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Yes, the Eucharist is ‘powerful medicine’, which means…

Some seem upset that I agreed with Pope Francis that the Eucharist is “powerful medicine” for sinners, a figure of speech the pope used in Amoris laetitiae fn. 351 (see also his Evangelii gaudium 47). May I suggest that those objecting to the pope’s phrasing, and my agreement with it, need to familiarize themselves better with the Church’s rich understanding of the Eucharist. Doing so will, I think, enable them not only to see what is profoundly right about the pope’s choice of words, but help them to articulate what is profoundly missing from it.

The bounteous effects of the Eucharist, specifically in regard to forgiveness of and preservation from sin, are laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1393-1395, 1436, and 1846. These passages amply support the pope’s phrasing in fn 351. But missing from the pope’s commentary here is an acknowledgement that, as is true of a “powerful medicine”, taking the Eucharist improperly can be harmful, even spiritually deadly, to the recipient.

CCC 1385 states: “[W]e must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself’ [I Cor 11:27-29]. Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.”

Nor does the Catechism leave any doubt that this spiritual danger applies in cases of post-divorce civil remarriages (later scored as “a situation of public and permanent adultery” in CCC 2384). CCC 1650 states, “Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ—‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’—the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.” Emphasis added.

In sum, what one may question is not the pope’s comparing the Eucharist to “powerful medicine”, but rather, the failure to mention the warnings against improper consumption listed on the label.

A last note: Asking myself why so few Catholics today seem to be aware that receiving the Eucharist unworthily is spiritually gravely dangerous, it occurred to me to look at the readings proclaimed in Sunday and Weekday Lectionaries. St. Paul’s stark warnings against unworthy reception of the Eucharist are, it seems, never proclaimed at Mass. I think it fair to question the pastoral prudence of the decision to leave this vital Scriptural passage about the Eucharist out of the very celebration of the Eucharist.

UPDATE: This just came to my attention, from a couple days ago.

The slow decline of the Ordinary Magisterium

The Magisterium of the Catholic Church, the teaching authority left by Jesus Christ to his Church and principally exercised by popes and the college of bishops, proceeds in two ways: ordinarily, the Magisterium proceeds ‘ordinarily’; extraordinarily, the Magisterium proceeds ‘extraordinarily’. Bear with me.

Ex cathedra pontifical pronouncements and solemn decrees of ecumenical councils—the two great expressions of the extraordinary Magisterium—get the headlines, but such statements are, well, extraordinary and hence relatively rare. In contrast, the day-in day-out, oft-repeated, variously-phrased and then re-phrased teachings put out (principally) by popes and bishops engaged in the public exercise of their offices constitute the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. The occasions of and vehicles used to express these ordinary teachings are far too many to list and, in contrast to the rather few expressions of the extraordinary Magisterium (which typically come out in short, precise quotables), the multitudinous expressions of the ordinary Magisterium tend to be diffuse, prolix, and mixed in with all sorts of other assertions that do not carry magisterial import.

Identifying and appreciating the teachings offered by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church is tedious work requiring more-than-average theological research skills while spotting assertions of the extraordinary Magisterium, in contrast, is much easier, though not simple. But make no mistake: the Church’s Magisterium proceeds both “ordinarily” (usually) and “extraordinarily” (on occasion), and even infallible doctrines to be believed or truths to be held can be articulated “extraordinarily” or “ordinarily”.

Looking over the last couple of decades*, I think many in the Church have been slipping into associating the noun “Magisterium” with the adjective “infallible” and assuming that, if some papal/episcopal assertion is not “infallible” then it is not “magisterial”. Such a confusion, however, which effectively limits “magisterium” to the level of “infallible”, dulls appreciation of just how wide and rich and important is the Church’s ordinary magisterium and blurs the responsibility of those who directly participate in the Magisterium, even its ordinary expression, to be accurate and clear in their public teaching.

I have discussed elsewhere, and so won’t repeat here, the questionable practice—one that did not originate with, but which has grown under, Francis’ papacy—of some in positions of ecclesiastical authority trying to ‘turn magisterium on and off’ in accord not with traditional markers of magisterial utterances (e.g., the sacramental order and the office of the speaker, the content of the communication, the envisioned audience of the message, or the public character of the expression) but rather according to the “intention” of the speaker—as if, instead of having objective criteria for knowing pretty well when ecclesiastical magisterium is engaged, and when it is not, we need instead to read a speaker’s mind and continually divine his personal intentions to know what’s what. If that approach can damage even exercises of the extraordinary Magisterium (and it can do that), I think it threatens even more the more vulnerable exercises of the ordinary Magisterium.

If Amoris laetitia is not magisterial, it is not because Amoris is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, else, Pope John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio could not be cited in magisterial contrast to several of Amoris’ ambiguous assertions. If Amoris is not magisterial, it is not because Francis often adopts a conversational tone, else, Denzinger’s Enchiridion should not be citing as magisterial Pope Pius XII’s talks with Catholic doctors, and Pope Paul VI should not have cited as magisterial, in his own quintessential magisterial document, Humanae vitae, Pius’ talks to Italian midwives. Fifty-thousand word documents written and published by popes acting as popes, intended for the whole Catholic world and addressing Scripture, tradition, and sacraments, etc., are magisterial (specifically, they are expressions of the ordinary, papal magisterium) when, albeit only when, they express, without error (a rare, complex situation to be handled separately), propositions on faith or morals that admit of being believed, held, taught, and so on. In Amoris, Francis has made numerous such ordinary, papal, magisterial statements—whether he “intended” that or not.

Francis has, for example, offered Greek and Hebrew exegesis of numerous Scriptural passages and commented frequently about what Jesus meant when He said X, Y, and Z. These interpretations are not infallible, of course, but Magisterium is more than simply infallibility, and Francis’ views hereon are now a small part of the ordinary papal magisterium on Holy Writ. Or again, Francis makes many interesting comments on what the sacrament of marriage is, comments that are not merely quotations from others—although even Francis’ quoting of earlier magisterial expressions increases, in a small way, the magisterial weight to be accorded such assertions in virtue of their being repeated by a pope—but which represent instead his ideas on marriage and thus, in a small measure, contribute to the ordinary papal magisterium on marriage.

But, that said, most of “what’s in” Amoris, or at least most of the controversial passages of Amoris, are not ‘magisterial’ because most of Amoris, and most of ‘those passages’, seem to address (if sometimes ambiguously) pastoral practices (not propositional points), or they indicate how the pope perceives (accurately or otherwise) pastors coming across to people in irregular unions (and so at most are empirical surmises), or they urge a given demeanor with persons as Christ would relate to them, and so on. In other words, while Amoris is quite capable of contributing to the ordinary papal magisterium based on its authorship, audience, and circumstances, and while it does contribute to that magisterium in some respects, most of Amoris is, in fact, not ‘magisterial’ in content. Just as most utterances that popes and bishops use to contribute to the ordinary magisterium are mixed in with many non-magisterial comments having no teaching value, so Amoris mixes several, rather minor, uncontroversial ‘magisterial’ comments on Scripture and marriage with a few controversial, but not magisterial (because they are not propositional, and are instead exhortatory) comments on pastoral approaches. And, no, I do not think that this is to read Amoris the way I would prefer to read it; I think it is to read Amoris the way the Church reads her teaching documents.

Anyway, to return to my main concern here, conferring or withholding ‘magisterial status’ on papal/episcopal utterances based almost entirely on the intention of utterer contributes, I think, to the slow decline of (especially) the ordinary magisterium in Church life and does not encourage those who participate most directly in the magisterium of the Church to pay better attention to what they say and how they say it.

That problem deserves closer attention.

*Misuse of the word “Magisterium” probably goes back further and this misuse of the word in one context might have made it easier to misuse in another. I think, for example, of all those comments about the Magisterium ‘ordering this’ or ‘directing that’, as if “Magisterium” were just another word for “ecclesiastical governing authority”. As popes and bishops exercise Magisterium and governing authority, I suppose confusion between the two activities is understandable, but we should be clear: the objects of Magisterium are principally propositions to be believed or held; the objects of governing authority are behavioral choices and external conduct.

The law before ‘Amoris’ is the law after

Holy Communion is to be withheld from divorced-and-remarried Catholics in virtue of Canon 915 which, as has been explained countless times, does not require Catholic ministers to read the souls of would-be communicants, but rather, directs ministers to withhold holy Communion from those who, as an external and observable matter, “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2384 describes civil remarriage after divorce as “public and permanent adultery” (something obviously gravely sinful), so, if Francis had wanted to authorize the administration of holy Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics (and he did not want to repudiate CCC 2384, 1650, etc.) he would have had to have wrought a change in the law contained in Canon 915.

To legislate for the Church popes usually employ certain types of documents (e.g., apostolic constitutions, motu proprios, ‘authentic interpretations’) or they use certain kinds of language (e.g., ‘I direct’ or ‘I approve in forma specifica’). Amoris laetitiae, an “apostolic exhortation”, is not a legislative document, it contains no legislative or authentic interpretative language, and it does not discuss Canon 915. The conclusion follows: whatever Canon 915 directed before Amoris, it directs after, including that holy Communion may not generally be administered to Catholics living in irregular marriages.

To this conclusion, however—and recalling that the burden of proving that the law changed is on those who claimed that it changed, not on others to prove that it hasn’t—I can anticipate at least three rejoinders.

The first is easily dismissed.

1. Pope Francis wrote that “Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.” AL 3, and 199, 207. But of course developing local approaches to proclaiming universal truths is a hallmark of “pastoral theology” (when that concept is properly understood and not offered as cover for avoiding the demands of Christian doctrine). Church documents often encourage local initiatives, but they never authorize dilution, let alone betrayal, of the universal teachings of Christ and his Church. Amoris might well have left itself open to regional manipulation (as Robert Royal has explained) but Catholics committed to thinking with the Church will not develop particular approaches to ministry among the divorced that betray the common truth about the permanence of marriage.

A second rejoinder is, however, more complex.

2. In AL 301 Francis writes: “Hence it is can [sic] no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” This presents a more substantial objection to my conclusion above for, at first glance, Francis seems to attack the very idea that the irregular situation usually produced by a post-divorce civil remarriage is gravely sinful. We need to consider this possibility carefully.

Setting aside whether any Church document ever ‘simply said’ what Francis implies above, one can agree that it would be wrong to assert that “all” people living in “any” irregular situation are necessarily “living in a state of mortal sin”. If even one person living in an irregular marriage situation does so with no suggestion of sin—and I can think of many*—Francis’ point, narrowly and literally read, stands.

But Francis’ assertion here could mean something more contentious, namely: that we can no longer assert that any individual living in an irregular union could be “living in a state of mortal sin”—an assertion that would, I suggest, place Francis in opposition to Church tradition. Let’s consider this possibility more closely:

A) The phrase “living in a state of mortal sin” could be understood as a short-hand way to describe many morally wrong living situations, one that summarizes Church teaching that all Catholics must, on pain of committing grave sin, abide by certain laws and teachings regarding marriage and sexual activity. That is how all of the canonists, moral theologians, and clergy whom I know, and most of the lay Catholics in my circle, use the term. I think it consistent with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But,

B) The phrase “living in a state of mortal sin” could also be taken as judging the state of another’s soul based on their living arrangement. Whether speaking from ill-will or from inaccurate catechesis, Catholics who describe others (let alone all others) living in irregular marriage situations as “living in a state of mortal sin”—meaning by that phrase that such persons have necessarily incurred the guilt of grave sin—should indeed cease thinking and speaking that way.

So, if the pope was thinking about those who use the phrase “living in a state of mortal sin” to imply an ability to read souls, then his admonition that one must not speak this way is quite sound, it does nothing to detract from the Church’s view that post-divorce civil marriage is an aggravated form of adultery, and it impacts not one jot or tittle of Canon 915. But to construe the pope’s words here as denying that freely living in an irregular marriage situation can be, as the Catechism holds, gravely sinful, and that therefore Canon 915 is not applicable to such cases, would be to attribute to the pope a conclusion at odds with Church moral and sacramental teaching. That accusation should not be casually made.

Finally, however, let’s assume that, however he expressed himself, the pope somehow really believes that few Catholics, perhaps none, living in irregular marriages are subjectively culpable for their state. Even that conclusion on his part would have no bearing whatsoever on the operation of Canon 915 because, as noted above, Canon 915 does not (and cannot!) operate at the level of interior, subjective responsibility, but rather, it responds to externally cognizable facts concerning observable conduct.

Yet a third possible rejoinder relies on another eisegetical reading of Francis’ words.

3. Some think that AL fn. 351 and its accompanying text authorize holy Communion for Catholics in irregular marriages. I would ask, recalling that a matter of law is at issue, where does Francis do this? The pope says that Catholics in irregular unions need the help of the sacraments (which of course they do), but he does not say ALL of the sacraments, and especially, not sacraments for which they are ineligible. He says that the confessional is not a ‘torture chamber’ (a trite remark but not an erroneous one). And he observes that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect (thank God), but a powerful spiritual medicine, which it is—unless it is taken unworthily or in violation of law, a caveat one may assume all Catholics, and certainly popes, know without having to say it.

Bottom line: sacramental rules are made of words, not surmises. Those who think Amoris has cleared a path to the Communion rail for Catholics in irregular marriages are hearing words that the pope (whatever might be his personal inclinations) simply did not say.

* Example: One who was baptized Catholic but raised without knowledge of that fact, is (incredibly) bound by canonical form and thus, if married outside of form, he or she would be, by definition, living in an irregular union. It would be ludicrous to refer to such a person as “living in sin”. I can offer a dozen more fact patterns that would duplicate this point.

UPDATE: This post now available in Spanish here, and in Croatian here.

First thoughts on the English version of Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia.

There are as one might expect in a document of this length and written with access to the kinds of resources a pope commands, many good things said about marriage in Amoris. Whether those things speak with any special profundity or clarity is better left, I think, for each reader to decide individually.

That said, however, one must recall that Francis is not a systematic thinker. While that fact neither explains nor excuses the various writing flaws in Amoris, it does help to contextualize them. Readers who are put off by more-than-occasional resort to platitudes, caricatures of competing points of view, and self-quotation simply have to accept that this is how Francis communicates.

Some juridic issues that were widely anticipated include:

Holy Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Francis does not approve this central assault tactic against the permanence of marriage, but neither does he clearly reiterate constant Church teaching and practice against administering the Eucharist to Catholics in irregular marriage situations. And, speaking of ‘irregular marriage’, nearly every time Francis uses that traditional phrase to describe what could more correctly be termed pseudo-marriage, he puts the word “irregular” in scare quotes, as if to imply that the designation is inappropriate and that he is using it only reluctantly.

Internal forum. Francis makes almost no commentary on the so-called “internal forum” solution. What little comment he does make on the internal forum in AL 300 is not controversial.

Canon law in general. Francis makes almost no use of canon law in Amoris. What few canonical comments he does make are not controversial.

‘Same-sex marriage’. Francis leaves no opening whatsoever that ‘same-sex marriage’ can ever be regarded as marriage. AL 251.

Some problematic points (in no special order) include:

1. Speaking of divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics, Francis writes: “In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy [i.e., sexual intercourse] are lacking ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers’ (Gaudium et spes, 51).” AL fn. 329. I fear this is a serious misuse of a conciliar teaching. Gaudium et spes 51 was speaking about married couples observing periodic abstinence. Francis seems to compare that chaste sacrifice with the angst public adulterers experience when they cease engaging in illicit sexual intercourse.

2. Speaking of “Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church”, Francis writes “Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way.” AL 292. This simple phrasing requires significant elaboration: forms of union that most radically contradict the union of Christ and his Church are objectively adulterous post-divorce pseudo-marriages; forms of union that reflect this union in a partial, but good, way are all natural marriages. These two forms of union are not variations on a theme; they differ in kind, not just in degree.

3. Speaking of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2384 describes as “public and permanent adultery”, Francis writes that some post-divorce marriages can exhibit “proven fidelity, generous self-giving, [and] Christian commitment”. AL 298. Many will wonder how terms such as “proven fidelity” can apply to chronically adulterous relationships or how “Christian commitment” is shown by the public and permanent abandonment of a previous spouse.

4. In AL 297, Francis writes: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” To the contrary, it is precisely the logic of the Gospel that one can be condemned forever. CCC 1034-1035. If one meant, say, that no one can be ‘condemned for ever’ by earthly authority, one should have said so. But, of course, withholding holy Communion from those in “public and permanent adultery” is not a “condemnation” at all, so the point being made is not clear.

5. In AL 280-286, directly discussing sex education for youth, I did not see any acknowledgement, indeed not even a mention, that parents have rights in this important area. Perhaps that is to be gleaned from comments about parents made elsewhere in AL.

See also: Fr. James Schall’s comments here.

Misunderstanding the (alleged) ‘Congo contraception’ case

Even by the standards of his reign, the presser Pope Francis conducted on his return flight from Mexico has provoked an unusual number of questions. I wish to address only one of those here.

Preliminarily, I note that the burden is not on the negative to prove that something did not occur, it is on the affirmative to prove that the alleged something did occur. That said, though, it now seems all but certain that the ‘permission’ or ‘approval’ which Francis has claimed his predecessor Pope Paul VI gave for Congo nuns facing rape to use contraception simply does not exist. See e.g. Fr. Zuhlsdorf or John Allen*.

Unfortunately this myth has been invoked by the pope as if it were a fact of Church history, and, more importantly, in a way that suggests it might be a precedent to be considered in deciding whether contraception may also be used to prevent pregnancy in some cases of possible birth defects. That claim would take Pope Francis’ contraception remarks into a very different area. No longer are we musing about a point of Church history (as interesting as that might be), now we are dealing with Church moral teaching. The stakes become dramatically higher.

So here’s my point: not only does the Congo nuns permission seem NOT to exist, but, even if it does exist in some form, it could NOT, I suggest, by its own terms, be used by Francis (or anyone else committed to thinking with the Church) to call into question the Church’s settled teaching that “each and every marital act [quilibet matrimonii usus] must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (Humanae vitae 11) and that therefore “excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after conjugal intercourse [coniugale commercium], is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae vitae 14).

Obviously the Congo nuns case (or the Balkan nuns story in the 1990s, to take another variation of the myth) was not about marital acts, it was about religious women facing criminal acts of violent sexual intercourse; the Congo question was not about possible birth defects, it was about stopping rapists’ sperm from reaching ova that perchance had been ovulated. Between women facing rape and wives worried about birth defects there simply is no parallel relevant to the moral question of contraception. One can like that fact or hate it, but one cannot change it or ignore it. Moreover, Church teaching on the immorality of contracepted marital acts is, I believe, taught infallibly; but, even if I were wrong about that technical claim, there is no question about what that teaching is, namely, that contracepting acts of marital intercourse, whether doing so as an end in itself or as means to some other end, is objectively immoral.

A discussion could be had, I think, on whether non-marital sexual intercourse is subject to the same moral requirements as that to which marital intercourse is held. Humanae vitae does not, as far as I can see, address that question. But, as to whether a permission allegedly given to nuns to take contraceptive measures in the face of rape establishes a precedent for spouses wanting to contracept their sexual relations out of fear of possible birth defects, the conclusion seems inescapable: there is no parallel between the two cases, and so there is no precedent set.

*A note on Allen’s article cited above: As I feared he did earlier, Allen is once again arguing that papal non-action is papal action.

After claiming that then-Cdl. Montini was “close to the currents that shaped [the journal] Studi Cattolici” and that it “was assumed” that Montini approved of an article defending contraception by Congolese nuns, an assumption that Allen says “appeared to be confirmed later” when as pope Montini later promoted one of its authors, Allen tops off this journalistic house of cards with a zinger: “The Vatican [sic] never repudiated the 1961 position [taken by theologians, not by Montini], so the takeaway was that it remained a legitimate option. To Italians — and remember, Francis’ ancestry is Italian … that meant Paul VI approved.”

Good grief. I say it again, good grief.

I can imagine not a few Italians are hitting the roof right about now over Allen’s opinion of their formal logic skills. But my question is, How many conjectures from assumptions based on silence may a journalist pile up before someone shouts Enough!? Here’s one for ya: God could have stopped this evil or that if He wanted to, but He didn’t stop it, so bingo, God is the author of evil. Talk about bad logic skills. Seriously, there are plenty of terrible things that John Allen has never written about, let alone condemned; may we assume that his silence on such matters signals his consent to them? If not, should not the same deference be accorded to a pope?

23 Feb 2016. This post now available in French, here.

2 Mar 2016. This post now available in Portuguese, here.

Seven quick thoughts on the most recent papal presser

Frankly, I don’t know how he does it. When I fly to Europe I have to sleep all the way over.  Not Pope Francis. Anyway, may I offer some comments on some topics mentioned in the latest mid-air papal presser?

1. Pope Paul VI, as I understand it, did approve of religious women threatened by rape using contraceptives. It is obvious, though, that such measures were taken in self-defense against criminal acts and, more importantly, would have occurred outside the context of conjugal relations. Avoiding pregnancy under outlaw circumstances is not only ‘not an absolute evil’, it’s not an evil act at all. I hope that mentioning this unusual episode in a press chat will not contribute unduly to the world’s misunderstanding of the limitations of Paul VI’s position in this case and of the episode’s non-applicability to firm Church teaching on contraception within marriage.

2. An individual becomes “Christian” by, and only by, (valid) baptism. Donald Trump was apparently baptized Presbyterian, which faith community has valid baptism. Donald Trump is, therefore, as a matter of canon law (c. 204), Christian. Trump might be a good Christian or a bad one—I cannot say, and neither can anyone else. Trump might do and say things consistent with Christian values or in contradiction to them, but his status as baptized, and therefore as Christian, is beyond dispute.

3. There is no legitimate “principle” by which a “lesser of two evils” may ever be licitly engaged in. It is fundamental moral theology that even a small evil action may never be licitly engaged in—no matter how much good might seem to result therefrom and no matter how much evil might seem to be avoided thereby. There are, to be sure, principles by which a good or neutral action that has two effects, one good and one evil, might be licitly engaged in under certain circumstances despite the evil effects; and there are principles by which “lesser evils” may be tolerated (not chosen). But parsing these matters accurately and responsibly requires more time than can be devoted to them in a press conference.

4. Abortion (assuming we are talking about doing an action intended to kill a human being prior to birth, and not just suffering ‘abortion’, i.e., miscarriage) is, Francis observed, always evil. Abortion is not, however, “evil” because it is a “crime”. Not all criminal acts are by nature evil and not all evil acts are crimes. Other factors must be considered lest moral principles and legal principles become confused.

5. The Vatican City State, a sovereign nation, has the right to build, and has chosen to surround itself with, a giant wall. Evidently, building or using a national wall is not a non-Christian act nor a stance contrary to Gospel values. The pope’s criticism of building walls on part of a national border is probably better understood as prudential in nature, not principled.

6. It is important (though some might say it is too late) to distinguish between a Catholic’s stance toward “same-sex unions” and that toward “same-sex marriage”. These are not equivalent terms. Legal recognition of “same-sex unions” might be a good idea, a tolerable idea, or a bad idea, but, per se, “same-sex unions” are things over which reasonable minds (including Catholic minds) may differ; in contrast, Catholics may never approve or support “same-sex marriage”, this, upon pain of contradicting infallible Church teaching, if not of committing heresy.

7. The pope said nothing suggesting confusion about “celibacy” and “continence” (c. 277), although the Crux reporter seems to regard the former as another word for the latter. Anyway, I do not know whether there is such a thing as a (priest) who does not have the “friendship of a woman”, but I would not think the “friendship of a woman” is necessary to make a man ‘complete’.

Silence is not much evidence of anything, so why suggest otherwise?

The following are not thoughts on Pope Francis but rather about a recent report by John Allen on Pope Francis.

Allen, associate editor of the on-line news site Crux, recently argued that “Francis pioneers a merciful way to oppose abortion, gay marriage”. Setting aside questions as to what the ubiquitous and apparently infinitely malleable adjective “merciful” means here, I take from his headline Allen’s claim that Francis recently did or said some things to “pioneer” new ways to oppose abortion and so-called gay marriage. That claim gets my attention, naturally, but should it not be proven by what Allen includes in his article? Allen offers four points.

2016 March for Life. Allen writes “As to the March for Life, Francis didn’t offer any direct endorsement, but US leaders in the anti-abortion movement say they’re convinced he’s got their backs.” Sorry? This sentence says that Francis said and did nothing in regard to the March for Life, reporting only that some pro-lifers feel that the pope supports them. If it is anything, that sentence is not a claim about Francis, it’s a claim about pro-lifers.

Francis need not, of course, have attended the March for Life (no pope has); he need not have sent it a supportive message (though other popes have); he need not even mention the March for Life if he does not wish to. But, if he did not attend, did not greet, and did not even mention the March, how exactly is this series of non-actions evidence that the pope is ‘pioneering’ a new way to oppose abortion? If eisegesis is reading one’s opinions into another’s words, what is it when there literally are no words to read one’s opinions into, but a message is divined from them anyway?

Italy’s Family Day. Per Allen, “With regard to Italy’s Family Day, Francis used an address to judges of the main Vatican [sic] court on Friday to insist that ‘there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,’ which was taken locally as a green light for resistance to the civil unions measure.” Sorry, but, as above, Francis did not mention Family Day, he did not mention Italian parliament members or its proposed legislation, and he said nothing about marriage or family that any Catholic could not have said in casual conversation. How, then, do Francis’ remarks to the Roman Rota ‘pioneer’ a new way to oppose ‘gay-marriage’ in Italy or anywhere else?

Absolution from abortion. Allen recalls the pope’s September extension of faculties to remit the sin/crime of abortion. This papal act, though it was awkwardly announced and in some ways was probably canonically redundant, was a papal initiative in regard to abortion. So far, so good. But Allen’s claim is, apparently, that forgiveness for abortion is a ‘pioneering’ new way to oppose abortion. If that logic is not evident to you, reader, well, it is not clear to me, either. I need an explanation or argument to understand the connection that Allen thinks the pope sees between “forgiving offenses” and “opposing offenses”.

Korean abortion memorial. Allen writes “During a trip to South Korea, the pontiff added an impromptu visit to a symbolic ‘cemetery’ for the victims of abortion at a Catholic health care facility outside Seoul, formed by a rolling grassy hillside dotted with small white crosses and topped with a statue of the Holy Family … Notably, Francis didn’t say anything at all during that visit.” Once again, Francis’s non-comments are offered as evidence of what he must have meant.

Granted, visiting a memorial is usually an expression about what is memorialized there, but in the Catholic tradition, we usually rely on words to give meaning to actions. A piece of bread is not silently blessed by a priest, but consecratory words are said over it so that the people know what the Eucharistic gesture means. In Allen’s view, the pope need not have said anything about abortion because the pope’s “haunted, anguished visage told the whole tale.” Maybe so, I wasn’t there. Maybe a look of papal grief is a ‘pioneering’ new way to oppose abortion. But Allen has already drawn more meaning from papal silences than I think can be prudently gleaned, so I may be forgiven, I hope, some reluctance to take this silence as ‘pioneering’ a new way to oppose abortion.

I conclude as I began. These remarks are not a criticism of Francis—there is no doubt whatsoever where he stands on the gravity of abortion and on the impossibility of ‘gay-marriage’ (even if his manner sometimes muffs his message) and he is not obligated to engage in any specific acts of opposition to either. But my remarks are a criticism of reporters who, with some proclivity these days, seem to offer the pope’s silence on various matters as evidence for what they think he means on various matters. May I suggest, instead, that silence is usually, pretty much, just silence.