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Pope Francis on casuistry and faith

February 22, 2014

Many people are, I fear, going to read the pope’s recent comments on casuistry and faith in quite a different sense than they were, I think, intended.

Francis is critical of Christians who ask only “if it is licit to do this and if the Church could do that,” and suggests that such phrasing implies either “that they do not have faith, or that it is too weak”. But I don’t think that the pope means thereby to criticize, say, Pope John Paul II, who wrote “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”—even though that is patently a statement about what the Church can and cannot do. Francis knows, of course, that John Paul II did not “only” speak about what the Church could or couldn’t do, and has himself reiterated John Paul II’s conclusions against such ordination. So Francis can’t be condemning en masse questions about moral theology or ecclesiology.

No, what comes to my mind while reading Francis’ words in context were not examples of persons who ask “only” whether it is licit to do this or that or only whether the Church has such and such power (for few people are so narrow as to have only such concerns), but instead, the number of times over the years that persons have framed questions to me such as: where does canon law expressly prohibit contraception? (no where); when has a pope solemnly condemned the Pill? (never); what paragraph in the Catechism says I can’t attend a Catholic’s wedding outside the Church? (none); or where did Vatican II condemn ‘same-sex marriage’ (it didn’t).

In each instance (I could recite many others) wherein I answered these questions negatively—as one, who strives for the precision that truth requires, must answer them—that negative reply is triumphantly taken as endorsement of a license to act oppositely of what the Church unquestionably holds and believes in such matters! My immediate attempts to point out that a narrow reading of ecclesiastical documentation does not always get at the fullness of the Catholic faith which believing Christians must embrace, are dismissed as personal opinion.

We must not conclude that persons asking legal or moral questions or reaching faulty conclusions thereon necessarily have no faith, or have only weak faith, (though again, a superficial reading of the pope’s remarks could imply to some that he claims such powers of discernment), but we should always underscore for such inquirers that disciplines such as moral theology and ecclesiology serve Christ and his holy Church, not vice versa.

You see, caricatures notwithstanding, no one knows better than do good canonists or sound moralists that Revelation is not liable to loopholes and that no one can out-think Jesus.

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