Pope Francis & the Primacy of Conscience

December 2013

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Perhaps you’ve noticed: Francis has a very different way of speaking to the world than any pope in history. Employing a sincerity and simplicity that has endeared him to the world and delighted the media, the Holy Father has chosen to use off-the-cuff remarks, interviews, and unscripted homilies to reproach large segments of the Catholic Church and to reveal his ideology and worldview. So far in the first nine months of the Bergoglio papacy, the world has gleaned from Pope Francis that the Church should no longer “obsess” over hot-button social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage; that it’s not a Pope’s role to “judge” homosexual priests; that the “Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us…. Even the atheists. Everyone!” (homily, May 22); that “restorationist groups” are guilty of “triumphalism,” including a “triumphalistic liturgy”; and that he disdains popular piety that includes reciting memorized prayers “like a parrot.” These controversial comments have provoked a multitude of objections, clarifications, repudiations, and attempts to explain away the Pope’s “sincere” and “simple” unscripted comments.

In his blockbuster interview (Oct. 2) with Eugenio Scalfari, the 89-year-old atheist publisher of Italy’s La Repubblica, Pope Francis explained a “mystical moment” he had at the conclave between the time of his election and the time he accepted, giving the impression that God spoke to him, validating his pontifical trajectory. Scalfari has Bergoglio explaining that this mystical experience occurred when he left the Sistine Chapel to pray. But Cardinal Dolan, among other cardinals who were at the March 2013 conclave, pointed out in the press that Cardinal Bergoglio never left the Sistine Chapel during the time between his nomination and acceptance. Scalfari’s account — or Bergoglio’s — they say, is inaccurate.

The Vatican press office then stepped in to explain that Scalfari hadn’t taken notes in the interview and didn’t record it either. Rather than providing a transcript of the interview, which is standard operating procedure in the world of journalism, Scalfari simply reconstructed his interview with the Pope from memory. But if we can’t trust what we see the press reporting in long, engaging interviews, the obvious question for the Holy Father might be: Why make public interviews and other off-the-cuff remarks a hallmark of one’s papacy? It comes off as somewhat reckless to pursue this avenue as a conduit of teaching and communication. (By the way, the Scalfari interview was still, at the time of this writing, included among papal discourses at the Vatican website, essentially confirming its basic “trustworthiness.”)

Sure, one can argue that Pope Francis’s interviews have no doctrinal or magisterial value; but the fact is — speaking in the most practical terms — with Francis, the world hears primarily what comes down through the mainstream media. That appears to be the way Pope Francis wants it. The Scalfari interview, along with his September interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, published in sixteen Jesuit journals around the world, can be considered the first “encyclicals” of Pope Francis, promulgated through the media (instead of through traditional ecclesial channels), published as they were the world over. In fact, the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano reproduced the Scalfari interview in its entirety, putting it on par with other papal discourses. Further, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi told the press that “if Francis felt his thought had been ‘gravely misrepresented,’ he would have said so.” Well, he hasn’t said so.


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New Oxford Notes: December 2013

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I think it is important to point out that the Scalfari interview was taken down from the Vatican website around the middle of November, apparently after this article was written.

Also, I may be wrong, but as far as I can tell, Pope Francis never said that the Church must not “obsess” about abortion, gay marriage, etc. Here are the relevant quotes from the interview in the Jesuit journal.

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.”

There is no indication whatsoever that Pope Francis is talking about abortion here. He is talking about something else. I am confident that he would never say that the prohibition against abortion is a “small-minded rule.”

Several paragraphs later he says this:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible… But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

The Pope doesn’t say we are so “obsessed” that we should not speak about these issues at all, but that we have to make sure that we place them in a context that makes it easier to understand how they relate to the whole of Catholic teaching. Perhaps this should not be seen as a “reprimand” but friendly advice. Maybe Francis should be more cautious in his interviews and off-the-cuff remarks, but concerned Catholics should also be careful not to overreact in such a way that makes it easier for enemies of the Church to divide and conquer.

Doug Fuda
Boston NOR Club


Posted by: dougfuda
December 14, 2013 10:00 AM EST
Jacobum, your phrase "ostentatious humility" is pretty much what I call " humility on parade". It is uncanny because this phrase came to me unbidden the first few weeks of His papacy.

And the ambiguity is just driving me mad.
Posted by: CathyS
December 19, 2013 06:13 AM EST
With respect to NOR Boston Club member Doug Fuda, I believe that any time a leader (be that a pope, president, good or bad) speaks and the results are confusion, discord, divisiveness--or if that leader is ambiguous and vague--then there is something wrong. The December 13 public comments from Cardinal Burke are also very telling. But we all must remember that the pope is a Jesuit. I guess I will now go full steam ahead with my capitalist ideas...after all, my well-formed conscience is that of a free American. Posted by: Lucia826
December 18, 2013 02:57 PM EST
I disagree with everyone here. There is no ambiguity or confusion pursuant to the pope's various remarks. All us faithful Catholics understand that what he has said about conscience, practicing homosexuals, morality, etc. is wrong. What the rest of the world and cafeteria Catholics in particular believe is that the pope's statements align with their own thinking. So they aren't confused either. They think he is the Man of the Year. They adore him. He isn't "judgmental." And best of all, he helps poor people. What more could you ask?

The way had been paved for this pope for years. Every pope after Pius XII was at best wishy-washy about defending the faith against her many enemies, both internal and external. Pope John Paul II never directly excommunicated anyone during his long tenure. He did, however, elevate more people to sainthood than all the previous popes combined. You see, there are no bad people. There are only misunderstood people. Pope Francis is the personification of years of this wretched thinking that will cause many to lose their souls. It is the devil at his most insidious.

We are living in very bad times. Good and evil are interchangeable and our leaders have little or no courage. While we must always accept the Holy Father as the successor to St. Peter and the head of the Church, we don't have to buy into his liberal, warped, self-serving words and actions. I don't like it when someone parades his charity. Neither did Christ. He excoriated the Pharisees for doing the same. I don't think He is too happy with Pope Francis...

Pray to the Blessed Mother, folks. That is all we can do until the Truth shines again in this sad, lost, dark world we live in.
Posted by: MGRagan
December 19, 2013 06:59 PM EST
Unfortunately after 9 months a disturbing pattern has developed with Pope Francis which is creating ambiguity and confusion to the faithful. When one has to constantly revise and extend remarks or have someone do it for them...after 9 months...it is not an accident. Rather it is a deliberate technique. The primacy of conscience/moral relativism is right out of the modernist playbook. If one views the comments of Pope Francis through the filter of "modernism" then they become much clearer albeit not definitive yet. However, the primacy of conscience comment(s) just about confirms it.Evidently, The Vatican has pulled the Scalfari interview. The question remains.."Why did it take so long?" and more importantly.."Why did Pope Francis give it in the first place?". Two descriptions keep coming to mind about Pope Francis' style and substance..."Moral Exhibitionism" and "Ostentatious Humility"...Both of which makes one nervous when talking about anyone...let alone the Pope. Hopefully my sentiments are incorrect. Posted by: Jacobumsays
December 09, 2013 11:24 AM EST
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