Vatican observer Sandro Magister has said that Pope Francis’ “formidable praise” for Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” is key to understanding his papacy’s alternating emphases of both clear doctrine and pastoral mercy.
Magister, writing in his May 1 column at L'Espresso, noted that the renewed controversy over communion for divorced and remarried Catholics has created “formidable pressure” in public opinion that is likely to expect a change in Church teaching in 2015 or 2016.
“There was similarly massive pressure for change in the 1960s, when the Pope had to decide on the legitimacy of contraceptives, with many theologians, bishops, and cardinals siding in favor,” Magister continued. “But in 1968 Paul VI decided against, with the encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’.”
This encyclical met with “bitter contestation” from entire groups of bishops and was disobeyed by “countless faithful,” Magister explained.
“But that today Pope Francis -- surprising here as in everything -- has said he wants to take as his own frame of reference.”
Magister cited Pope Francis’ March 5 interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera, in which the Pope noted that Paul VI urged confessors to be “very merciful and pay attention to concrete situations.” He also said Paul VI had a “prophetic” genius and had “the courage to take a stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural restraint, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism.”
“The question is not that of changing doctrine, but of digging deep and making sure that pastoral care takes into account situations and what it is possible for persons to do,” Pope Francis had said.
Magister said that one “can truly expect anything” from Pope Francis, including a decision “against the majority” that reconfirms the indissolubility of marriage but is “tempered by the mercy of pastors of souls in the face of concrete situations.”
According to Magister, Pope Francis follows a pattern that “continually alternates flexibility and firmness,” evident in his response to the controversy over communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Magister noted that some leading German bishops had indicated that they would break with Catholic practice and give communion to the divorced and remarried.
The Pope responded by having the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s prefect, then-Archbishop Gerhard Müller, give “a stern order to halt” in an October 2013 article for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
At the same time, he allowed Cardinal Walter Kasper, a leading advocate of communion for remarried, divorced Catholics, to be the only speaker at the 2014 consistory. Pope Francis “sided with him, warmly praising him even after other cardinals had risen up against him,” Magister said.
In Magister’s view, the Pope “loves to reiterate his fidelity to perennial doctrine” but then “seems to detach himself from it when he acts as physician of individual souls” and responds to a world “so full of the wounded needing urgent care.”
He noted reports of Pope Francis’ phone call with a divorced and remarried Catholic in which the Pope allegedly told her to receive Holy Communion. While the actual contents of the call have been contested, such reports have the effect of creating a “driving crescendo of anticipations of change."
However, Magister suggested that the Pope could defy these expectations.
“As expert as he is in cultivating public opinion, Pope Francis is not the kind to be let himself become its prisoner.”