By Phil Lawler | Jun 17, 2016
During an address to a diocesan congress in Rome yesterday, Pope Francis was quoted as saying:
that some priests are “animals,”
that pastors should not be “putting our noses into the moral life of other people,” and
that the “great majority” of Catholic marriages today are invalid.
All of these shocking statements were attributed to the Holy Father by reliable journalists: experienced reporters who take pains to get things right, and usually do. Below I’ll address the important question of whether or not the quotes were accurate. But first let’s assess the damage done by the statements as they were reported.
In the 1st quote the Pope appears intemperate and uncharitable. He may disagree with priests who refuse to baptize the children of unwed mothers, but name-calling is ugly, and certainly beneath the dignity of the Petrine office.
In the 2nd quote the Holy Father seems thoroughly illogical, and/or dismissive of the entire Catholic moral tradition. Confessors and spiritual directors always “put their noses” into the moral lives of their people; good pastors and preachers do, too, albeit somewhat less directly. If the Church does not wish to be involved in our moral lives, why have any moral teaching at all?
With the 3rd quote, the Pope throws into question the validity of millions of marriages, and insults the Christian married couples who are working to fulfill their vocations. More than that—as Edward Peters explains—he suggests that there has been some fundamental change in human nature, since by nature any rational person is capable of entering into a valid (if not necessarily sacramental) marriage.
Did the Pope really mean to suggest that in our age the breakdown in understanding of marriage has been so profound that we—or most of us, at least—are incapable of forming the same sort of marital bond that our ancestors have formed for countless centuries? That would be a stunning claim!
Ed Peters observes:
The collapse of human nature presupposed for such a social catastrophe and the massive futility of the Church’s sanctifying mission among her own faithful evidenced by such a debacle would be—well, it would be the matrimonial version of nuclear winter. I am at a loss to understand how anyone who knows anything about either could seriously assert that human nature is suddenly so corrupted and Christ’s sacraments are now so impotent as to have prevented “the great majority” of Christians from even marrying!
The Pope’s statement—if it was relayed accurately and meant seriously—would mean that our society is so thoroughly perverse that it has actually debased human nature. If that were the case, the Catholic Church could not reconcile herself to modern society; the faith would be in open conflict with the modern age. Yet in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis delivered a very different sort of message, suggesting that pastors should learn to work patiently, gradually, and sympathetically with people who do not share the Catholic understanding of marriage.
So the Pope’s remarks, if they were reported accurately, were seriously damaging. But were the reports accurate?
With regard to the 1st quotation, the answer, fortunately, is No. The Pope’s remark, made in an ad-lib response to a question, was terribly disjointed and difficult to follow. But apparently he intended to say that some priests treat children (or possibly their unwed mothers) as “animals.” He did not aim that insult at the priests themselves.
Regarding the 2nd quotation, the evidence is not so reassuring. The quote does not appear in the official Vatican transcript of the session, but then Vatican officials have acknowledged that the transcript was edited. Here’s the relevant statement as it appeared in the official transcript:
This demands that we develop a family pastoral ministry capable of welcoming, accompanying, discerning and integrating.
Now here’s the same passage, as it was originally reported by Ines San Martin of Crux:
The Gospel chooses another way: welcoming, accompanying, integrating, discerning, without putting our noses in the moral life of other people.
The questionable phrase, “without putting our noses…,” was wisely cut from the final version. Yet the Pope did use those words—or, allowing for misunderstandings and problems in translation—something reasonably close to them.
And what about that stunning 3rd quotation? In the official transcript the Pope is recorded as saying that “a part (sic) of our sacramental marriages are null.” But a check of the audio tape of the event confirms that in fact the Pontiff said “the great majority.”
So evidently the Pope’s words were changed, after the fact, to eliminate the most troublesome statements. Who made the changes? According to the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, the transcript was edited by the Pope himself; “thus the published text was expressly approved by the Pope.”
So when the dust settled, and the official transcript appeared, the Pope’s statements were no longer shocking. Should we conclude, then, that everything is fine, and no harm was done? Absolutely not!
First, because those shocking statements were widely disseminated through the news media, to be heard or read by millions of people who will never see the official transcript.
Second, the Pope’s remarks were consistent in their tone—a tone that encouraged listeners to question the authority of Church teachings. At one point Pope Francis light-heartedly said: “Don’t go telling on me to Cardinal Müller.” His joking reference was to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the guardian of Catholic theological orthodoxy. (Perhaps needless to say, that joke did not survive in the edited transcript.)
Third and most important, because this pattern keeps recurring: the astonishing statements, the headlines, the confusion, followed by the explanations and clarifications that never clear away the fallout. When will Pope Francis realize—when will other prelates make clear to him—how much damage he does with these impromptu remarks?
Some loyal reporters struggled doggedly to minimize the impact of the latest eruption. A Catholic News Service story said at the outset that the Pope’s argument about the number of invalid marriages was “a point he has raised before, and one also raised by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI.” Yes, but never before had either suggested that most marriages were invalid. America magazine suggested that when he spoke of a “great majority” of marriages, the Pope didn’t really mean most marriages—an interpretation that puts a novel definition on the word “majority.” John Allen of Crux observed, reasonably enough, that the Pope has every right to amend his own remarks. True. But the problem was not the way they were edited. The problem lay with the Pope’s original remarks.
There are two problems, really: that the Pope speaks so often without first considering what he is about to say, and that when he makes these impulsive remarks, his first unguarded thoughts so rarely show the imprint of sound Catholic teaching.