As the pontificate of Pope Francis goes on, opposition to him solidifies. Certain groups within the Church accept as proven the claim that the Holy Father is either ignorant of theology or heretical, even though these charges depend solely on how these groups interpret his words and the teachings of the Church. Now, it’s not for me to judge the intention or the state of the souls of those people who oppose him, but I do believe that at a minimum their opposition is a case of begging the question and reflects a misunderstanding of what the Pope taught in relation to what the Church has taught prior to Pope Francis.
To state it bluntly, I believe those who think the Pope is trying to “change” Church teaching on moral issues have grossly missed the point of what he said and taught. He is not looking for ways to turn “X is a sin” into “X is not a sin.” He is looking to remove obstacles that keep people from reconciling with God and His Church. Some of those obstacles involve sinners being intimidated and discouraged in getting to the confessional. Other obstacles involve others assuming that a sinner must be shunned and kept away from the Church until they become as holy as we are.
The latter is a real problem. When the Pope reaches out to the divorced and remarried, people assume that bringing them back to the Church must mean the Sacraments, even though the Pope has rejected that view. During his February 18, 2016 Press conference, the Pope said:
Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, ‘from here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration. And those two were happy. They used a very beautiful expression: we don’t receive Eucharistic communion, but we receive communion when we visit hospitals and in this and this and this. Their integration is that.
In other words, the Pope wants to integrate all Catholics back to the life of the Church and right relationship with God. Obviously people who are determined to sin and refuse to repent are not integrated into the Church, and cannot hope to be saved. If the Pope wanted to treat such people as if they did no wrong, that would indeed be troubling. But that is not what he refers to. Back when he was head of the archdiocese of Buenos Aries, he said:
Nevertheless, today Catholic Doctrine reminds its divorced members who have remarried that they are not excommunicated— even though they live in a situation on the margin of what indissolubility of marriage and the sacrament of marriage require of them— and they are asked to integrate into the parish life.
Bergoglio, Jorge Mario; Skorka, Abraham (2013-04-19). On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century (p. 110). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Notice the theme here. Integrating into the parish in order to encourage them to seek repentance. He opposes things that hinder this repentance. He has made this clear:
Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need of repentance. When a person begins to recognize the sickness in their soul, when the Holy Spirit— the Grace of God— acts within them and moves their heart toward an initial recognition of their own sins, he needs to find an open door, not a closed one. He needs to find acceptance, not judgment, prejudice, or condemnation. He needs to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes, when Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of a sinner when he stands at the threshold, when he starts to feel nostalgia for God.
I would like to mention another conduct typical of the scholars of the law, and I will say that there is often a kind of hypocrisy in them, a formal adherence to the law that hides very deep wounds. Jesus uses tough words; he defines them as “whited sepulchers” who appear devout from the outside, but inside, on the inside… hypocrites. These are men who live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love; men who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries. Chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew is very clear on this; we need to return there to understand what the Church is and what it should never be. He describes the attitudes of those who tie up heavy burdens and lay them on other men’s shoulders, but who are unwilling to move so much as a finger; they are those who love the place of honor and want to be called master. This conduct comes when a person loses the sense of awe for salvation that has been granted to him.
Pope Francis (2016-01-12). The Name of God Is Mercy (Kindle Locations 605-617). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In other words, Catholics who think of their role as keeping sinners out of the Church in the name of purity have missed the point. We’re not supposed to think of 1 lost sheep out of 100 as “acceptable losses.” We’re supposed to save that last sheep. We were saved by God’s grace, and we should desire others be given that same grace. Such a person may refuse God’s grace and that is beyond our control. But we can’t stop trying to bring them Christ, and we can’t stop praying for them.
This is what the Pope wants us to do. He wants us to find the lost sheep and work on bringing them back to the full life of the Church. To assume that he wants to throw the consistent teaching of the Church out of the window is a rash judgment and a reading into his words something he never intended. It’s only when one approaches his words with the assumption he must reject Church teaching that one can make the accusation of error.
Perhaps it is time for his critics to ask themselves, “What if I misunderstood the Holy Father and the mission of the Church? What if he’s really telling us not to drive people away from seeking salvation?” I believe that if we ponder those questions, we’ll find these are his motives, not error or moral laxity.