Pope Francis’ Plain-Talk Catechism

francis 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.


Categories:Pope Francis Theology Vatican

  • Dan Miller

    Every Council speaks with the authority of Christ. It is the implementation that often fails. It is clear that Vatican II has not been fully and faithfully implemeted, and Trent failed because it did very little to stem the Protestant revolt. So let’s get on with the work of implementation – personal holiness and evangelization.

  • Michael A. Crognale, Capt, USAF (Ret)

    Amazing! I knew this instinctively. A great article. I have the Catechism in book form as well as the desktop and iPad app. It’s a great resource.

  • m haitz

    …and so where in the Catechism will we find Pope Francis’s view that the Church must not “obsess” over abortion?…sorry, but the sad reality is that the pope threw pro-lifers under the bus.

    • H.Felton

      He’s done no such thing. He wants us to look at other issues, too. On prolife Sunday, one of our priests asked the congregation, “Is there anyone here who does not know the Church’s teaching on abortion?” Not one person raised their hand. The entire planet knows this. All he is saying is that the Church shouldn’t ONLY focus on abortion, which has become the stance of some people. We are so much more than anti-abortion. We need to show all of our sides, not just one.

      • tradman

        Since only about 25% of Catholics go to church weekly and of those only 25% believe all the churches teachings, we need to keep working on all the issues( big and small).
        By the way the rest of the planet is still trying to decide when your human rights begin and end.

      • jpct50

        The entire planet knows this? I think not. Pelosi, Biden, Cuomo, et al. Uh huh, yeah right!

    • mominvermont

      Looks to me like Pope Francis is guiding the media away from their obsession with abortion rights and instead wants them to focus more on life and love and the Person of Christ. He wants the media to see the big picture: the full beauty of the Church. (Which is, indeed, pro-life:)

    • Ginger Evans

      How did he throw you under the bus? What did he say that makes him pro-abortion? If anything his comments started constructive dialogue that would not have been possible without them.

    • Elizabeth

      “Each child that is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ.” Pope Francis This quote made me stop and really see, like Mother Teresa, who saw the face of Jesus in everyone she cared for…

  • eric

    It’s wonderful to see that the Pope has added “flexibility” into the Catholic doctrine.
    “There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning.”

    • px

      Eric, you are mixing up a few terms that don’t actually have the same meaning in Catholic theology. “Doctrine” is different from “matters of ecclesiastical discipline, ie) rules and precepts”. In fact, “doctrine” is even different from “dogma.” Rules and precepts can be changed and adjusted, while dogmas are those truths found in divine Revelation – given to us by Christ himself and therefore, not changeable by any human. For example: that the Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Christ is a dogma of the Church. That Catholics once received the Eucharist kneeling down and on the tongue, and may now receive standing up and in the hand is a matter of “ecclesiastical discipline” (rules and precepts).
      In these discussions, I think it is helpful to be precise.

      • eric

        You haven’t defined Catholic doctrine. What is it? Thanks

        • px

          Doctrine is a “teaching” of the Magisterium (the teaching authority / pope and bishops in communion with the pope) and (according to Canon Law 749.3) not to be considered infallible, unless a teaching is defined as a dogma (in a formal way.)

          Dogma is the thing that is clearly defined as true and unchangeable. (And often they are defined because of some confusion, or persistent heresy to the contrary.)

          Doctrines or teachings have always had that “flexibility” which you attribute to Pope Francis.

          At the same time, it is not as if the Church defines every truth she teaches as a formal dogma. There are many teachings (doctrine) that are true and unchanging, but have never been dogmatically defined. Eg) because they are so clearly manifest in scripture, etc.

          Matters of ecclesiastical discipline (rules) are even more flexible because they often have to do with customs of a certain times and places, and are not matters of revealed truth.

          If you are really interested in all this — there are even distinctions within dogma — “de fide” being the highest classification. But that is probably too much detail.

          Finally, I think what many people don’t understand (people who consider themselves faithful Catholics included) is that the infallibility of the pope (as defined by Vatican Council I and affirmed by Vatican II) is a charism of his office and exercised when he formally and officially makes an “ex cathedra” statement to teach the faithful on some matter of faith and morals. It is this way that the pope is prevented by the Holy Spirit from teaching error. But this does not mean the pope is constantly spouting off infallible statements with every off-hand comment he makes or interview response he gives.

          Of course, you original point about “flexibility” may have been that Pope Francis seems to be wanting to reach out a hand of friendship and love to those who have not experienced the Church in that way. In that case, I agree. But at the same time, he affirms that he adheres to the truths taught by Christ and the Church: “I am a faithful son of the Church.”

          If anything, he is showing us that it is possible to be profoundly committed to the truth, while also respectful, loving, and open-hearted to every human being. By beginning that famous interview by calling himself a “sinner,” he stands with every one of us weak, sinful human beings that we are. Not against us or above us in any way.

  • Allan Wafkowski

    Perhaps the problem is with the new Catechism, and with the pope who was taught from it. The Catechism shares the vagueness of Vatican II itself. We know now from accounts by men who participated in Vatican II that vagueness was purposely introduced into some council documents that their interpretation could be altered later.

    An example of the Catechism’s quirkiness is the suggested change of perceptions regarding the death penalty. The only reference (and one must dig it out as it is not footnoted in the Catechism) to such a change was a talk Pope John Paul II had made. That talk, which was little more than John Paul’s opinion–an opinion that disregarded almost two thousand years of Catholic Church teaching about the capital punishment, was absurdly slight matter to suggest a wholesale change in doctrine.

    It is perhaps prudent to run everything contained in the new Catechism through the Catechism of Trent before a sound judgement can be made.

  • d.morgan

    I can not help but notice that the support for His Holiness’ statements are drawn from the CCC, which was written to support the new ideology of Vatican Council II, which then required a new Canon Law to support it. If one only tests these novel ideas with post Vatican Council II ideology, one will not see any problem. When one tests these ideas with the teachings of The Church from before the 2nd Vatican Council, many problematic issues arise. This is the crux of the problem. The Church, or rather those at the helm of the Church, and the Bishops Committees, have not so conveniently chosen to create a new, modern Church. And we can plainly see the fruits of that decision across western Europe and the Americas.



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