The secular press and media are having a field day spinning and extrapolating what Pope Francis’ words mean and imply. Politicians and pundits alike pontificate as if they were biblical scholars doing exegesis on passages from scripture. Opinionated commentators posing as journalists dissect and scrutinize every papal utterance as if they were all of the same weight and importance. Curiously, Jesus’ opponents did the very same thing. They took his words and deeds OUT OF CONTEXT. This is what is happening now with Pope Francis.
Just as the words of Sacred Scripture must be taken in CONTEXT in order to be correctly interpreted and understood, likewise, the same must be applied to the Vicar of Christ on earth. The Bishop of Rome is the supreme head of the Catholic Church. As Pope, he has full, supreme, immediate, and universal authority. He is infallible, however, only on matters of faith and morals. Supremacy and infallibility are different aspects of the Petrine ministry often misunderstood as being the same thing. They are distinct yet still interrelated. As Pope, the Holy Father is supreme pastor, which means he enjoys full primacy. There is no authority other than God higher than papal authority. No ecumenical council can overrule him. This is a juridical component as opposed to his infallibility that is a teaching or didactic aspect. The trifold munera (offices) of Christ’s ministry as Priest, Prophet and King are continued in the sanctifying, teaching and governing offices of the Church. The Roman Pontiff possesses supremacy in all of them. He is the supreme teacher on matters of doctrine; he is the high priest in matters liturgical; he is the supreme leader of the church in governing the universal church. Infallibility resides in his teaching or magisterial authority only. Nevertheless, since he possesses supreme authority in governance and in sacred worship, while non-infallible, it is still absolute. In other words, the Pope’s prudential judgments are not protected by divine intervention. Historically, some popes have made imprudent decisions while a few even made bad or immoral choices. The overwhelming majority, Deo gratias, have made reasonable and sensible judgments.
Pope St. John Paul the Great spoke as a philosopher and with a theatrical flavor. Much like Archbishop Fulton Sheen who took full advantage of the television when he had his weekly program, JP2 used both content (what he said) and context (where he said it). He was conscious of the scene and backdrop. He utilized the stage at every World Youth Day and at every international papal visit. His words and his gestures (like kissing the ground the first time he visited a country) spoke volumes. His words were deliberate and well thought out.
Pope Emeritus Benedict spoke as a gentile professor of theology. Unlike his predecessor, he was no actor, so his sense of theater was not the same. He was a scholar, like JP2, but he used the world as a classroom to teach, discuss and dialogue with his pupils. At times, one could feel like a high school freshman in chemistry class being taught by Albert Einstein, yet, very quickly, we learned that B16 wanted nothing less than to enlighten all his students with the same light of faith he himself found essential and fascinating.
Pope Francis, on the other hand, speaks and acts like a pastor. More like a parish priest than a diocesan bishop, in fact. He preaches unrehearsed sermons and speaks in colloquial vernacular that his flock immediately knows he is speaking to them about issues of a spiritual nature. Whereas Pope Benedict would give erudite theological explanations, Pope Francis gives mini-sermonettes and ferverinos often given by a parish priest at a weekday Mass. DE GUSTIBUS NON DISPUTANDUM EST.
Each pope has his own style and flavor of the papacy. It is unfair to compare JP2 with B16 and both with F1. Pope Benedict wore red shoes. So what. They were gifts. Pope John Paul wore red shoes and a red cape as well. Big deal. Pope Francis chooses to wear old comfortable shoes. Who cares? Just as each pope has his own taste of music, his own favorite sports team and his own favorite cuisine, likewise, each has his own opinion on economics, politics and science. Obviously, his prudential judgments on the latter warrant our attention and consideration (while the latter are purely personal), nonetheless, they are not exercises of papal infallibility.
When these distinctions are not made and when the secular media compare apples with oranges, you get non sequitur fallacies that would give any logician a migraine. If Pope Francis wanted, he could amend the Catechism, which would then be part of the Ordinary Magisterium. So far, he has chosen not to do so. Homilies, sermons and impromptu talks do not have the same weight as encyclicals, apostolic exhortations and constitutions, et al. Particular scientific, political and economic theories are similarly not the same and do not carry the same magisterial authority as do general moral principles and doctrinal tenets and canonical decrees.
The Pope has every right as an individual to express his personal opinions even though the faithful are not obliged to give them the assent of faith. As supreme head of the church and as the mouth of the Magisterium, he has every right, duty and obligation to comment on any issue or topic that might have an impact on Catholic faith and morals. You and I may disagree with non-infallible teachings but we cannot merely ignore, discount or casually repudiate them at first glance. We owe the Successor of Saint Peter a prayerful and intelligent deliberation of his position instead of dismissing without proper consideration.
Ecology, economics and politics do impact human life and each has moral implications. Subsidiarity, however, requires that those who have expertise in these areas and those at the local level first, have legitimate claim to the first word. Enunciating moral principles and dogmatic facts are the purview of spiritual leaders and shepherds, of whom the Pope is first and foremost. Applying those general principles to specific instances and particular cases is the responsibility of every person with a well formed conscience AFTER he or she has heard all the facts and pondered all the arguments.
One can licitly dispute the existence or the effect and response to global warming just as one can have a reasonable debate on the merits of democratic-republic vs constitutional monarchy, or whether the best from or governance is parliamentary or presidential. Catholics can also differ on big government or little; on the primacy of federalism or states’ rights. They can register democrat, republican or independent. What the clergy must and ought to do (be they popes, bishops, priests or deacons) is identify moral principles and issues that transcend opinion. A legitimate political or economic system must respect the Natural Moral Law and abide by the principles of justice. When it does not happen or when it seems that there may be breach, then the religious authorities have a duty to inform the electorate and those in power.
As a pastor, I often hear parishioners say “well Father So-and-so said this” or “he did it this way.” Leaders are often compares to their predecessors and we should be able to learn from their (and our own) mistakes. Opinion and style are personal choices particular to the individual. Hence, if the pastor wears a cassock or a clergy shirt with a white tab; whether he drives a fiat, a buick or a Honda; whether he wears tie shoes or loafers, French cuffs or button; none of these matter as long as he teaches the truth, celebrates the sacraments validly and reverently, and treats his people with pastoral love and mercy.
The papacy does not enjoy divine inspiration as does the revealed word of Sacred Scripture. It does have the charism of infallibility on matters of faith and morals and Holy Mother Church as a whole has the charism of indefectibility. Either we believe and trust in those or we do not. The former is orthodoxy, the latter is dissent. On prudential judgment matters, we can agree to disagree yet we must also submit to those in authority over us in areas where they have proper jurisdiction.
Pope Francis is no threat. He is the Successor of Saint Peter and he is the visible head of the Catholic Church. I must give an assent of faith to all infallible papal decrees and give respect and consideration to his opinions, views and prudential judgments. Just as we may not have agreed with everything our dad said and did, we still were required to obey (as far as possible) and respect and honor him. No less should be given to Our Holy Father, either.