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Francis’s Critics Fall Off Their High Wire

As he read the text of Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagates, he found himself “getting impatient,” wrote my friend Michael Liccione in a Facebook comment. The “Filial Correction Concerning the Propagation of Heresies” claims that Pope Francis has articulated or allowed seven heresies, mostly in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

He called the letter “a massive case of begging the question.” He focused on the main charge, that Francis tells people openly committing adultery — specifically those who have remarried after divorce without an annulment — to receive Our Lord in communion.

“While it’s certainly the case that unrepentant adulterers and fornicators should not receive the Eucharist, the real question is whether every irregular marriage or cohabiting relationship constitutes unrepented adultery or fornication,” he notes. “The Pope thinks not, and I agree with him. But the text of the ‘filial correction’ never addresses that question. Hence, much of it is just question-begging.”

Pope Francis’s High Wire Act

That fits my reading of the “Correction,” and Michael knows much more about these things than I do. However, what I want to take up here is the damaging way of reading Francis of which the “Correction” is an example. Not despite it’s being written by men of learning and piety, but because such men wrote it. The “Correction” as celebrated by its fans — a somewhat different document — is an even better example.

Francis’s way of engaging sinners is a high wire act. He wants to help people hear the Gospel by setting aside for the moment the hard words of judgment. He wants to speak about mercy without setting out the reasons they need mercy, which most already know. He speaks to them as a doctor who wants them healed: he makes the offer of healing first, then gives the diagnosis, then presents the treatment the patient may not like. Which was the way Jesus often speaks in the gospels.

The pope takes risks in doing so. Pastoral care that doesn’t begin with condemnation will be taken as approval, because so many people want the pope’s approval. Much of the media, aided by dissenting Catholics, keeps getting the story 180 degrees wrong. The message the world hears may not be the message the pope wants it to hear.

Speaking of mercy without speaking of sin can also decline into lazy, unadmitted approval. I don’t think Francis has done that, but it is a risk he runs with his way of speaking. Perhaps he gets the balance wrong. Jesus did not always speak about mercy. He sometimes spoke of judgment.

Those worries drive Francis’s critics, I think. I have some theories about why the worry so drives them, but that’s another article. It’s not unreasonable to be concerned.

The Correctors’ High Wire Act

But — and this strikes me as a crucial point in thinking about these things — their way of dealing with (not engaging) the particular sinners is also a high wire act. It takes just as big a risk, and maybe a bigger one. They’re doing something very risky without knowing it.

Few see this because we can’t so easily see their victims. To the extent (if any) that Francis inadequately presents the moral law, we know the effects. Sin hurts people in this world as well as the next. It pulls people away from God and His Church. The moral law is a guide to the good life and a warning against the bad life. As Francis says in Amoris Laetitia, “For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace.”

The harm of sin is easy to see. It’s especially easy to see when we think — as we usually do — of categories like “people remarried without annulments” and not actual people. Actual people complicate the narrative.

Most of us don’t see those who don’t know the moral law because we’ve presented it so badly or crudely or simple-mindedly. From the outside, they look like people who’d told God to get lost and now suffer the consequences. We don’t see those who’ve experienced the Faith as Bad News, not as a Gospel. Or we do see them, but we dismiss them as willful sinners, as people deserving only denunciation, as men and woman refusing to do what God wants them to do.

You see this in all those very popular articles declaring that the real kindness to those in irregular marriages or to homosexual people is to tell them The Truth. I’ve written such articles myself and they say something true, but in context unbalanced and incomplete. The authors declare that we must make sure people hear God’s “No!” before they will hear his “Yes.” They insist that such people need prophetic confrontation, not accompaniment.

You see it also in the angry reaction to any article that suggests understanding what homosexual people feel and experience before preaching to them. It appears in the inquisitions such writers face about their orthodoxy and the suspicion with which some people read writers like Eve Tushnet, Leah Lebresco Sargeant, and Wesley Hill, much less favorite conservative whipping boy Fr. James Martin.

What the Correctors Don’t See

It’s rubbish, this way of speaking of selected sinners. Six seconds reflection on one’s own besetting sins will suggest how often we need to hear sympathy for our pain and perplexity before we can hear a warning about our sins. We need a doctor who promises healing, not a policeman who promises jail — even if we deserve jail. Sometimes we need a moral or spiritual slap, but not very often, and then only from someone of whose love for us we’re sure.

Little in what the pope’s many  “correctors” say indicates that they have reflected on this. Worse, they haven’t reflected upon what they lose by speaking the way they do and the way they want Francis to speak. They also takes risks, great risks, with the happiness of others. It may be a question which is the wiser course, which high wire the pope should try to cross. It may be that Francis falls off the high wire he’s chosen and they’ve fallen off theirs. But they don’t seem to see this. Their analysis would matter more if they did.

Further Reading

Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia

The critics’ Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagates and the National Catholic Register’s report on it

David Mills’ Rereading Francis

His Let’s Not Talk About Fr. James Martin, Scott Hahn

His The Bitter Sons Speak of Francis

His Pope Francis: Challenging and Humbling the Faithful


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • John Médaille

    God’s “yes” is always prior to God’s “no”. There can be reasons for saying ‘no’ first, but never so as to exclude or divorce it from his ‘yes’.

  • DavidM

    Mills on Scott Hahn: “He’s often patronized, which I think is worse than being insulted.”

    Mills on “Correctio” authors: “Little in what the pope’s many “correctors” say indicates that they have reflected on this. Worse, they haven’t reflected upon what they lose by speaking the way they do and the way they want Francis to speak.”

    A touch o’ the ironic, perhaps? “Let me get that splinter out yer eye.”

  • Thomas Storck

    There’s a lot to address in this whole issue, so let me confine my remarks to one or two points. You wrote (quoting a friend) that:

    “While it’s certainly the case that unrepentant adulterers and
    fornicators should not receive the Eucharist, the real question is
    whether every irregular marriage or cohabiting relationship constitutes
    unrepented adultery or fornication,” he notes. “The Pope thinks not, and
    I agree with him.”

    Assuming you agree with this, could you explain, please? Do you mean that because they may be subjectively unaware of their sin or of its gravity (which may well be the case), that therefore we can assume they are in a state of grace and can approach the Eucharist licitly?

    Or do you mean that in fact fornication or adultery is not always a grave sin? Or what?

    I can imagine that there may be very rare instances in which a marriage is null but this fact of nullity could not be proven in the external forum, i.e., by a tribunal. If one of the parties to this putative marriage has entered into a new union, I can imagine that in such a case, if a confessor was morally certain that the original marriage was null,
    then something could be done to allow the couple in such a relationship to approach the Eucharist without sin. But in reading Amoris Laetitia I don’t see that it is such an extremely rare kind of situation that Francis has in mind. I’d like to think so, but I don’t see it in the text.

    Mercy, as has been pointed out before, presupposes some kind of fault or sin. Otherwise there is no need of mercy. So if mercy is preached, then some sort of fault is assumed. I can understand that it’s a pastoral question whether to stress the sin or to stress the mercy, and that reasonable people might differ on this point. But if we hold to St. Paul’s teaching on the necessity of being free from serious sin to approach the Eucharist, then I don’t see how the preaching of mercy could include access to those sacraments that require one to be in a state of grace if one is not.

    In the case of a subjectively ignorant couple, for example, their subjective ignorance could easily be removed by regular preaching or even just mention of certain sins from time to time. This need not be done in a condemnatory or pharisaical manner, and obviously should include more than sexual sins. I’d like to see Catholics reminded again and again of their duty to pay just wages to their employees!

    If, however, their “ignorance” is of the sort that they know intellectually that the Church considers something to be a sin, but they think their own judgment is superior to that of the Church, do you really want to invite such people to the Eucharist?

  • While I agree we need to apply mercy to situations I believe you are wrong on the critics having the burden of coming up with the examples of relationships that do not constitute adultery or fornication. It is Pope Francis who is deviating from the tradition. He needs to provide the examples that do not.

    So I ask you Mr. Mills. Since I can’t think of any examples can you give me examples of irregular relationships that do not constitute adulterous or fornication?

    • I guess all I hear are crickets.

  • Morton

    The church has fallen into an intellectual mediocrity under this papacy. The confusion caused by Amoris Laetitia is a prime example of this.

    Clarification is now required. Cardinal Mueller said so. Cardinal Parolin things as well that there needs to be dialogue with the authors of the correctio (and by extension he would probably add the dubia cardinals.) Cardinal Caffarra was one of the foremost authorities on moral theology and the family in the church. He said “only a blind man could deny there’s great confusion, uncertainty and insecurity in the Church” talking about Amoris Laetitia.

    To the extent that the correctio helps bring about this much needed clarification its authors should be applauded.

    Instead they have been vilified (I do not say that would include this article) and ignored as were the dubia Cardinals. That appears to be changing finally with Cardinal Parolin’s remarks.

    Thank God for that. A situation where the sacrements are administered in different ways in different countries simply unworkable in the long term. We’ll get schism if this isn’t sorted.

    Mr. Mills has written many perceptive things but he suffers what appears to be a surprising naivety on this issue. If something is not done, and soon, on this, the church is headed for troubled and largely unchartered waters. We don’t want to go Mr. Mills. We don’t want to go there.

  • BXVI

    Total B.S.

    The message being put out to adulterers is “You don’t need healing because what you are doing is not really adultery; you’re fine. We’re sorry the Church ever said otherwise and we’re embarrassed about it. No conversion or amendment of behavior is necessary.” If that’s not the message he intends (wink, wink) Pope Francis could correct it in about 30 seconds. He chooses not to do so. Fr. Martin is essentially his “Mini-Me” for homosexuals.

    We’re done being fooled by these masters of duplicity.

  • Michael

    This article illustrates very well the issue the Francis-ites get wrong: an inability to reconstruct the premises and conclusions of the philosophical underpinnings of the Correction. Thus they attack a straw man.
    The point of Catholic morality that is being defended by the Correction is really two-fold: that there is a good for human beings that they ought to pursue, and that the good for human beings is obscured to us by our sinful nature.
    The first point is rooted in understanding the purpose of human existence. When its purpose is obscured by sinful inclinations we cut ourselves off from our source of happiness.
    The true purpose of human existence is to know and to love our Creator. This is made evident in the natural law we see expressed by the world around us and we find inscribed in our hearts.
    Without sanctifying grace in our lives we are apt to pursue self interest instead: avoiding pain and chasing pleasure. We become creatures defined by our weaknesses rather than by the Door which Christ opened for us. Because our bodies sometimes define for us that which is painful and that which is pleasurable, we reject the natural law for the subjective law. We shut the Door to eternity to placate our desires in the flesh.
    Morality has but one use: as a sword that cuts to the truth for a life path that is easily confused because of the conflicted beings we naturally are. Morality has but one anchor: Revelation, the Revelation of God embodied by Christ crucified and the Door which is self sacrifice and the earthly path of self-denial. Morality has but one end: bringing the soul to eternal salvation in Christ by shunning all that is sinful and embracing sanctifying grace as a means to eternity

  • Daniel G. Fink

    At the Synod on the Family, Pope John Paul II and Familiaris Consortio (par. 34) were necessarily ignored in order to advance “gradualness of the law”. That is what worries Francis’ “correctors”– the direct contradiction of previous Catholic Tradition which ultimately undermines the divinely established hierarchy of the Church.

    Intent requires the break with sin. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”

  • ZorroRules

    Well, if it’s not repented then it is by definition unrepented, so yes, every irregular marriage or cohabitation is indeed sinful since by its very existence it is unrepented. Just like everyone who continues to commit any sin is unrepented, the people don’t complicate the narrative, and neither do their actions, it’s not complicated at all. Leaving people in their sin leaves them in slavery to sin and theological hair splitting ala “everything is relative” via the Episcopalian mind-set is flawed just as bent Jesuetical “new think” ala 1984 wants us to see 5 fingers where there are four. Mercy consists in the grace repentance not the atomic hair-splitting of theological odd-ball what-ifs writ large by clergy so widely perverse that it diddles little boys to the tune of billions of dollars and has cocain fueled homosexual orgies. The rot stinks of dead twitching corpses whose only concern is an erect penis at any cost and a pope who apparently dines only with his select elite and does not dirty himself eating with the gentiles. If fornication does not matter, then nothing does, and if repentance is not needed, then this is not the gospel of Christ. The grace to repent is available, to deny it is to lie. The whole point of being a Christian is to emulate Christ, especially in His purity.

  • Morton

    Not one commenter in support of Mr. Mills here. Not one.

    It might have to do with the fact that Amoris Laetitia puts three of the Church`s sacraments in jeopardy: Marriage, Eucharist, and Confession. It might have something to do with the fact that it puts catholic moral teaching in jeopardy.

    Amoris Laetitia does not mention Veritatis Splendor once. Not once. Funny that, or not so funny. That`s why the church is in the pickle it`s in. Amoris Laetitia has to comes to terms with Veritatis Splendor. That is what the Dubia cardinals and the signers of the Correctio are asking. Is it too much too ask?

    To Mr. Mills, apparently so. Don’t shoot the messenger Mr. Mills. These questions are more than fair, indeed, they are necessary questions that require a response.