In a recent issue of The New York Times, in-house conservative and Catholic Ross Douthat published a column expressing his frustration with Pope Francis, particularly with his refusal to clarify some morally tricky questions raised by his pastoral letter “Amoris Laetitia.”
“The logic of ‘Rome has spoken, the case is closed’ is too deeply embedded in the structures of Catholicism to allow for anything but a temporary doctrinal decentralization,” writes Douthat. “So long as the pope remains the pope, any major controversy will inevitably rise back up to the Vatican.”
In other words, Francis will have to answer his critic’s questions sooner or later. And in the interim, a frustrating stalemate settles between liberal and conservative bishops, encapsulated in the dubia (doubts) letter authored by four cardinals in September. That document posed five questions to the pope about confusing aspects of his original pastoral letter.
The dubia, of course, were cheered by conservative Catholics and condemned, sometimes in shocking language, by the more liberal wing of the Church. Pope Francis has refused to answer the questions posed by the letter, even going so far as to cancel a meeting with a number of cardinals in Rome where he probably would have been confronted with it.
The Pope’s vagueness is infuriating to conservatives, to which I have to ask: what did you expect? Francis may be the Pope but he’s still a Jesuit. For those unfamiliar with Jesuits, vague and porous doctrine is almost their raison d’être. Indeed, it is so baked into the order that finding a conservative Jesuit is more difficult than finding a liberal in West Texas.
Francis May Be The Pope, But He’s Still a Jesuit
When Francis was elected to the papacy in 2013, rank-and-file Catholics weren’t sure what to expect. Benedict XVI, who preceded Francis, was predictable because he was known as a heavyweight intellectual and attack dog for official Church teaching. Ratzinger was the embodiment of playing (or perhaps, praying) by the rules. When he was elected people knew what was coming: orthodoxy, and lots of it. By now, his papal legacy is starting to be defined, in part, by his contributions to the traditional-conservative wing of the Church, the largest being the 2007 motu propio “Sommorum Pontificum,” which attempted to reestablish the Latin Mass as an equal with vernacular Masses.
Francis has proven to be quite different than his predecessor, which is made all the more interesting by the fact that Benedict XVI is alive and well, and lives no more than a mile from the current pontiff. But those hoping for a seamless continuity between Benedict and Francis—stoked by news reports of meetings between the Pope and Pope-emeritus—have by now been sorely disappointed.
Francis’ second encyclical (the first was essentially a joint project between Benedict and Francis) was telling of the direction he’d take his papacy. “Laudato Si’” was written entirely by Francis and focuses on environmental issues, consumerism, and capitalism, among other themes. The Federalist held a symposium about it here. The verdict: meh.
To be fair, the Catholic Church has long been a proponent of “environmentalism” in the sense that we should be responsible stewards of the earth. But Francis’ pronouncements on it were more unsettling than ones from the past because of the odd specificity with which he denounced some modern technologies like air conditioning, and the ultra-specific policy recommendations he offered to reverse climate change, like reducing carbon emissions by slowing economic development.
What ‘Laudato Si’’ Taught Us About Pope Francis
On the whole, “Laudato Si’” merely solidified the trend that had been playing out since 2013 when Francis began his pontificate. At various points, he has remarked on conservative culture warriors as being too “rigid.” He’s said that the Church cannot be “obsessed” over select issues like abortion and gay marriage. He’s questioned why young people would attend the Latin Mass, and called it an “exception,” which was taken as an insult by Latin Mass attendees. And his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” was notable for attacking American-style capitalism in a few of its paragraphs, even using the phrase “trickle-down” in reference to a free market that can ultimately hurt the poor.
But “Evangelii Gaudium” was more of a blueprint for “Amoris Laetitia” than it looked at the time. In his discussion on cultural issues facing the church, Francis essentially wrote the thesis of “Amoris Laetitia”:
We must recognize that if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people. In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization.
“Amoris Laetitia” goes to the heart of the “bureaucratic way of dealing with problems” by attacking their legitimacy and effectiveness vis-a-vis a pastoral approach. The results are documents like the one authored by Archbishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, where he outlines how his dioceses will implement “Amoris Laetitia” (hint: loosely).
Jesuits Have Embraced ‘Doctrinal Decentralization’
In effect, what Francis is trying to achieve is “doctrinal decentralization,” in Douthat’s words. In practice, that means the central Church hierarchy plays less of a role in day-to-day parish affairs, and pastors and bishops use the vague directives of Rome to implement policy in a way appeasing to their constituents. The Truth may be harmed—or it may not. Francis trusts the bishops not to abuse the leeway he’s granting them. In Francis’ eyes, that’s a gamble worth making.
All of this comes off as incomprehensible to conservatives, Catholic or not. But what it really comes down to is the fact that Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and being a Jesuit carries with it certain principles that can define an entire mindset.
Jesuits have their own dialect, principles, and philosophy. This set of beliefs is not at odds with traditional Church teaching, and oftentimes dovetails nicely with it. St. Ignatius’ Examen, for example, is a great reflective exercise.
But like any organization, such a highly developed constitution molds its members. Concepts like magis, cura personalis, “discernment,” “men and women for others,” and of course “social justice” define the order as one that is friendly to doctrinal decentralization, nuance to the point of absurdity, and which has a certain susceptibility to pseudo-theological concepts like liberation theology. Hence the Jesuits’ reputation for being a liberal order.
Francis’ Unorthodoxy Shouldn’t Be Surprising
Before I go further it’s worth noting that the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) are not the Church boogeymen they’ve been made out to be across the centuries. Despite their faults—and there are plenty—the order values education and executes it well. Its emphasis on a pastoral approach balances nicely with orders like the Dominicans and Benedictines, which tend to be very rules-focused. Jesuits also take a more human approach to doctrine which can come across as stuffy and dated to people who have struggled with organized religion in general or Catholicism in particular. What looks like flaunting the rules to conservatives can actually connect with a number of people who feel left out or left behind by the Church. In those regards, the Jesuits are an indispensable order within the gigantic framework that is Roman Catholicism.
But this approach also explains why Pope Francis seems so frustrating so often. When he has the opportunity to clarify doctrine—which he now clearly does—he punts because the “pastoral approach” requires it. Punting follows Francis’ logic to its rightful end.
He has aligned himself against the bureaucratic meddling that church leaders often find themselves participating in: annulment tribunals, awkward reminders for divorced and remarried spouses to “live like brother and sister,” and the denial of communion. The logical result of sweeping this away is a pastoral approach that opens the gates to checkbox Catholicism, as long as it doesn’t run off the page. Thus, while Francis can’t quite command that divorced and remarried couples can receive communion, he can say it in as many words when he attacks the bureaucracy that has been blocking them out.
In retrospect, Francis’ unorthodoxy shouldn’t have been surprising. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Jesuit who came of age in the post-Vatican II world. His emphasis on a pastoral approach is the driving force behind his doctrinal decentralization. And while he may be well intentioned this approach is often poorly executed, which alienates those who are inclined to disagree with it in the first place. The result is a battle of wills within the Church that has no clear outcome. With Francis, now everyone knows how frustrating Jesuits are.