Pope needs a chance to try reaching out in new ways

Pope needs a chance to try reaching out in new ways
Francis is no bringer of ‘doctrinal apocalypse’, writes David Quinn


Pope Francis does not represent the doctrinal apocalypse as some conservatives seem to think. I say that as someone who is himself a conservative and therefore would be quick to ring the alarm bells if I thought a Pope was about to water down a major area of Church belief.

Our present pontiff is a ‘liberal’ only by the standards of his two immediate predecessors, but that does not make him a doctrinal liberal as such. He is not proposing we ordain women. He has not yet proposed an end to the rule of celibacy, although even if he did, that would not touch on doctrine per se.

He has not asked us to change in any way our understanding of the Creed we read out each week at Mass. He has not rowed back on any of the Church’s major moral teachings.


What he has done is de-emphasised somewhat issues like abortion and the proper definition of marriage in favour of topics like immigration, poverty and the environment. But none of this represents anything that is dangerously ‘liberal’.

In fact, as I have pointed out regularly in these pages, Pope Francis speaks far more often about matters like abortion, marriage and gender ideology than the average priest or bishop. Indeed, the media exaggerate the extent to which Francis has turned down the volume on these subjects.

When the Holy Father does talk about these topics, it is the media who turn the volume button down. They don’t want the public to hear his often very clear and strong pronouncements on the nature of marriage and the family and the right to life.

This also means, incidentally, that dissenting priests such as Tony Flannery simply cannot claim Francis as one of their own even though they often try.

In the last few weeks, what might be called the ‘Francis Wars’ have significantly intensified because of the release of a memo by the former Vatican ambassador to the United State, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

This was released on the very day that Francis was returning from Ireland. Its most explosive claim is that Francis knew about allegations of major sexual misconduct that had been made against the former archbishop of Washington DC, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and nonetheless allowed him to remain in good standing with the Church and even to advise him on the direction of the Church in America. Archbishop Viganò has alleged that Pope Benedict introduced sanctions of some kind against McCarrick, but that Francis reversed them. He has called on the Pope to resign over the matter.

So far, Francis has chosen to remain silent and not answer the charges. I think he should say something. The issue is too grave for silence, especially in light of the scandals that have engulfed the Church in recent years.

However, the Viganò allegations, and the Pope’s stance on matters of doctrine have to be treated separately. The central Viganò allegation could as easily have been made against Popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Indeed, it can easily be argued that Benedict was too soft on McCarrick himself. The ‘sanctions’ appear to have been extremely half-hearted. (McCarrick has now been expelled from the College of Cardinals).

But even if Benedict was not tough enough on McCarrick, that would have no bearing whatsoever on his doctrinal stances. The fact is, allegations of abuse were badly handled by prelates of both liberal and conservative persuasions.

At the end of the day, the suspicion that Francis is intent on watering down Church doctrine arises mainly from a footnote to chapter eight of his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. This footnote deals with the matter of whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Holy Communion. Strictly applied, Church teaching would seem to indicate that they cannot, and certainly this was the position of Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II. If your first spouse is still alive, then you cannot remarry and if you do, you cannot receive Communion.

Francis thinks otherwise. He believes that under certain circumstances such a person can receive Communion. He doesn’t spell out those circumstances, but in debates about the issue, defenders of the footnote cite cases such as that of the person whose first marriage broke down years ago when they were very young. They are now several decades into a second marriage and have children by that marriage. They are regular Church-goers. Is it right to deny them Communion indefinitely? Isn’t that cruel? Doesn’t it lack mercy?

What Pope Francis is trying to do is apply Church teachings more leniently without changing the actual teachings themselves. A huge theme of his pontificate has been the need for mercy.

It is true that there are dangers to the approach. For example, can you really give Communion to a divorced and remarried Catholic without effectively watering down the teaching that marriage is permanent and indissoluble?

Is this approach a prelude to a more substantive shift further down the line? Is the Pope thinking of altering the teaching on artificial contraception, for instance? This is certainly the concern some people have, but unless this happens judgement should be reserved.

Pope Francis must be allowed to be a different sort of Pope to his immediate predecessors and to have different emphases and a different style. Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II were more to my taste, but what of it? Francis has his own way of reaching out to the world and persuading people to listen to the Gospel message anew. It might or might not work, but he should be given the chance to try. And if the time comes when there is an attempt to water down core doctrinal messages, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.