You may have heard something about Pope Francis “changing teaching” on this issue or that since he has been elected. He hasn’t, nor really can he without something much more official than what we have seen. But even despite MSM noise, I think there is a movement within the desire we have to “soften rules” that could be a mistake – whether we are reading that desire into Francis’ actions or it is truly present.
There is a place for rules and rulebooks, on the grand scale. People need generalized instruction as to what actions lead us to a hoslitic and God-centered humanity – our government can’t do it while pursuing ultimate power at all cost; the newspapers and media won’t be able to discern which voices do it while engaging in a relativistic culture of omni-pluralism; and many parents don’t really have the time or know-how to educate people on complicated moral issues. The Church is a lone voice in the wilderness of modernty in thinking rules are important, and it is one of the few institutions that seeks an approach to the human heart without coercion or overwhelming stimulation. The Catholic call may be difficult, but it is quiet – and both aspects are what makes the Church so beautiful as an instrument of Divine Making. Give up one or the other, and we lose something that can’t be described well but with the term “Christ-like.”
But rulebooks are not the end of the story, else Christianity truly would be merely one religion among many others. At the core of the religion, we are called to forgiveness. The call to forgiveness is one that is required of both the lay and religious, not because rules don’t apply, but because we are fallen creatures and Grace is the only thing that can void those rules out. It isn’t within our ability to void the rules, but we have been granted the ability to forgive in spite of them. This is what makes Christianity – the rules exist, and even though we might break them, a sacrifice has been offered in our stead to allow us to transcend those rules if we seek it in the right way.
I was thinking pretty much exactly this in the confessional this morning. I have never been chided in the confessional for my actions, but I have always been reminded what is right and wrong, as well as the best path forward. I have never left feeling more guilty than when I went into the booth, even when confronted by the most fiery of priests. The priest’s hands are not used to slap us down when we fall, they are used to lift us up to where we know we should be. The priest in the confessional is not the same man as the one that speaks from the pulpit – and this dichotomy, or even paradox, is essential to Catholicism. A rush to “soften the rules” would place this two-tiered form of understanding right and wrong in serious question.
Conscience, discernment of the good for the individual, and possible exception of a “rule” due to circumstantial changes are aspects of the process that are best left at a personal level. Our call toward soul-searching cannot be made into laws, because it isn’t an experience of the Church at large, as sin is. Pope Francis can’t make the decision to “soften the Church’s stance” on issue X or Y, not only because rule-making/breaking isn’t a possible ability of the Pope, but even more because on a practical level, it isn’t possible to do. Culpability, forgiveness – these are issues of pastoral care that priests already know and live very regularly. Papa Frank need not say anything about these aspects of shepherding the flock to aid priests. But what is it saying to the public when the impression is that morality can be altered with the will of one holy man? Priests like Longnecker know better. And we should too…