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Pope Francis and Catholic pro-life unity on the Magisterium: some proposals

Pope Francis and Catholic pro-life unity  on the Magisterium: some proposals

It is not a secret that the pontificate of Pope Francis has seen a lot of debate among Catholics over his actions. While previous pontificates since c. 1965 also saw such debates, at least two factors make the debates over Pope Francis’ words and actions unique. First, these debates (at least in cyberspace and in the Western Catholic media) usually revolve over allegations that the Pope Francis is too liberal—unlike in previous decades, when the debates were usually over the alleged ultraconservatism of whoever happened to be the sitting Pope. Second, the internal debates in Catholic circles that have taken place under the current pontificate have greatly divided the pro-life movement, which (despite the normal diversity of opinions) had largely maintained a relative unity since the 1970’s and 1980’s. This division has also touched Filipino pro-lifers, a division I observed most recently during the Amazon Synod and the consequent bitter debates over the so-called “pachamama” statues.

While bearing witness to the passion and religious commitments of Catholic pro-lifers on all sides, these debates have also greatly distracted us from the urgent tasks of confronting ongoing challenges to the family, to human life, and to Filipino values. Here in the Philippines I have in mind the promotion of abortifacients, the growing support for abortion as “health care”, and the steady promotion of the “SOGIE” Bills and gender ideology. Filipino pro-lifers need to become united enough to at least present a common front against these forces.

I have the following concrete proposals that, I hope, can serve as basis for common ground for Catholic pro-lifers—at least, for those in the Philippines.

I am writing this for Catholic pro-lifers on all sides of the debates over Pope Francis, and therefore I ask that my readers not try to read into my remarks anything beyond what I actually say. In the space of a single column, I cannot deal with all the issues; my focus is on establishing a common ground that is orthodox and will strengthen pro-life witness despite disagreements among pro-lifers. I also have not touched upon the Pope’s teachings on social justice and the environment, as these necessitate separate treatment.

The following are my proposals:

  1. Always to show respect for the hierarchy, most especially the Holy Father, Pope Francis. In the Code of Canon Law presently in force, Canon 212 §3—which treats of the right and duty of the faithful to “manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful”—also states that this is to be done “without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.”
  2. Always to pray for the priests, the bishops, the Pope, and for the whole Church. If possible, to offer penances and mortifications for them as well.
  3. Since we are pro-lifers, to promote the teachings of Pope Francis on the holiness of the family, the indissolubility of marriage, abortion, euthanasia, death penalty and gender ideology. His statements on these issues clearly echo those of his predecessors.
  4. To communicate to our fellow faithful the official teachings of Pope Francis interpreted in continuity with the teachings of the Popes who came before him.

When it comes to “Amoris Laetitia” (and the question of communion for couples living together without being in a valid marriage) in my opinion, the best model for interpreting it in continuity with the teachings of Pope Francis’ predecessors is “Amoris Laetitia: for its interpretation and actuation” by Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, published by no less than the Pontifical Council for the Family in October 2016. (He headed that same Council from 2008 to 2012.)  It can be found on the Internet — Other bishops who have issued guidelines interpreting Amoris Laetitia in clear continuity with the doctrine and discipline of previous Pontiffs include: the six bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territory, Canada in a joint pastoral statement (Sept. 2016); Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia (July 2016); Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, UK (April 2016); Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon (Oct. 2016); and Bishop Stephen Lopes, head of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in the USA (January 2017). The Filipino bishops themselves have, so far, not issued their own guidelines or interpretations, and so we turn to what bishops in other countries have said.

Another important work interpreting Amoris Laetitia in clear continuity with previous Church discipline is “Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating: A Handbook for the Pastoral Care of the Family According to Amoris Laetitia” (2017) by the priests José Granados and Juan José Pérez-Soba and Dr. Stephan Kampowski. Fr. Matthew Schneider LC has also published (just this year) an important article in “Homiletic and Pastoral Review” (with the title “Does the Text of Amoris Laetitia Allow Communion for the Divorced and Remarried?”) which is a must-read for pro-life and pro-family Catholics.

Some might object (with regards to Amoris Laetitia) that in 2016 Pope Francis had already endorsed what are called the “Buenos Aires guidelines” on this document. Indeed Pope Francis said that “there are no other interpretations” other than those in these guidelines. Therefore—the argument goes—we should junk all other guidelines and interpretations! However, the Buenos Aires guidelines also explicitly state that they are presented “without prejudice to the authority that each Bishop has in his own Diocese to clarify, complete or restrict them.” It would seem, then, that the Buenos Aires guidelines should not be interpreted as invalidating the interpretations given by other bishops and bishops’ conferences; indeed, doing so would seem to go against Pope Francis’ own emphasis on the authority of the bishops’ conferences and of local bishops.  It is noteworthy that the Pope’s endorsement of the Buenos Aires guidelines has not stopped other bishops and bishops’ conferences from issuing their own guidelines on Amoris Laetitia (such as the Polish bishops’ conference in 2018). Most likely this is not due to disobedience to the Pope, but due to the fact that the Pope continues to permit other bishops to issue their own guidelines. The Pope himself has never denounced, condemned or ordered the withdrawal of other guidelines of Amoris Laetitia.

Others object that the prelates and theologians I mentioned above are too “conservative” in their interpretation of Pope Francis, and that they are effectively “stifling” what Pope Francis really wants. My answer: it is a fact that Pope Francis’ statements can often be interpreted in different directions. This is a fact, and merely stating it is not “anti-Francis”. However, Pope Francis is NOT the first Pope to make official statements that are subject to varying interpretation. Even the documents of Vatican II have been subject to numerous competing interpretations. Why then should Catholic bishops be prevented from interpreting Pope Francis in a “conservative” way? As long as their interpretations are based upon what he actually said, and are informed by an obvious desire to stay loyal to the Apostolic See, then why should “conservative” interpretations be condemned? Pro-lifers as a general rule wish to preserve continuity in catechesis and evangelization; do not deny to us the right to receive and to implement the teachings of Pope Francis in this manner. It is precisely by doing this that we demonstrate our fidelity to the Holy and Apostolic See.

  1. To continue to uphold the teachings of Popes St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the sanctity of human life, on human sexuality, and on marriage and the family. There is no reason why we should not feel free to continue to teach the doctrine given by these Popes in their pro-life encyclicals, exhortations and the like. The documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from the 1960’s to the present should not be neglected either. I might add that under the presidency of the late Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, the Pontifical Council for the Family came out with numerous documents (which are still on the Vatican website) on human sexuality and the family from the mid-1990’s to the early 2000’s. These constitute a precious treasure that pro-lifers would do well to continue exploring. Those more desirous of delving deep into the perennial doctrine of the Catholic Church could also study the statements of earlier Popes (John XXIII, Pius XII, Pius XI, Leo XIII in particular) that form the necessary foundation for the pro-life teachings of the post-Vatican II Popes.

It is unfortunate that some Catholics now consider it a form of “rebellion” or “disloyalty” to Pope Francis to interpret his teachings in continuity with those of his predecessors. While it is true that Pope Francis has a very different way of speaking about Church teachings that is no reason to interpret his words and actions as officially overturning the teaching of his predecessors.

On the other hand, there are critics of Pope Francis who insist that it is necessary and a matter of principle to try to discredit him as a heretic. For the record, I categorically disagree with this attitude. However, to those who believe that Pope Francis is a doctrinal rebel and must be denounced as such, I would like to point out that the vast majority of Filipino Catholics are not even aware of these intramural debates over his words and actions. Will it really do any good to the Catholic faith to tell ordinary people that their own Pope is an “enemy” of their faith? In my opinion, this will only drive the masses into the arms of other sects and religions, if not to outright disbelief. In my opinion, discussions and debates over Pope Francis are best left in private; when it comes to evangelization and catechesis, our focus as pro-lifers should be on joyfully and fearlessly presenting the Gospel of Life.

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