After the release of Pope Francis’s papal encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” earlier this month, Crisis magazine Editor Michael Warren Davis wrote the kindest thing one could say about it is that it’s incomprehensible. I would go further. The kindest thing to be said of Pope Francis’s entire seven-year papacy is that it has been utterly disorienting.
His equivocal statements on questions of morality and faith, whether the comments be made in an encyclical, a press conference or, as we saw last week, in a documentary interview, along with his questionable political agenda, have left faithful Catholics somewhere on the spectrum between scratching their heads and banging their heads against a wall.
In his latest departure from core Catholic teaching, Pope Francis made headlines last week with a statement in apparent support of civil unions for same-sex couples. The comments were made in the context of an interview featured in a documentary on the pope’s life and ministry.
“Franceso,” directed by Russian-born filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky, premiered in Rome last week and in North America on Sunday. Pope Francis is filmed saying, “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it. What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I defended that.”
Francis’s comments expressly contradict the 2003 “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” which unequivocally concluded against approval or legal recognition of same-sex unions.
Pope Francis’s Theological Freelancing
Francis’s seemingly freelance approach to core issues of moral life and faith has been a defining feature of his papacy. His 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” caused an uproar for its doctrinally ambiguous positions on adultery and the insolubility of marriage. A group of cardinals formally asked the pope for moral clarity on these questions but no such clarification has ever been issued.
In 2019 as part of the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, Francis permitted carved figures representing an Andean fertility goddess, Pachamama (Mother Earth), to be displayed near the Vatican in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria, and used in various events and rituals. The statues were taken from the church in protest and thrown into the Tiber River.
After they were recovered, the pope issued a statement insisting the statues had been placed in the Vatican “without idolatrous intentions.” But it remains difficult to reconcile this vague justification with one of the most crucial themes running through the Old Testament, a stumbling block for wayward Israel and the first and most important of the commandments: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
The Pachamama incident revealed a creeping normalcy of religious indifferentism that was recently evident in “Fratelli Tutti.” The encyclical is oddly not addressed specifically to the Catholic community and offers no distinctly Catholic message. Instead of preaching the gospel message of salvation through — and only through — Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, “Fratelli Tutti” comes perilously close to the trap of offering worldly solutions to other-worldly problems.
In fact, the word “salvation” is never once mentioned, whereas “fraternity” is thrown about a good 55 times. Take for example the pope’s incomplete historical account of St. Francis’s encounter with Sultan Melek-el-Khamed of Egypt as part of the Fifth Crusade. He suggests Francis was more interested in dialogue than in the conversion of souls. When read in conjunction with another statement further on in the encyclical that some “drink from other sources,” a misguided Catholic could be excused for believing that the second person of the Trinity — the Living Water, the Bread of Life — is an optional add-on.
Christianity Is Not Ambiguous
It isn’t meant to be like this. Faithful Catholics, and indeed fellow Christians and people of goodwill who are genuinely interested in the Catholic faith, have a right to know what the church teaches in unequivocal terms, based on scripture and 2,000 years of doctrine and tradition.
How can Catholics know if they’re falling into error if the very concept of “sin” is being justified and relativized? How can the clergy instruct the faithful, and parents catechize their children if the expectations and boundaries have become nebulous? How can Catholics evangelize if they don’t know what the church is and says? How can people convert to the faith if they’re unsure what exactly they’re signing up for?
Quite simply, they can’t and they won’t. The evidence for this lies at the heart of why Our Lord left us a church in the first place. How else would His sheep know whom to follow and trust?
Since the earliest days when St. Peter was still preaching, heretical sects threatened the unity of the nascent Christian communities. Jesus anticipates this in Matthew’s gospel and cautions us to be vigilant. Reliance on scripture alone was not an option.
Although the Hebrew Old Testament would have been available to first-century Christians, the gospel message was being preached and Christian communities founded for ten years before the first words of the New Testament were written. The Bible in its entirety was not formally compiled until the end of the fourth century.
To ensure uniformity, Jesus left a church, with a hierarchy, entrusting Peter and the apostles and their successors with the task of shepherding God’s flock by faithfully adhering to and passing down the teachings and traditions they had received. The baptized faithful were required to obey their leaders. This relationship was forged by Our Lord Himself, and the takeaway for Catholics today is clear: if it becomes more complicated than this, something is wrong.
Mixing Up the Two Kingdoms
Not only have Pope Francis’s statements on morality and faith been confusing, but the unavoidable perceptions of a personal political agenda risk dividing Catholics and undermining the pontiff’s credibility. Pope Francis has been a consistent critic of the Trump administration’s policies on the southern border. In 2016 he famously said that “a person who thinks only about building walls” is “not a Christian.” He upped the ante in “Fratelli Tutti,” railing against walls and advocating a pie-in-the-sky borderless utopia that no sovereign nation would ever rationally agree to.
Meanwhile, the thinly veiled swipes at Trump’s strong border policy stand in baffling contrast to Francis’s total silence on the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of religious and ethnic communities. The week before “Fratelli Tutti” was released, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requested a meeting with the pope to discuss the pending renewal of the controversial Sino-Vatican agreement.
That agreement allows the Chinese government to appoint Catholic bishops according to terms that, bizarrely, have remained secret. Pompeo has argued that the pact is leaving Chinese Catholics vulnerable to systematic persecution by a totalitarian Chinese state. The Vatican denied Pompeo’s request, citing the lame excuse that the pope “does not receive political figures ahead of the elections.” Human rights abuses notwithstanding, the Vatican went on to renew the accord last week.
At this rate, Pope Francis risks leaving, at best, a legacy of confusion, equivocation, and division. Catholics have a duty to submit to church leaders on matters of morality and faith. But we also have a right to expect that our leaders, whether it’s the pope, our bishop, or parish priest, faithfully pass down church teachings in a manner that leaves no room for second-guessing, subjective interpretation, and selective application.
Faithful Catholics know that we’re not supposed to be just making it up as we go along. And we shouldn’t be expected to.