(...)Phil Lawler is right to wonder—and wonder very seriously indeed—about the direction that is now being taken in Romeas a whole, and in the JPII Institute and the Pontifical Academy of Life in particular. The JPII Institute was created as a continuation of the legacy of Pope St. John Paul II, who was so capable of formulating authentic and complete expressions of Catholic truth which even those malformed by our contemporary culture can grasp, most notably his emphasis on the human person as a moral actor and his theology of the body. These two institutions together were designed, in effect, to creatively expose and address the lies about reality which dominate the secular West.
But, overall at least, Pope Francis has chosen a substantially different pastoral approach. Sadly, it is an approach which presents two enormous problems. The first is that it devalues one of the most important aspects of the Gospel, as reiterated again and again not only by Christ but by all the inspired authors of the New Testament. I mean the message that acceptance of Jesus Christ entails a heartfelt change in perspective, from the worldly to the Divine, which in turn demands a fundamental effort to dramatically alter our way of life, as befits those who wish to be Our Lord’s friends:
You are my friends if you do what I command you…. If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me…. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. [Jn 15:18-24] These words presuppose tremendous preaching, tremendous service, tremendous love. But they allow no room at all for downplaying the manner of life which Our Lord so clearly requires us to live, nor for hiding the fact that we can be set free only through our acceptance of Him who is not only the Life but also the Truth and the Way. If we doubt this, it is time to reread the epistles, especially the most practical sections of St. Paul, St. Peter and St. James.
What happens with those Catholics who, in the misguided name of pastoral care, prefer to downplay or even conceal hard truths is that they attract to the Church only those who are convinced that Christ accepts their moral outlook. Accordingly, they are also convinced that negative attitudes come only from those who control particular parts of the Church politically or who are fixated on past historically-conditioned teachings. This myth enables them to mistakenly value their own rectitude in their certainty that both time and eternity are on their side. They insist that the official teachings of the Church must eventually change—proving that all those who reject these teaching in our time are actually far ahead of the moral curve.
The perils of crying “Lord, Lord”
The result is not that the Church’s teachings ever do change, but that too many even in authority pretend that they will or that these teachings should not be permitted to make anyone uncomfortable or alter their own superior grasp of moral reality. This entire “pastoral” approach is, in fact, the primary cause of the crisis of Faith since the mid-1960s—the conviction that the Church’s teaching authority is an anachronism and that everyone can choose to believe whatever the dominant culture mistakenly suggests is true. Morality is reduced to whatever honors the prevailing social consciousness. It is expressed not by the Holy Spirit but by the Spirit of the Age.
This enormous error, so often thoroughly rooted in pride and sensuality, is the primary cause of the rapid decline of the Church over the past sixty years and more. It is most dramatically revealed in the immense priest shortages in dioceses which have not stood against the secular tide; in the collapse of so much of Catholic religious life; and in the endemic intellectual infidelity which passes for Catholic higher education in most academic institutions today. Too many in positions of Catholic trust have salved the consciences of those who, deep down, reject Christ as their Lord and Savior. At the same time, they have marginalized, discouraged, and even driven away those who accept Him—those who are eager, despite their lapses into sin, to embrace His authority over how they are to live.
Such an approach may certainly at times be inspired by a misguided charity, as I assume it is in the case of Pope Francis. But much of Pope St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate were written precisely to prevent such a mistake. Unfortunately, we have seen this same “pastoral” approach used again and again as a cover for the moral refusals of theology professors, bishops, clergy and religious (and so many lay persons). What may begin sincerely ends in a kind of doublespeak which conceals moral corruption beneath a cloak of assumed righteousness. Whether done sincerely out of a misguided love or not, this is still the method used by those who refuse to recognize their own sins when they minister to those who share in them, even as they single out the virtues they lack for categorical condemnation.
Under such circumstances, the faithful have no choice but to expend a huge part of their time and energy in parsing very carefully what Churchmen say so as to distinguish it correctly from what Christ and the Church actually teach. This is always necessary to some extent for a mature Catholic spirituality, of course, but in our day it has hardened into a tragic way of life. I grant that it may serve as the perfect goad to holiness for some of us. But to many more it can only be a sentence of death.
Those who are sincerely confused may well be saved by their own ignorance in the end, an ignorance which stunts yet does not utterly destroy their life in Christ. But for those who know better, for those who actually have the care of souls and are not invincibly ignorant, the one truth that inspires my whole argument still applies: “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45).
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’,” asks Jesus Christ, “and not do what I tell you?”