about Catholicism that appeals to me, I've struggled since I was a kid with a lot of the things I was expected to believe. These days, I take the whole thing as a sort of symbolic expression of humanity's connection to divinity, spoken in a particular dialect. 

When I came back to the church after many years away, Francis was pope. At first I liked him. I appreciated his pastoral approach to the papacy. He seemed intent on acting more like a shepherd and less like a king. He led with compassion instead of with decrees. I thought this was just what the church needed.

But as his papacy went on, I began to see things that caused me concern. 

There was the deal he struck with China to recognize the Communist government's distorted version of the church. By doing so, he abandoned the Chinese underground church that had remained faithful to Catholic teaching.

There was his muddled response to the sex-abuse crisis. He offered some condemnatory words but otherwise advised people to fast and pray for the sake of the church -- pretty much the equivalent of offering "thoughts and prayers" after a mass shooting.

Then there was his attack on traditionalists and the Latin Mass. He condemned the supposed rigidity of traditionalists and put severe restrictions on the Mass that had existed for 400 years before the modern Novus Ordo Mass took root in the 1970s. 

That one really left me wondering: What kind of pope attacks the traditions of his own church?

Well, I think we got a pretty clear answer to what kind of pope Francis is when his Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document just before Christmas approving of the blessing of gay couples. Specifically, Fiducia Supplicans authorizes priests to bless "couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples."

Now, let me make something abundantly clear right off the bat. It bothers me not at all if two people of the same sex want to get married. The best evidence we have says that sexual orientation is immutable, not a choice, and there is thus no justifiable reason to deny two people of the same sex who love each other the same legal and civil rights that heterosexual couples enjoy, nor is there any reason to deny them the right to have their relationship civilly confirmed, recognized, and celebrated. 

The problem here is that Catholic teaching has always upheld that the only proper expression of sexual union is between two married people of the opposite sex. That definition excludes not only same-sex couples but also cohabiting couples, divorced people in a second marriage that the church doesn't recognize, people whose marriage wasn't performed in front of a priest, even adulterous pairings. In theory, Fiducia Supplicans allows for blessings of all these unions. 

Thus, the issue is not so much the blessing of gay couples as it is that the document fundamentally changes Catholic teaching on sexuality. 

The Vatican, no doubt aware of what it was doing, took pains to note in the document that the blessing was not a validation of the "irregular" union itself but a prayer offered for the couple in the union. The problem is that that's a distinction without a difference. A couple makes up a union. The union doesn't exist without the couple. Thus, if you're blessing a couple, you're de facto blessing their union. If a football team came to a priest asking for a blessing before an upcoming game, everyone would understand that it was the team being blessed, in the context of what they want to achieve collectively on the playing field. 

It has to be noted that individuals have always been able to approach a priest for a blessing. You ask for a blessing when you begin your confession to a priest. You can approach the priest at communion to receive a blessing if you don't feel you're properly disposed to receive the Eucharist. That's never been a problem. The problem with this new document is that it's going out of its way to create an entirely new category for blessing couples within a specific context. A man could approach a priest asking for a blessing to find the strength to leave his mistress and return in fidelity to his family. What he wouldn't do is approach the priest with his mistress and ask for a blessing for the two of them as a couple. That's what the new document allows for. The Vatican can claim that it's not blessing the union the couple is in, but in reality, you can't separate the couple from the union. To claim that you can is to engage in hairsplitting sophistry to an absurd degree.

The document also puts forth an entirely new category of blessing, claiming that a "pastoral" blessing, which includes the newly allowed blessings, is not the same as a "liturgical" blessing. The distinction is intended to further emphasize the point that these blessings are not to be seen as some kind of formal affirmation but as something a priest might do casually if, say, spontaneously approached on the street by a couple asking for a blessing. But all that's really doing is creating a new category to give cover for something that the church knows it otherwise couldn't justify under its own teachings.

And all you have to do is look at the reaction from those who approve of the idea to see what the Vatican has unleashed. The media has spun the document as a monumental step forward for the church, as if it were throwing off its primitive bigotry and finally getting with the times. Fr. James Martin, a priest who for years has been an outspoken advocate for gay Catholics, praised the document. He went so far as to call up a gay couple he knew and arranged a photo op with The New York Times, so that the whole world could see a Catholic priest blessing two men holding hands.

While that's happening, you have bishops -- like ours here in Idaho -- basically telling people that nothing about church teaching has changed, as if you should ignore what you can see happening right before your eyes. 

But there are also bishops -- many, many bishops worldwide -- who are flat-out rejecting the document and ordering their priests not to offer the kind of blessings that the document newly permits. A number of Eastern Catholic officials are also pointing out -- correctly, as far as I can see -- that Fiducia Supplicans doesn't even apply to their rites, only to the Latin rite. They sensibly and understandably want to distance themselves from this terrible document. 

So why are there two different reactions to the document, even from the bishops? Well, I think what you're seeing is the difference between bishops who are concerned with defending church teaching, those who want to change church teaching, those who probably just want to go along to get along and are hoping the whole thing blows over, and those who think that whatever the pope says, goes. 

More than that, there's no unified reaction to it because the document itself sows so much confusion. On one hand, it carves out an entirely new category of blessing in order to bless things that violate church teaching, and on the other it claims that couples are different from unions and that these blessings are not to be carried out in a formalized church setting, lest there be the potential for scandal and confusion.

Well, it's kind of too late not to cause confusion. And this is so very typical of Francis' papacy and his communication style. He speaks in vague generalities about things, leaving people to wonder what exactly he's even trying to say. The word salad of Fiducia Supplicans is no exception, inasmuch as it authorizes blessings of "irregular" sexual unions while simultaneously claiming not to. Thus, while the original document stated that there would be no further discussion on the matter, the dicastery has since had to offer two "clarifications," the more recent of which is almost half as long as the original document. 

Unfortunately, the clarifications don't clarify anything. They essentially insist that nothing has changed about church teaching, and that what the document states must be accepted and universally implemented. But if nothing has changed, then why was the document even needed? In 2021, this same dicastery unequivocally answered "no" when asked if the church could bless same-sex unions. So yes, everything has changed. If it hadn't, why would you feel the need to order everyone to accept and implement what the document says? 

It's also quite telling that the most recent clarification explicitly states that the document doesn't teach heresy. Funny that that would have be pointed out, isn't it? In grand Orwellian fashion, it seems that heresy is being proclaimed as sound Catholic teaching, while claiming that the heresy actually isn't heresy at all.

And yes, I'm calling Pope Francis a heretic. And I don't apologize for it.

The most charitable explanation I've heard for the existence of Fiducia Supplicans is that it was actually intended to rein in the German clergy who were well on their way toward creating liturgical frameworks for the blessing of same-sex unions in formal church settings. But I don't think that explanation flies, because the Vatican could simply have said, "Stop doing what you're doing, or you'll be excommunicated." Instead, it said,"Oh, go ahead and keep doing it, but don't make it look like a formal rite." 

The thing is, whatever you bring to a priest to be blessed has to conform to God's will, and whether anyone likes it or not, the God of the Bible is kind of unambiguous about what he thinks of homosexual acts. But it's not just homosexuality that's at issue here. For example, I could bring a rosary to a priest to be blessed, but that same priest would be right to refuse to bless, say, a Wiccan pentagram necklace. In the same way, an alcoholic or a thief could ask for a blessing to overcome their sinful ways, but not to bless their alcoholism or thievery. Nor could a woman ask a priest for a blessing that her abortion goes well. 

That's the key thing to understand here: If an individual comes to a priest seeking a blessing, it's assumed that the person is seeking to find the strength, clarity, and humility to become a better, more faithful person, in obedience to the church. And that's the problem with coming before a priest in the context of a couple in an "irregular" relationship: You can say you're only blessing the two people in the couple and not the relationship, but the couple wouldn't be presenting itself as a couple unless it was seeking validation for the relationship itself. 

Implicit in the idea of a blessing is that the recipient is working toward repentance and conformity with God's will and the will of the church. And let's be real: No couple, straight or gay, is going to approach a priest asking for the strength to end their "irregular" relationship so they can be aligned with church teaching. No, they're going to approach so the priest can validate their union. I can assure you that the two men being blessed by James Martin weren't looking to end their relationship, nor did James Martin have that in mind for them.  

Again, I don't care if two loving people of the same sex want to enter into a union. That's not even the point. The point is that the church is doing something that violates its own teachings. If you want to be conformed to the church, you have to follow its rules. It's really simple. I got a convalidation of my marriage in front of a priest when I returned to the church, because that was what the church expected. But when you have the leadership of the church itself saying you no longer have to abide by church teaching, then it's just undermined any moral authority it ever had. After all, if the church can't be bothered to enforce its own teachings, then what reason do I have to abide by them? What reason does anyone have?

No one likes to hear talk of "sin" these days, but the church teaches that certain things are indeed sins in its eyes. It should go without saying that the church cannot bless sin -- but now it's doing exactly that.  The church apparently no longer has the courage to stand by its own convictions. And yes, I do see this incident as an act of moral cowardice on the Vatican's part. My disdain for this papacy cannot be overstated. It's good at following Jesus' command to "judge not, lest you be judged," but it fails abysmally at recognizing that while Jesus showed mercy to sinners, he also told them to "go, and sin no more."

Francis wants a church that meets people where they are on their journey. That's commendable, in and of itself. But he's going about it the wrong way. What he's doing is creating a church that rubber-stamps people's current actions and never encourages them to transform their lives and grow into the faith. We have a church that wants people to feel good, and that's about it. It has drained itself of any relevance it had left. 

And that's really the bigger problem here: The church has symbolically bent the knee to the prevailing culture. It has proclaimed that what the church teaches should be subordinated to what the culture wants. It may not realize it yet, but it has just painted itself into a corner. It almost doesn't matter what the document says, because the culture has interpreted it to mean that the church is now fully on board with same-sex unions. And if any priest refuses to give a blessing, the current climate is one in which that priest could well be attacked, both physically and reputationally, for refusing to play along. And I'm not even sure the Vatican would have his back.   

The Vatican has had to do so much damage control in the wake of this document that it's resorted to grasping at straws to justify it. For example, the dicastery now says the blessing is supposed to be only "10 or 15 seconds" long. Well, what difference does the length of the blessing make? It's either in accordance with church teaching or it isn't, whether it lasts 10 seconds or an hour. That would be like saying, "Sure, we said 'Hail Satan,' but it only took a few seconds. At least we didn't perform an entire black Mass, so everything's good." 

But I think it's also important for Catholics to understand that Fiducia Supplicans isn't going to be rescinded. It's here to stay, because this papacy wants it to stay. It will blame any pushback on either "rigid traditionalists" or on a failure to understand the document. Indeed, the argument a lot of its proponents are leading with is "You clearly haven't even read the document." Well, yeah, I have. And that's the problem. Others are holding the line by essentially gaslighting the critics. "Oh, calm down," they say. "Nothing has changed." That's basically what Idaho's bishop is saying to the faithful. But again, if nothing has changed, why have the document at all? You can't have it both ways.

But even traditionalists can't blame the Vatican entirely for the fact that the document won't be taken back. It's astounding how many Catholics always say something to the effect that "I don't like this, but I'm not leaving" when controversies arise, as they so often do with this papacy. You know what part of that the Vatican hears? "I'm not leaving." That just gives Catholic leadership carte blanche to keep on doing whatever it wants to. It knows there will never be any consequences for its actions.

"Oh, but the pope can never be wrong." No, that's not true. The dogma of papal infallibility, which emerged from the First Vatican Council, states that the pope, guided by the Holy Spirit, can't be in error when speaking dogmatically on matters of faith or morals, but only in that specific context. He can still render personal opinions and be dead wrong. He's human, not a god. 

"Oh, but leaving the church is apostasy." Is it, when you have an apostate -- a heretic -- sitting in the chair of Peter? Who actually left the faith -- the person walking away or the pope? This is exactly what happens when you allow "development of doctrine" to run unchecked and you let modernists and heretics infiltrate the highest levels of the church. Over 2,000 years of history, we've seen the Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox, the Eastern Orthodox, the Protestant Reformers, the Old Catholics, and the sedevacantists all separate themselves from Rome. After a while, you have to wonder if maybe the ones who broke away were never the problem -- that maybe the common denominator is you.

I understand that people who sincerely believe that the Catholic church was founded by Jesus Christ himself can't allow themselves to believe that the church could be in error, let alone that it might not be the "true" church. Taking that stance, in all candor, makes you come across like someone in an abusive relationship who endlessly makes rationalizations for why he or she could never leave. It also makes the entire Catholic church sound like a cult whose leader can never be wrong about anything.   

It should be noted that the church does not reject or condemn gay people; to the contrary, it welcomes them, as Jesus welcomed all, but it also calls them to a life of celibacy. You may or may not agree with the church's teaching, but that's what it is. But now what the church is not-so-implicitly saying with Fiducia Supplicans is that if you're gay and not celibate, that's actually OK. In fact, it's so OK that we'll go ahead and bless you and your partner -- but somehow, not the union itself. When you, dear reader, can make sense of that, do let me know.

So again, the problem with this whole thing is not the sexual orientation of the people it addresses but the de facto affirmation of sexual activity that the church claims to not condone. It is therefore hard to fathom how or why the Vatican thought this declaration would be acceptable within the bounds of Catholic teaching. The dicastery emphasizes that the document shouldn't be construed as undermining the traditional Catholic position on marriage, but how else could it possibly be interpreted? That's what makes it heretical.

It is likewise difficult to overemphasize the potential damage this document can do to the church, or the slippery slope it places the church on. It's fair to say that this is the proverbial camel's nose under the tent. It may not seem like much now, but all anyone has to do is look at what has happened to the Methodist Church of Great Britain, which went from affirming same-sex marriage and cohabitation in 2021 to now declaring the terms "husband" and "wife" offensive because they don't apply to everyone's situation -- like the "irregular" situations the Catholic church is now blessing. (The U.K. Methodists have gone so far off the deep end, in fact, that they don't even want anyone to say "brothers and sisters," lest some theoretical "non-binary" person somewhere take offense.) Therefore, don't be at all surprised if you see the Vatican likewise approving same-sex marriage within a few years. And when it does, don't be surprised when critics are told to stop overreacting, that you're being too "rigid," and that "nothing has changed."

Heresy is as heresy does.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Francis is destroying the Catholic church almost singlehandedly. And that makes me both very sad and very angry. 

This development has deepened my resolve to strike out on my own. I've been tossing around the idea for years now of seeking my own ordination through the online seminary that ordained me as a minister and conferred a Th.D. on me. I do enjoy going to Catholic Mass and probably always will, but I've never felt completely beholden to the church, in part because as much as it's been a significant part of my life and helped shape who I am in many ways, I also have several personal disagreements with it. I think communion should be open to everybody, I think married clergy should be permitted, I think the Orthodox do a much better job of handling situations of divorce and remarriage, and I wouldn't have a problem letting women be ordained. 

Do those views make me a heretic too? Well, the difference between me and Francis is that I don't agitate for the church to change its teachings to make me feel better. I understand that it's not all about me, while Francis caters to those who do think it's all about them and comforts and confirms them in their "irregular" relationships. Besides, I understand the church's reasoning for holding the views and teachings it does, even if I don't always agree. If it were to undermine its own teachings, it wouldn't really be the Catholic church anymore. And it's quickly getting to that point -- thanks in large part to a mealy-mouthed pope who seems incapable of letting his yes be his yes and his no be his no

It's not often you'll see me quoting the Apostle Paul. Simply put, I'm not in the Paul Fan Club. But I think it's illustrative in the current situation to note something Paul said in the the first letter to the Corinthians: "God is not the author of confusion." Implicit in that statement is that God's adversary, the devil, is the author of confusion.

Make of that what you will when you think of the current pope.  

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