In a conversation with Jesuit priests and students in Portugal on August 28, 2023, Pope Francis answered a number of questions asked by attendees. Several of his answers deserve close evaluation. (It should be noted that The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a summary of these ideas without comment.)
One significant answer Pope Francis gave was this: (Boldface added to quotations.)
“You have seen that in the United States the situation is not easy: there is a very strong reactionary attitude. It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally. I would like to remind those people that being backward-looking is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals as long as we follow the three criteria that Vincent of Lérins already indicated in the fifth century: . . . Doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing. Change develops from the roots upward, growing in accord with these three criteria.”
Clearly, these condescending remarks referred to conservative American Catholics, whom Pope Francis evidently considers intellectually deficient. Fairness required that such an accusation be accompanied by specific examples of the “deficiency.” However, Francis offered none.
The Pontiff continued, stating that “Our understanding of the human person changes with time, and our consciousness also deepens. The… sciences and their evolutionalso help the Church in this growth in understanding. The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous. . . If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change. And the effects on morality are devastating. . . . [You] can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.”
Francis’ use of the terms “science” and “evolution” is generally at odds with their standard meanings. Science entails testing ideas and theories for validity and sharing one’s findings. Evolution involves the progression to something more developed or better. What Francis considers scientific or evolutionary in Catholic teaching is changing a teaching without even acknowledging that the change has taken place, let alone explaining why it is an improvement of the preceding teaching.
Let me offer two examples of such unexplained changes in Catholic teaching.
First, the teaching on artificial birth control, which was long classified to be a mortal sin against nature and condemned from Catholic pulpits around the world; a sin for which confessors refused absolution. When a majority of a Vatican II committee voted to change that classification and allow Catholics to use a contraceptive pill, Pope Paul VI refused to give his approval. To this day, artificial birth control is officially forbidden by the Catholic Church. Yet no member of the clergy or hierarchy calls the practice sinful, speaks against it from the pulpit, or denies anyone absolution. Its moral status has been silently reversed without so much as a “never mind” whispered, let alone pronounced, from Rome.
Second, the teaching on sodomy, which since ancient times has been classified as unnatural and therefore a grave sin. In the 13th century the Catholic Church went further and declared sodomites “demons as well as sinners.” (See William E. Burgwinkle, Sodomy, Masculinity and Law in Medieval Literature, University of Cambridge, 2004, p32-33) In more recent times, the Church has made clear that we are to love sodomites as we do other sinners (including rapists and murderers) even as we “hate their sins,” a biblically supported view.
However, in our time the traditional condemnation of homosexuality has been softened almost to the point of non-existence by Pope Francis and others prelates. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has reported–without comment, let alone criticism–these statements by Pope Francis:
“It [homosexuality] is a sin, as is any sexual act outside of marriage. This is to speak of ‘the matter’ of sin, but we know well that Catholic morality not only takes into consideration the matter, but also evaluates freedom and intention; and this, for every kind of sin. And I would tell whoever wants to criminalize homosexuality that they are wrong.”
Notice that Francis ignores the fact that the Church has always regarded sodomy as an unnatural act, which put it in a very different category than adultery or fornication. Yet Francis lumps it together with other sexual acts, as if it were in no way different. To speak this way without explaining what (if anything) has changed about sodomy is intellectually irresponsible.
Taken together, Pope Francis’ views on birth control and sodomy reveal the irony of his claim that Catholic teaching is based on science and evolution. Artificial birth control was a noteworthy achievement of science, but the Church condemned it. In sharp contrast, there is no scientific or evolutionary—or for that matter earthly or heavenly—basis for believing sodomy to be a natural act, yet that has not seemed to deter Pope Francis or other members of the hierarchy from implying that it is.
A final note. When I first read Pope Francis’ condescending suggestion that conservative American Catholics are “backward-looking” ignoramuses, I asked myself “Why are those Catholics looking backward? What makes them cling so tightly to views the Pope has moved beyond?” And this answer rushed to mind: “They are looking back to what they learned in their youth. To begin with, they cling to those views because they were presented as having come from God and therefore are never to be abandoned. What is more, they were taught by Catholic nuns and priests and bishops and, yes, popes.”
I then asked myself why Pope Francis, of all people, should mockingly dismiss conservative Catholics for continuing to embrace what they were taught by the Church he now leads? If those teachings were wrong, that must mean that the nuns and priests and bishops and popes who taught them were mistaken. And that, in turn, means that the present leaders are obliged by God Himself to admit the Church’s past errors and explain why they believe the replacement teachings are right.
I also recalled one particular teaching that “backward-looking” people still embrace—the teaching on Papal infallibility. In other words the belief that the Holy Spirit guides the Pontiff (and in a lesser way, bishops) to avoid errors in faith and morals. I am sure Pope Francis would prefer that they maintain that belief. He should therefore consider that a single unexplained change in a Church teaching—for example, on sodomy—can undermine Catholics’ belief not only in infallibility and even the trustworthiness of pastoral statements.
As always, we need to open our minds and hearts to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But we need to distinguish those promptings from the promptings of the Unholy Spirits that surround us more than ever. Those unholy promptings can be found in government agencies, schools and universities, advertising, the news media, and even religion. And they are diabolically persuasive. Their mantra is that we must reject past beliefs and embrace dramatically different, “progressive” ones. Among those new beliefs are the following: that religion is outmoded, natural law is a fiction, whatever was called history is a lie, government rather than parents should raise children, truth is subjective and personal, there are multiple genders rather than two and children have the right to change theirs, sin doesn’t exist, marriage and parenthood are an aberration, and the idea of private property is fallacious because everything belongs to everybody.
Most cases of what Pope Francis calls “backward looking” by conservative Catholics are really efforts to distinguish the promptings of the Holy Spirit from those of Unholy Spirits. The Catholic hierarchy, including the Pope, should vigorously support rather than denigrate that kind of backward looking. I submit that the Holy Spirit requires nothing less.
Copyright © 2023 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.