Is the Pope a “liberal” in the sense of caring little for doctrine? He himself said so in a recent Q & A. A priest asked him what to do about people who come to Church for First Communion or Confirmation and then disappear. His response:
“When I was Archbishop… I always discussed this with my pastors, and there too there were factions, one severe and one more generous. I… have realized that we have to follow instead the example of the Lord, who was very open also with the people who were at the margins of Israel at that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open – according to many of the official authorities – with sinners, welcoming them or allowing himself to be welcomed by them at their dinners, drawing them to himself in his communion. …Where there is no element of faith, where First Communion would just be a party with a big lunch, nice clothes and nice gifts, then it can’t be a sacrament of the faith. But, on the other hand, if we can see even a tiny flame of desire for communion in the church, a desire also from these children who want to enter into communion with Jesus, it seems right to me to be rather generous.”
What about the story much in the news lately that the Pope might change the discipline respecting Communion for Catholics remarried outside the Church? What did the Pope actually say about that?
“None of us has a ready-made formula because situations always differ. I would say that those who were married in the Church for the sake of tradition but were not truly believers, and who later find themselves in a new and invalid marriage and subsequently convert, discover faith, and feel excluded from the Sacrament, are in a particularly painful situation. This really is a cause of great suffering and… I invited various Bishops' Conferences and experts to study this problem: a sacrament celebrated without faith. Whether, in fact, a moment of invalidity could be discovered here because the Sacrament was found to be lacking a fundamental dimension, I do not dare to say. I personally thought so, but from the discussions we had I realized that it is a highly complex problem and ought to be studied further. But given these people's painful plight, it must be studied further.”
Without selling Church disciplines short, the pope certainly seems to want to err on the side of mercy. We see it in the above discussions of the sacraments, and even more in his description of how the Church needs to go out to the margins of society to extend mercy:
“God, knowing that we were unreconciled and seeing that we have something against him, rose up and came to meet us, even though he alone was in the right. He came to meet us even to the Cross, in order to reconcile us. This is what it means to give freely: a willingness to take the first step; to be the first to reach out to the other, to offer reconciliation, to accept the suffering entailed in giving up being in the right. To persevere in the desire for reconciliation: God gave us an example, and this is the way for us to become like him; it is an attitude constantly needed in our world. Today we must learn once more how to acknowledge guilt, we must shake off the illusion of being innocent. We must learn how to do penance, to let ourselves be transformed; to reach out to the other and to let God give us the courage and strength for this renewal.”
Are these quotations evidence of Pope Francis taking the Church in another direction? How could they be, since they are actually the words of Pope Benedict? If it had wanted to, the press could as easily have made Pope Benedict out to be the kind of maverick it thinks Pope Francis is. When popes discuss important issues, their words have to be studied in context, with reference to the intended audience and the subject at hand, not cherry-picked to suit our preferred story lines.
Let me not be misread to pooh-pooh lively engagement, including fair-minded questioning, of Pope Francis’ thought – the kind of conversation he is trying to stir up! I’m making only one mild point. Open discussion about a pastoral challenge where the Church must do better is not a sign of imminent betrayal. A little confidence and courage, please!
Rebecca Teti is a wife and mother who writes for Catholic Digest and other publications.