Pope Francis’ Plain-Talk Catechism


Rome priest Father John Wauck told some Benedictine College students the other day that when Pope Francis repeats lessons from the Catechism in everyday language, the world is surprised by what amount to basic Church teachings.

Pope Francis made the same point in his interview with America: “During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says.”

To test the “Pope Francis wows with the Catechism” theory, I looked at some of the other “shocking” Francis comments to see if I could find them in the big green book. Here are a few of them.

1. The Freedom of Man

 “Each one of us has his/her own vision of the Good or even of Evil. We must encourage him/her to move toward that which he/she sees as the Good.”

That’s the proper translation, we learn via Simcha Fisher, of the previously reported quote from the La Repubblica interview: “[E]veryone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them.”

That may sound  relativistic to our ears … but the radical freedom of man, and the trust that God can guide it, is central to Article 6 of Part Three of the Catechism, on the Moral Conscience. One key paragraph:

1778 “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.”

2. Infallible Flock?

“And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together.”

Thus said the Pope in his America interview. I checked him in the Catechism, and found this:

889 In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.

Pope Benedict is a good guy to talk to if you’re concerned about the sensum fidelis (also, Lumen Gentium 12).

3. Proclaim Jesus, Not “Small Minded Rules”*

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.* The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

That last sentence is almost a pastoral mission statement of Pope Francis, and his emphasis on mercy has caused great consternation to some. They worry that mercy becomes “indifference to sin” in practice. That is a debate in the Church that has raged in from the Prodigal Son’s older brother to the Kurt Waldheim controversy to today.

But Francis is of course absolutely right that the Church is here to proclaim Jesus above all, never the rules above Jesus. The whole Catechism section on evangelization is helpful. I’ll give you just the first words of each paragraph here:

  • 425 The transmission of the Christian faith consists primarily in proclaiming Jesus Christ in order to lead others to faith in him. … 
  • 426 “At the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son from the Father …
  • 427 In catechesis “Christ, the Incarnate Word and Son of God,. . . is taught – everything else is taught with reference to him  …
  • 428 Whoever is called “to teach Christ” must first seek “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus”; he must suffer “the loss of all things. . .” in order to “gain Christ and be found in him”…
  • 429 From this loving knowledge of Christ springs the desire to proclaim him, to “evangelize”, and to lead others to the “yes” of faith in Jesus Christ ….

*It is important to note that this is a separate part of the interview from his discussion of teaching about abortion, contraception and marriage in context. Those are not “small minded rules” to Francis, as evidenced by his words the day after the interview was published: “Each child that is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ.”

** And while we’re on the “small-minded rules”, the Wheat & Weeds blog’s indefatigable attention to Pope Benedict is paying off. Wheat & Weeds uncorked this great old Benedict quote to show that anyone mad at Francis should have been mad already:

Said Benedict: “We should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of multiple, minor details, but rather, should always keep our eyes in the first place on the greatness of Christianity.

“I remember, when I used go to Germany in the 1980s and ’90s, that I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems.

“If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith – a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.”

4. Love, not Legalism

“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.”

Rejecting ideology, even religious ideology, is another central teaching of Francis. And it’s a critically important teaching for our time, which turns everything into ideology. It is also a teaching of the Catechism.

1972 The New Law is called a law of love because it makes us act out of the love infused by the Holy Spirit, rather than from fear; a law of grace, because it confers the strength of grace to act, by means of faith and the sacraments; a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who “does not know what his master is doing” to that of a friend of Christ – “For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” – or even to the status of son and heir.

5. The Changeable Church?

“Human self-understanding changes with time, and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning.”

Pope Francis’ words here might seem to be a rebuke of dogma, but they are in fact a mainstream expression of the Catholic belief in the development of Christian doctrine. As the Catechism puts it:

94 Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church:

  • “through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts”; it is in particular “theological research [which]deepens knowledge of revealed truth”.
  • “from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which [believers]experience”, the sacred Scriptures “grow with the one who reads them.”
  • “from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth”.

So there it is, a few Catechism lessons from Pope Francis.

I know that listening to Pope Francis can make us uncomfortable. I like how Phil Lawler put it: “Yes, the Pope makes me uncomfortable. As well he should.”

Speaking to the theologians at Benedictine College I know that some of them appreciated the precision of theological language they got from Pope Benedict. But they also appreciate the pastoral lessons they get from Pope Francis.

Both are in the Catechism.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Tom Hoopes, author of What Pope Francis Really Said, is writer in residence at Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kansas, where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications Department and edits The Gregorian, a Catholic identity speech digest. He was previously editor of the National Catholic Register for 10 years and with his wife, April, of Faith & Family magazine for five. A frequent contributor to Catholic publications, he began his career as a reporter in the Washington, D.C., area and as press secretary for U.S. House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Archer. He lives in Atchison with his wife and those of his nine children still at home. The views and opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Benedictine College or the Gregorian Institute.

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