Pope Francis famously downplays law and doctrinal formulations, which he often associates with Pharasaism, in favor of “discernment,” which seems to involve the direct application of ultimate considerations to particular situations. As he put the matter in his address at the conclusion of the Synod on the Family, “The true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit.”
Discernment of some sort is always needed, so the Holy Father is right to note its importance. A true musician does more than play the notes on the page one after another. But he does play the notes, and it seems that a true defender of doctrine would uphold the doctrines themselves as well as their spirit. Many Catholics are therefore concerned that Francis fails to balance his denunciations of legalism with warnings about lawlessness—a tendency that seems a far greater problem in today’s Church.
There’s a personal background to the Holy Father’s outlook. He’s a Jesuit, and Jesuit training famously emphasizes discernment. And he took his papal name from Francis of Assisi, showing his admiration for an unconventional man whose very personal discernment of the needs of the Church has benefited us all immensely.
But legitimate discernment is never open-ended. Saint Francis insisted on strict acceptance of Church authority, and Jesuit training emphasizes obedience and abandonment of ambition for ecclesiastical preferment. In the Holy Father’s case nothing substitutes for these limitations. He sits in the chair of Peter, is judged by no one, and has full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church. That suggests problems.
Rulers don’t perform all functions. They do not usually—for example—write poetry or speak prophetically. When they claim to do so it’s usually a bad sign. Nor are rulers often saints. The use of power isn’t evil, but effective governance usually requires a liking for it, and it brings temptations to pride and the sacrifice of principle to expediency. That’s one reason most popes haven’t been canonized, most canonized popes were in the early Church, and most of them were martyrs.
The Holy Father is the ruler of an ancient worldwide institution. His office depends on an elaborate structure of doctrine, and its most fundamental purpose is the defense of that doctrine—in the words of the First Vatican Council, “inviolably keep[ing] and faithfully expound[ing] the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles.” He performs that and his other duties with the aid of an extensive hierarchy and bureaucracy and the voluntary cooperation of 1,300,000,000 Catholics. Those people rarely know him or much about him, and he won’t be able to work with them effectively unless what he says and does makes sense by reference to the structure as a whole.
So a one-sided emphasis on discernment at the expense of law and tradition is radically at odds with the pope’s role in the Church. By their fruits you shall know them. The new emphasis on discernment has meant contention and confusion. It has also meant easier annulments, and opened the door to authorized reception of the Eucharist by people in adulterous second unions—and eventually (it seems reasonable to expect) by sexually active homosexuals and single people. But that will make perennial Church teaching on family life a dead letter. That won’t be good for anyone. How will it help people on the margins if family life disintegrates further for lack of binding standards? And will people form their lives on Catholic teachings if their significance depends on the election returns from the College of Cardinals?
There’s also another side of the question. The papacy is a principle of unity in the Church. Open-ended discernment not limited by higher authority is a principle of dissolution. The things people do on their own seem good to them, and they’ve thought them over in whatever way they think about things. If their discernment trumps law and tradition, the Church becomes an aggregation of people pursuing whatever projects they think make sense for whatever reasons seem persuasive to them. In other words, it disappears.
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