Last week we began a discussion about the Holy Father’s conversation with a divorced woman who was married a second time without having received an annulment. She had asked the Pope for permission to receive Holy Communion which allegedly he had granted (See article here). We also discussed a possible rationale for this decision on the part of the Pope.
This week I would like to continue the discussion that has arisen on the basis of this, and other proclamations that the Holy Father has made, during the first year of his pontificate. Once again let me emphasize that this is just a conversation and that in a number of these areas I am still developing my own thoughts on the implications of these proclamations.
There are numerous people who have found the Pope’s willingness to discuss items, that previously were thought to be open and shut cases, refreshing and hopeful. Although making no definitive announcements, the Holy Father has touched upon such issues as marriage, annulments, Holy Communion homosexuality and priestly celibacy.
On the other hand, there are other Catholics who have found his statements and his approach somewhat troubling and even discouraging. They point to the Scriptures as well as previous teachings of the Church as their point of departure in the discussion. They say that the preaching and teaching of the Church are not mere arbitrary rules. They are based on the Sacred Scripture and the Sacred Tradition which have been leading the Holy Catholic Church for 2000 years.
On a more personal level, some of these people feel somewhat betrayed by the direction of the Holy Father. In fact they say, “In the midst of millions of Catholics who have left the Church, abandoned the practice of the faith, critisized and even attacked the Church, we have remained loyal, active and contributing subjects. We have held the line and fought the good fight against the cultural forces that attack, discredit and try to disassemble the Roman Catholic Church, its teachings, its moral underpinnings and lifestyle that has been espoused by Jesus Christ. If these teachings are going to be jettisoned, what were we fighting for all of those years? What was the point of living the so-called good, moral, true and virtuous life?”
Powerful words and good questions – to which I don’t readily have an answer. Over the past several weeks, on Mondays after Mass, we have been going through Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s book, What it Means to be a Christian. (Then) Professor Ratzinger addresses this very same question albeit slightly nuanced and in a different direction from a different point of view. In effect Professor Ratzinger says that being a Christian or a Catholic does not mean that we are something special. Having our “spiritual passport stamped ‘Catholic” doesn’t automatically gains a place at the front of the line at the “Pearly Gates of Heaven.” All men have sinned and therefore all men are guilty under the law as St. Paul says. All men are in need of Jesus Christ’s forgiveness and justification. Being a Christian is not so much a privileged position as much as it is a calling and a vocation. Much like the chosen people of Israel, Christians have been called to a relationship with Christ to model a certain lifestyle and to go out into the world as witnesses, not judges. We are called to be in the world, going into the dark places and bringing light and peace and help to people, regardless of their religious affiliation. “Christian” is a calling, according to Professor Ratzinger, not a badge of honor for a place of privilege.
Thus, according to Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict we might miss the point if we believe the idea that we are living a “righteous life,” that others are getting away with a lot less than an ideal lifestyle, and that the Pope seems to be winking at this particular lifestyle. Perhaps Pope Francis is taking a page from his pontifical predecessor. What the Holy Father might be doing is not so much entertaining questions about dogma, as opening a door to welcome people to the table. In this way he recognizes their dignity as human persons, created in the image and likeness of God. He might also recognize that they are in need of a savior (perhaps even more urgently?) and that we are being called to reach out to them and bring them into contact with that Savior, Jesus Christ.
It might make some of us feel uncomfortable. There are probably certain people engaged in certain life practices that we find unattractive or even, in some cases, morally reprehensible. To the Holy Father’s credit, as well as a potential caution to our thoughts, perhaps this is a time where the Pope is beginning to shift the world back to a more literal scriptural foundation. Is this not the same approach that Jesus Christ used himself in his interaction with so-called “sinners?”
On a personal note, I am wrestling with some of these questions as well. Nevertheless I take some solace from a former great uncle of mine who was a Marist priest. He lived during the tumultuous and fast-changing times of Vatican II and the years immediately following. He too recoiled a little bit with the pronouncements of the bishops as well as the Popes at that time. Nevertheless, I remember him distinctly saying one day, “Well that’s what the Pope has said. I might not agree with him but at least I should listen to what he says. There must be some reason why he’s doing what he is doing. Guess I just have to try and figure it out.”