Pope Francis is a remarkable witness to authentic Christian discipleship. On this most Catholics agree. We love his humility and simple lifestyle, his infectious joy, his commitment to fundamental Gospel values. This admiration has not prevented some critics from expressing concerns regarding the exercise of his papal office. Much of the concern has been occasioned by the recent synodal assemblies on marriage and family that he convened, along with the apostolic exhortation he promulgated in response to those assemblies, Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love.”
Some fear that in his well-intentioned effort to be merciful toward those in “irregular” relationships (e.g., divorced and remarried Catholics who did not have the first marriage annulled) the pope had compromised church doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage. This past summer forty-five scholars and clerics, including several bishops, signed a letter to the pope in which they identified nineteen different passages in Amoris Laetitia that appeared to conflict with Catholic teaching. In November, four cardinals sent Francis what is called a dubium, a formal query regarding current church teaching and discipline. The dubium concerned five points of doctrine/church discipline that these cardinals believe were compromised by Amoris Laetitia. Such dubia or queries are relatively common (usually they are concerned with more mundane matters), but after receiving no response from the Vatican the cardinals took the further, much more provocative, step of publishing the dubium. This unusual course of action was seen as a direct challenge to the pope’s exercise of the responsibilities of his office. In December two prominent, conservative Catholic ethicists, Germain Grisez and John Finnis, announced in First Things that they sent a letter to the pope asking him to condemn “eight positions against the Catholic faith” that they contend are supported “by the misuse” of Amoris Laetitia.”
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat expressed his disappointment that the pope was not willing to give a formal answer to the dubium submitted by the four cardinals, and the journalist John Allen has warned that “there clearly are serious people who don’t believe every last question about the meaning of Amoris has been definitively resolved.” All of these concerns, I suggest, presuppose a particular understanding of the pope’s doctrinal teaching authority.
On the eve of Vatican II, it was widely assumed that the principal task of the pope, either directly or through curial offices, was to resolve disputed theological questions by doctrinal decree. In his 1950 encyclical, Humani generis, Pope Pius XII declared that when the pope pronounced on a theological question, even when not invoking infallibility, the topic was no longer subject to debate (interestingly, Vatican II expressly avoided making such a claim). Controverted questions might “confuse the faithful” and therefore, presumably, required a quick and unambiguous, formal resolution.
In his remarkable opening address at Vatican II, Pope John XXIII distanced himself from this view. He criticized the Church’s past reliance on formal condemnations, and insisted that the time had come to rely more on persuasion, dialogue, and “the medicine of mercy.” Church doctrine was not to be employed as a weapon; it should be a source of pastoral vitality. What the church needed, he insisted, was a teaching authority that was “pastoral in character.”
Fifty years after Pope John’s address, the Catholic Church is still struggling to move beyond a hypertrophied understanding of doctrinal teaching authority. This common understanding presumes what we might call the modern orthodoxy/dissent binary: the assumption that on any given controverted issue, there is but one orthodox position, all other understandings of the faith being implicitly or explicitly heterodox. Such a view sees most disputed questions as a threat to the integrity of the Christian faith, a challenge that must be met with a “definitive resolution.”
I propose that one of the most important contributions that Pope Francis is making to the church concerns his efforts to exercise precisely the kind of pastoral magisterium that Pope John hoped for. It is a form of teaching authority marked by six distinctive features.
1. A Pastoral Magisterium Serves a Synodal, Listening Church
In the Fall of 2015 Pope Francis gave one of the most significant speeches of his pontificate on the fundamental synodality of the church. He noted that the word “synod” comes from the Greek, synodos, which could be literally rendered “traveling on a journey together.” A church committed to “walking together,” he insisted, must resist the neo-scholastic separation of the people of God into two separate “churches”: the ecclesia docens, or teaching church, and the ecclesia discerns, or learning church. The pope claimed that, if we are to be a listening church, the commitment to synodality must be enacted at every level, at local parish and diocesan councils as well as diocesan synods and provincial gatherings. According to Pope Francis, a truly synodal church must attend to the testimony of ordinary Christian faithful who exercise their own supernatural instinct for the faith, the sensus fidei, as a means of discerning God’s Word.
In Evangelii gaudium, Francis insisted on the constitutive role of consultation within a synodal church. This means more than gathering together safe voices into an ecclesiastical echo chamber. An authentic ecclesial consultation that aspires to be more than a pragmatic public relations maneuver must attend to a wide range of voices, including those in ecclesial exile. This point was made effectively in the International Theological Commission’s remarkable 2014 document, “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.”
2. A Pastoral Magisterium Relies on the Symbolic Gesture More than the Juridical Act
Pope John Paul II was the first modern pope to master the use of the symbolic gesture—kissing the ground on a first visit to a country, praying at the wailing wall in Jerusalem and, again, praying with his would-be assassin—but those gestures were accompanied by a sweeping program of doctrinal policing within the church. Francis too has demonstrated a knack for the symbolic gesture: the unexpected request for the people’s blessing upon the announcement of his election as he stood on the central loggia of St. Peter’s, the move out of the papal apartment, the dramatic transformation of the Holy Thursday washing of feet ritual (visiting a juvenile detention facility and washing the feet of women and even Muslims), the gentle embrace of a man covered in horrific tumors, the eschewal of the baroque vestments of his predecessor. Francis understands the power of a persuasive papacy that evangelizes more effectively through symbolic gestures than through heavy-handed disciplinary action. His reluctance to engage in punitive measures was evident in the way in which he short-circuited the Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious first initiated under his predecessor.
3. A Pastoral Magisterium Is Committed to the Decentralization of Authority
In Evangelii gaudium Francis wrote:
Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the church and the world. It is not advisable for the pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization.”
Pope Francis believes the church should rely more on the teaching of neglected collegial institutions like the synod of bishops and regional episcopal conferences. In fact, he cites the documents of regional episcopal conferences ten times in Amoris Laetitia and twenty times in his encyclical on creation, the environment, and global climate change, Laudato si.’ A couple of years ago a Brazilian bishop disclosed a conversation with the pope in which he claimed that Francis was sympathetic to the pastoral urgency of the current priest shortage but felt that a proposal for married priests should not come from the pope but from regional episcopal conferences.
Although Francis continues his efforts at curial reform, his program for decentralization may be better reflected in the way in which he has simply circumvented the Roman curia. As Vatican journalist Robert Mickens has observed, in this papacy the flow of ecclesiastical texts emanating from Vatican dicasteries has been reduced to a trickle.
4. A Pastoral Magisterium Exhibits an Appropriate Doctrinal Humility
Pope Francis has acknowledged the role of doubt and uncertainty in the life of faith. In one of his many interviews he remarked:
If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt.
And in a recent speech at a conference in Florence, the pope said, “Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives—but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened. . . It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.”
Pope Francis manifests a form of doctrinal humility grounded in the teaching of Vatican II. It proceeds from the council’s conviction that the church does not possess the truth so much as it is “moving toward the fullness of divine truth” (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation). As my colleague Catherine Cornille has astutely observed, this is not humility toward doctrine as much as humility about doctrine. It is a humility evident in the council’s teaching that there exists a hierarchy of truths, such that dogmas, essential though they may be, must be grasped in relation to a more fundamental reality, “the foundations of the Christian faith” (Decree on Ecumenism). Francis understands well that beyond the necessary mediation of doctrinal formulations is the simplicity and evangelical power of the Gospel.
5. A Pastoral Magisterium Serves the Practice of Discernment and the Formation of Conscience
Pope Francis does not wish to treat adult Catholics as if they were children. We are adult disciples of Jesus called to exercise our own discernment in living out that discipleship. As missionary disciples, the concrete conflicts we encounter are often “messy,” an adjective that Francis uses frequently. Francis invites us to move beyond the rigorous application of juridical norms in favor of the primacy of personal moral discernment and conscience formation.
We see an example of his attitude in his visit to an Evangelical Lutheran church in Rome in November 2015. During a question-and-answer session a Lutheran congregant shared with him the pain she experienced at not being able to receive Communion with her Catholic spouse. In his response Francis stressed the importance of Lutherans and Catholics sharing a common baptism. He was careful not to challenge Catholic teaching regarding intercommunion but instead appealed to the practice of discernment:
There are questions that only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has, must be responded to on one’s own. . . There are explanations, interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations . . . I would never dare to give permission to do this, because it’s not my own competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward.
The pope exhibits here an authority rooted in a ministry of accompaniment.
Early in Amoris Laetitia he laments that church leaders “find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia is the most well-developed reflection on the character of moral discernment and conscience formation to ever appear in an ecclesiastical document. Pace his recent ecclesiastical detractors, this is not a repudiation of church doctrine; it is what doctrine looks like when it is actually put to the service of the life of ordinary believers.
6. A Pastoral Magisterium Is Reluctant to Pronounce Prematurely on Controverted Issues
At the recent synodal assemblies, Francis insisted that controversial topics not be removed from consideration. Later, in Amoris Laetitia, the pope wrote that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” Francis appears comfortable with a much higher degree of public disagreement than were several of his predecessors. Indeed, it is worth noting that Francis seldom employs the language of “heresy” or “dissent.” He presumes real limits to the scope and necessity of a more juridically focused “magisterium.”
I recall a conservative Catholic journalist writing me after one of Francis’s famous in-flight interviews, asking what “theological note” should be attached to these “off-the-cuff” statements. I admitted that, if we understand magisterial teaching in a juridical key, as the neo-scholastic manualists trained us to do, such statements carry little if any authority. The occasional exercise of a juridical authority charged with formally marking out the boundaries of acceptable Christian faith remains necessary, but church teaching authority ought not be reduced to this juridical approach. Is it possible that in these many interviews Francis is inviting us to re-imagine the scope of church teaching authority? What if these interviews are not an alternative to magisterial pronouncements but instead represent a new form of the magisterium, one that is explicitly dialogical, improvisational, and provisional? Such an approach could create an expanded ecclesial space for Catholics to engage official church teaching in a more open and dynamic fashion.
Let me offer a perhaps surprising example to make my point. In a recent interview Francis was asked if the church would ever ordain women to the priesthood. The pope said no. When pressed, “never?” he then responded that if you read the statement of John Paul II it certainly seemed to “move in that direction.” I would simply note three things. First, his response was a long way from “I solemnly define and declare.” Second, he answered the question in an impromptu airplane interview; he did not have the CDF issue a formal responsum ad dubium. Third, he did not suggest that anyone who continued discussing the issue would be subject to ecclesiastical penalty.
Conclusion: What a Pastoral Magisterium Is Not
Pope Francis is refashioning the exercise of doctrinal teaching authority in the church. There should be no question of the pope’s fidelity to church teaching; by any account Francis must be considered a doctrinal conservative. Many Catholics, on the left and the right, by thinking of the magisterium in a largely juridical key, focus far too much on the pope’s authority to officially pronounce on doctrinal matters. Conservatives fear he will change vital church doctrine and liberals want him to change doctrine more aggressively. However, the real question is not whether Francis agrees with doctrine “X” or wishes to change doctrine “Y.” What we should be asking is, how does Francis situate doctrine in the life of the church and how does he enact a dynamic and pastoral teaching authority in keeping with this understanding?
History shows us that doctrine does indeed change and develop (consider key changes in the church’s teaching on slavery, usury, religious freedom, and the fundamental equality of men and women in the natural order), but rarely do popes instigate that change. In a piece for the New York Review of Books, Eamon Duffy captured the more circumscribed role of papal teaching in this process: “‘Definitive’ papal utterances,” he writes, “are not oracles providing new information, but adjudications at the end of a wider and longer process of doctrinal reflection, consultation, and debate, often extending over centuries.” Magisterial teaching should conclude our tradition’s lively engagement with a particular question, not preempt its consideration. A pastoral magisterium calls for an exercise of teaching authority that never forgets that, as John Henry Newman put it, “truth is the daughter of time.” A pastoral magisterium does not claim to have all the answers, nor does it provide definitive solutions to every controverted issue. Rather, it acknowledges the normative character of current church teaching but keeps open the possibility of further insight. It is committed to cultivating an ecclesial atmosphere in which controverted questions can be freely debated, new insights can emerge, and the Spirit can work through the shared discernment of the whole people of God.
Certainly, church leaders serve that heritage best, not by wielding church doctrine as a club, but by heeding Francis’s injunction to abandon a place of safety and certitude, and move to the peripheries. As our pastoral leaders become accustomed to meeting the people “in the streets,” listening to their concerns, and attending to their wounds, they will know, as through a pastoral “connaturality,” how the church’s doctrine can best be employed, or revised, to more faithfully proclaim the Gospel. This is what a genuinely pastoral magisterium looks like.