Vatican Files - Prof. Leonardo De Chirico - April 1st, 2017
Since the beginnings of modern bioethics in the 1970s, the Roman Catholic Church has taken the hard line of defending human life from conception to natural death, protecting the concept of marriage between a man and a woman, and guarding the limits of scientific research within the parameters of human dignity. Not only did the Catholic Church strongly argue for traditional moral convictions over secular redefinitions of life and reproductive “rights”, but it also put such issues at the forefront of its action in the public arena. Those days are over. With Pope Francis we are witnessing a shift in the posture of the Catholic Church as far as public debates on bioethics are concerned.
A recent study by Luca Lo Sapio (Bioetica cattolica e bioetica laica nell’era di papa Francesco, Catholic Bioethics and Secular Bioethics in Pope Francis’ Era) documents the transition we are witnessing in the attempt by Pope Francis to invest the public voice of his church away from bioethical controversies, which clash with secular culture, and toward a number of social issues (e.g. immigration, poverty, the environment), which seem to resonate with the secular world.
What Happened to the Non-Negotiable Principles?
The differences between John Paul II and Benedict XVI, on the one hand, and Pope Francis, on the other, are becoming apparent. When dealing with bioethics, the two former Popes often spoke of “non-negotiable principles” in staunchly defending the Catholic positions on life issues. Moreover, they wanted these principles to be at the heart of the Church’s agenda in the modern world no matter how much controversy they generated in public opinion.
The official teaching of the Church on bioethical issues supported the strong stance taken by these Popes. Encyclicals like Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth, 1993) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995), exhortations like Familiaris Consortio (The Family, 1981), documents like Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life, 1987) and Dignitatis Personae (The Dignity of a Person, 2008) all univocally pointed to the clear-cut teaching of the Church in dealing with abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering and the like, and showed the willingness of the Church to relentlessly advocate for it.
Francis’ Detente Strategy
The outcome of such a posture was an ongoing and intense “culture war” against secular bioethics. The Roman Catholic Church has been considered a “militant” army fighting for the sacredness of life on the battlefield of bioethics. With Pope Francis, Rome has significantly changed strategy. The over-arching narrative of the relationship with the world has been modified. One of his preferred metaphors for the Church is that of a “field hospital for the wounded”. The time of “culture wars” against the West is over and the task of the Church is to convey forgiveness and mercy. The secular world is not to be fought against but cared for. From being the bulwark of the defense of life, the Church is now a place where the wounds can be healed.
How does this narrative work in his pontificate in relation to bioethics? Lo Sapio convincingly argues that Francis has little interest for “doctrinal bioethics” and is more concerned with concrete and individual life situations. His approach is existentialist, rather than theological (or content/truth-driven). He wants to be close to people, even at the cost of appearing to be less faithful to principles. He focuses on the primacy of conscience rather than the prescriptive nature of law. He wants to be a warm and welcoming pastor and has reservations over the dangers of being a cerebral and judgmental theologian. The center of gravity of his pontificate is forgiveness and mercy rather than truth and deontological ethics. His preference goes with the messiness of life rather than the neatness of systems. Rather than talking about embryos and stem cells, Francis often speaks of poor children, displaced people, and abandoned old people. Rather than condemning wrong actions, he looks for ways to go alongside people, notwithstanding the morality or immorality of their lives.
Francis is not outspokenly changing the traditional Roman Catholic positions on bioethics. The official teaching is still there. What he is doing is decentralizing its role, de-emphasizing its importance, and displacing its centrality. His overall strategy looks for ways to engage the secular West on grounds that are more palatable to it, while leaving the controversial issues to the side. Where this strategy will lead the Roman Church is difficult to know. Certainly, all those who looked to Rome for clarity, vigor, and proactive actions on bioethical issues may find it necessary to look elsewhere. Pope Francis has little time for them.
Saturday, 1 April 2017
Wednesday, 1 March 2017
March 1st, 2017
Yes or No. This is the only way a Pope (or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for Catholic doctrine) can answer a question posed by a cardinal or group of cardinals if and when they inquire about the correct interpretation or application of Catholic teaching. Yes or No was the expected answer that never came to a letter written to the Pope by four cardinals in September 2016 pleading with him for clarity regarding the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The letter asked the Pope five short questions about the exact meaning of some statements contained in the document on whether or not divorced individuals living in new relationships can have access to the Eucharist. Given that different bishops around the world are giving different answers (some saying Yes, others No), the four cardinals addressed the Pope himself hoping to receive an authoritative and univocal interpretation of the matter.
So far no answer has come, and the Pope has made it known that no answer will ever come. The Pope’s silence is causing perplexity and some worries in many Catholic circles. Is Catholic teaching becoming subject to many shades of grey? The incident also gives an opportunity to reflect on the Pope’s whole approach to the stability of doctrine. Is this absence of Yes or No only to be limited to this specific case, or is it a feature of an overall theological vision that lacks rigid reference points?
Magisterium on the Move
This is not an obnoxious issue. One of the most respected Roman Catholic theologians in Italy, Severino Dianich, asked the very question in his recent book Magistero in movimento (Magisterium on the Move). There are times in the Catholic Church that its teaching seems to be moving from well-established traditional patterns. The last season of movement was Vatican II when, for example, the church changed its mind on religious freedom (which had previously been strongly opposed) and the non-Christian religions (which had previously been given only negative assessments). Now, under the reign of Francis, Dianich argues that we are witnessing another phase of doctrinal movement. Moreover, echoing the title of a book published in the 1980s, Dianich asks whether we are witnessing an “uncertain magisterium”?
To answer the question, Dianich examines the “classical” theological structure based on the argumentative patterns and thought-forms derived from the Graeco-Roman culture. This theological model was based on univocal and fixed meanings, and conveyed in juridical language. This structure has been paramount and unchallenged for centuries. Now, more than 50 years after Vatican II (1962-1965), the theological structure that Francis is giving voice to appears to be the result of multiple different languages and contaminations of various genres. Dianich identifies a number of reasons that have accelerated the change: (1) the outgoing church that Francis has in mind needs to use simple language and popular media; (2) the attention given by him to people’s hearts rather than their minds or reason makes communication more “emotional” than “cognitive”; (3) his interest in the “theology of the people” makes him interested in the feelings and aspirations of the ordinary faithful rather than the intellectuals. All this makes his teaching less definitive, more evocative, less permanent, more hospitable, less rigid and more dynamic.
Evolving Teaching in Terms of Both-And
Together with other observers, Dianich also argues that Francis’ teaching is more “pastoral” than “doctrinal”. He is not interested in questioning traditional doctrine as such, although the style and content of his ministry are very different from the “doctrinal magisterium” of his predecessors, i.e. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He seems to be interested in moving in terms of making it become more “merciful” and open-ended. Programmatically, Francis said at the Conference of the Italian Catholic Church in 2015 that Christian doctrine “has no hard face; its body moves and grows, it has tender meat: Christian doctrine is called Jesus Christ”. Tender rather than hard meat. A person rather than a body of beliefs. This appears to be the meaning of doctrine according to the Pope. In light of these remarks, it is possible to argue that Amoris Laetitia applied this “pastoral” model to the issue of admission of the Eucharist to divorced persons. The Pope here does not formally deny any traditional teachings of the church (how could he possibly do so?), but makes them evolve pastorally towards more inclusive forms of access to the sacraments.
According to Dianich the Pope is implementing “the most decisive consequences of the teaching of Vatican II”. The “pastoral” pope is applying the “pastoral” council. The outcome is that the teaching is moving on towards more embracing and “catholic” outlooks. The traditional theological structure was geared to give Yes or No answers. The post-Vatican II structure is more inclined to suggest Both-And types of answer on all kinds of issues. Pope Francis is embodying this new “pastoral” approach and this is the reason why he will not answer the five questions that were asked of him. The Roman Catholic Church used to be thought of as a bulwark of clear and definitive teaching, thus attracting many people looking for a safe haven in the turmoil of the modern world. Vatican II “updated” all this. Pope Francis is now showing what it means for the present-day Roman Church to live with a teaching that is “tender” and elusive.
More Vatican Files can be found at www.vaticanfiles.org
Tuesday, 31 January 2017
Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Roman Catholicism
February 1st, 2017
“Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel 26). These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church. The question is: What kind of reformation does he have in mind?
The recent book La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Reformation and Reformations in the Church) helps answer the question. This is the publication of the proceedings of an international conference held in Rome in 2015 organized by the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica on the subject of church reform. The size of the book, containing 30 papers, and the proximity of the editors to the Pope (Spadaro is the Jesuit editor of the magazine and Galli is an Argentinian theologian) contribute to making the book an important tool to dig into what the Pope thinks of reformation.
Not a New Word
In the Western church, talks about reform have been going on since the Councils of Vienne (1312), Constance (1414-1418) and the Lateran V (1512-1517). The word is therefore part of the language of the Church, even before the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) used it abundantly to promote changes at the level of ecclesiastical organization. In subsequent centuries the word was treated with caution, if not suspicion, given its Protestant flavor. It was Vatican II (1962-1965) that began to circulate it (e.g. Lumen Gentium 4) also using “aggiornamento” (updating) and renewal. Typically the Catholic sense of reformation is continuity in change and change in continuity. Again, it’s Vatican II that sets the tone for interpretation when it says that “every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6). In reforming itself, the Roman Catholic Church does not lose anything of the past, but rather tries to become more faithful to what she is already. The criterion of reformation is not external and objective, as would be the case with recognizing it in the Word of God, but always internal and ecclesial, i.e. the Church itself setting the parameters of its own renewal.
Against this background, Pope Francis has been talking about reformation in the context of calling the church to re-launch its missionary impetus. No reformation of doctrine and devotions is in view. In the papal narrative, reformation means accelerating the process spurred by Vatican II.
Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of the Church has two main pillars. This book contains ample evidence affirming both. The first has to do with the increase of “synodality”, i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger part in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the local Church, to ensure that they act better together. In a programmatic summary the editors write: “the reform of the church is the synodical reform of local churches and of the whole church” (p. 12). Reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic that introduces some minor structural changes in the internal organization of the church.
The other axis has to do with the “revolution of tenderness” that Francis has been talking about since his election in 2013. According to this program, the primacy of mercy needs to be recognized and implemented at all levels. The recently-ended Year of Mercy has indicated the inclusive and embracing nature of what it means for the Pope to insist on mercy, at times neglecting aspects of the biblical teaching concerning repentance from sin and turning to Christ alone to be saved from our separation from God.
Synodality and mercy are the two qualifiers of reformation the pope has in mind. There is no hint of what the Reformation of the 16th century meant for the church, i.e. the recovery of the supreme authority of the Bible and the message of salvation by faith alone. There is no hint of it in the papal dream for a reformation. According to Francis’ view, the future of the Roman Catholic Church will make room for more discussion and involvement of different subjects at all levels and will be marked by the pervasiveness of mercy. This is perfectly legitimate on his part and even admirable. The following question remains though: is this a reformation according to the Gospel? Does it really recognize the primacy of God to call the church back to the whole counsel of God, to repent from deviations from the Gospel and renew its commitment to be faithful to it? In its concerns with structures and attitudes, does it properly deal with the need for a reformation of doctrine and practice according to the Word of God?
Some evangelicals seem to be fascinated by the phenomenology of pope Francis although they do not always understand his theological vision. Addressing the issue of the “reformation” is a significant entry point in his world and gives to opportunity to begin to understand it. As the Pope commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, what he has in mind is an altogether different kind of reformation, i.e. a reformation that will make his church more catholic and more Roman, doubtfully more evangelical.ch more catholic and more Roman, doubtfully more evangelical.
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