One of the standards the Church uses to measure the quality of her leaders is a simple line from Scripture: “God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33). So it was for Paul. So it is now. So it is for local pastors and bishops, including the bishop of Rome. Confusion among the faithful can often be a matter of innocent individuals who hear but fail to understand the Word. Confused teachinghowever, is another matter. It’s never excusable. The transmission of Christian truth requires prudence and patience because humans are not machines. But it also demands clarity and consistency. Deliberate or persistent ambiguity—anything that fuels misunderstanding or seems to leave an opening for objectively sinful behavior—is not of God. And it inevitably results in damage to individual souls and to our common Church life.

I mention this for a reason. A Protestant friend of mine, a Reformation scholar, sent a text to his Catholic friends on December 18 with the news that “Francis has unleashed chaos in your communion.” He was referring to the text Fiducia Supplicans (“On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings”). Rome’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), led by Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández—a close colleague of Pope Francis—had just released it that day. The document is a doubleminded exercise in simultaneously affirming and undercutting Catholic teaching on the nature of blessings and their application to “irregular” relationships. And it was quickly interpreted as a significant change in Church practice. Father James Martin, a longtime advocate for LGBTQ concerns, was promptly photographed blessing a gay couple in a New York Times article that noted

Father Martin had waited years for the privilege of saying such a prayer, however simple, out in the open.

“It was really nice,” [he] said on Tuesday, “to be able to do that publicly.”

The pope’s decision was greeted as a landmark victory by advocates for gay Catholics, who describe it as a significant gesture of openness and pastoral care, and a reminder that an institution whose age is measured in millenniums can change.

The Times article went on to acknowledge that “The decision does not overturn the church’s doctrine that marriage is between a man and a woman.” Nor does it “allow priests to perform same-sex marriages.” But the dominant flavor and underlying purpose of the article were captured best by the various gay men interviewed who spoke of the Church “com[ing] around” to the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, and same-sex couples “claiming our space.”

Where to begin?

First, a key role of the pope is to unify the Church, not divide her, especially on matters of faith and morals. He has a similar duty to unify the bishops and not divide them.

Second, an essential task of a loving pastor is to correct as well as accompany. Blessings should encourage, but also, when necessary, challenge. People in same-sex and other non-marital sexual unions need a challenging accompaniment from the Church. Popes, bishops, priests, and deacons are called by their vocations to be prophets as well as pastors. Pope Francis often seems to separate these roles while Jesus himself always embodied both in his ministry. His words to the woman caught in adultery were not simply “Your sins are forgiven” but also “Go and sin no more.”

Third, relationships that the Church has always seen as sinful are now often described as “irregular.” This neuters the reality of morally defective behavior and leads to confusion about what we can and can’t call “sin.”

Finally, while the document does not in fact change Church teaching on marriage, it does seem to change Church teaching on the sinfulness of same-sex activity. Marriage isn’t the point of Fiducia Supplicans. Its point is the moral nature of same-sex unions, and this is a crucial distinction.

Bishops in this country and abroad have issued statements reiterating Catholic teaching on matters of human sexuality and same-sex relationships. Nigeria’s bishops noted that there was “no possibility in the Church of blessing same-sex unions and activities” because they would “go against God’s law [and] the teachings of the Church.” And some insightful critiques of the Vatican document (along with some quite caustic ones)—for example, herehere, here, and here—have already appeared. Others are in the pipeline. But all such comments seek to mitigate damage already done. Whether the hearer is delighted or angered by the latest Vatican text, the practical fallout is a wave of confusion in the bloodstream of the Church at Christmas—a season meant for joy, but now tangled up with frustration, doubt, and conflict.  

In response to pushback against the document, Pope Francis told Vatican staff, as reported by PBS, that it was

important to keep advancing and growing in their understanding of the truth. Fearfully sticking to rules may give the appearance of avoiding problems but only ends up hurting the service that the Vatican Curia is called to give the church, he said.

“Let us remain vigilant against rigid ideological positions that often, under the guise of good intentions, separate us from reality and prevent us from moving forward,” the pope said. “We are called instead to set out and journey, like the Magi, following the light that always desires to lead us on, at times along unexplored paths and new roads.”

Complaints about “rigid ideological positions” are now the Holy See’s default response to any reasoned reservations about, or honest criticism of, its actions. Every pope has personal likes, dislikes, and aggravations. That’s the nature of human clay. As I’ve said elsewhere, and often, Pope Francis has important pastoral strengths that need our prayerful support. But his public complaining diminishes the dignity of the Petrine office and the man who inhabits it. It also disregards the collegial respect due brother bishops who question the Vatican’s current course.  And again, it is not of God. Characterizing fidelity to Catholic belief and practice as “fearfully sticking to rules”—the words belong to PBS, but the intent is clearly the pope’s—is irresponsible and false. The faithful deserve better than such treatment. It’s also worth noting that heading down “unexplored paths and new roads” can easily lead into the desert rather than Bethlehem. 

Over the past decade ambiguity on certain matters of Catholic doctrine and practice has become a pattern for the current pontificate. The pope’s criticism of American Catholics has too often been unjust and uninformed. Much of the German Church is effectively in schism, yet Rome first unwisely tolerated Germany’s “synodal path,” and then reacted too slowly to preclude the negative results. At a time when fatherhood and male Christian spiritual leadership are in crisis, the Holy Father has asked his International Theological Commission to work on “de-masculinizing” the Church. The most urgent challenge that Christians face in today’s world is anthropological: who and what a human being is; whether we have some higher purpose that warrants our special dignity as a species; whether we’re anything more than unusually smart animals who can invent and reinvent ourselves. And yet our focus for 2024 is a synod on synodality.

Saying these things, of course, will invite claims of “disloyalty.” But the real disloyalty is not speaking the truth with love. And that word “love” is not some free-floating balloon of goodwill. It’s an empty shell without the truth to fill it. In Brazil in 2013, the Holy Father encouraged young people to “make a mess.” That’s come to pass in ways surely unintended by the pope. But in the end, pastoral leaders are accountable for their words and their actions. Because, as St. Paul said so long ago, “God is not the author of confusion but of peace.”

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia.

Photo by Long Thiên via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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