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Pope Francis 5th Anniversary: Innovation in Continuity

March 10, 2018
S+L Producer/Director Sebastian Gomes offers a theological reflection on the meaning of "reform" and "tradition" in the Catholic Church, as Pope Francis celebrates his 5th anniversary of election to the chair of St. Peter.
It’s Pope Francis’ fifth anniversary year, and as a journalist and filmmaker who follows Francis closely, I want to share a brief reflection on these past five, lively years in the Catholic Church.
I say lively because Francis is does many surprising things. But he’s also become a lightning rod for debate, especially since the publication of his magisterial teaching, Amoris Laetitia, or “The Joy of Love in the Family”.
Some people think Francis stepped out of bounds in that document, by changing the longstanding doctrine of marriage. But most believe he upheld it, and only stressed the need for better pastoral accompaniment of people in difficult family situations.
But let’s put that document, and the entire five years of Pope Francis, into a slightly broader context. Let’s try to understand how Francis fits into the church’s tradition. Is he really doing anything new? Is he changing fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church?
To answer these questions, we need to understand “reform” in the church. And to do that, I want to go back to a very important address given by Pope Benedict in 2005, the year he was elected. Remember it was right after the 27-year pontificate of Pope John Paul II, and it fell to Benedict to navigate that transition, and chart a path forward.
So, at Christmastime that year, the newly elected pope tried to do just that. In a traditional year-end address to the Roman Curia, he highlighted some positive trends across the Catholic world, and then, gave his interpretation of the all-important Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Benedict was at that Council as a young theologian, and participated in the intense theological debates which ensued, and continue to this day.
That Benedict felt the need to speak about the true identity and vision of the Council at the beginning of his pontificate, proves just how important the Council is for him and for the whole church.
And it’s that part of his 2005 address we have to consider, in order to grasp the meaning of “reform” and what Pope Francis is doing today.
In the address, Benedict raises the question, “why has the implementation of the Council been so difficult?” He posits that, after the Council, two opposing interpretations of it emerged and conflicted.
On the one hand we have the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” This describes the opinion that new, open-minded things were said by the Council. But the new things were tempered by a reiteration of many old, traditional things also. So, according to this interpretation, being a Catholic of the Council means, living out the new things, while disregarding the old things.
On the other hand, says Benedict, we have the “hermeneutic of reform.” This describes the position of those who take the old and the new things the Council said, and hold them in a dynamic synthesis.
According to Benedict, only by rooting yourself deeply in the old things, can you really be open to expressing new things, and addressing new challenges in a faithful way. The logic is simple, but difficult to grasp because it’s paradoxical.
Basically, the fundamental truths of the Catholic faith do not change. But over time and through history we come to understand them better. And then we can express these truths in new ways for the people of our time, while preserving their fundamental integrity.
And Benedict goes a step further. He admits that when there’s a new expression or updated teaching—and there were many at Vatican II—it looks a lot like a rupture. But these new expressions, when grounded in the Gospel, actually preserve and deepen the church’s true identity, because they strip away superfluous things and correct historical attitudes and decisions, which are not helpful in our time.
But the key to Benedict’s “hermeneutic of reform,” is the synthesis the church discovers between the old and the new. He doesn’t reject all discontinuity. On the contrary, he believes an element of discontinuity is essential for the church to be alive, and to preach the gospel in every historical moment. But it has to be grounded in the fundamentals of the Catholic faith.
Now, let’s turn to Pope Francis. Everyone agrees that he’s a reformer, but what kind of reformer is he? Do his words and actions suggest he believes in the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”? Or the “hermeneutic of reform”?
Here, there’s one very important and indisputable fact to keep in mind: Francis has not changed a single doctrine of the Catholic Church. All the fundamentals are still intact.
The most serious pushback on this comes from some Catholics who believe Francis compromised the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage in Amoris Laetitia, by opening a door to divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Sacraments. But that document is actually filled with statements upholding the doctrine of marriage! For example:
“In order to avoid all misunderstanding,” writes Francis, “I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur… A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves.” (307)
Having stated clearly the church’s traditional teaching on marriage, Francis also wants the church to respond to the difficult and complex situations that many families find themselves in today. He continues,
“Without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear, making room for the Lord’s mercy, which spurs us on to do our best.”
“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.” (308)
In Amoris Laetitia, Francis is, in fact, initiating a reform. It’s a reform of the church’s pastoral attitude and concrete response to families in very difficult and complex situations. But it’s a reform based on one of the most fundamental truths of the faith—the greatest of all Gospel virtues—God’s mercy.
At first glance this can seem like a rupture, but remember what Pope Benedict said: a new expression or updated teaching often does seem like a rupture. But when it’s grounded in the Gospel and the tradition, these new expressions actually preserve and deepen the church’s true identity. In other words, Francis’ pastoral reforms in Amoris Laetitia are actually helping the church to be more faithful to Jesus.
This is a great example of the kind of reform Francis believes in. He never changes a doctrine of the church. But, by grounding himself in the Gospel and upholding the church’s traditional teachings, he’s free to respond in new ways to the challenges of our time. He’s finding that synthesis between the old and the new, between fidelity and dynamic, that Benedict spoke about.
So many things Francis has said and done over these past five years have seemed new. And certainly his personality, spontaneity, and simplicity are reasons for that. But it’s always important to put the modern popes into the broader historical context of the Second Vatican Council.
And that’s where a lot of Catholics who struggle with Pope Francis fall a little short. They tend to look at immediate and superficial differences between Francis and Benedict, or John Paul II, whose personality and style they really appreciated. They tend to see Francis within the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.”
But in the broader context, and especially in the context of Vatican II, Francis, like Benedict and John Paul before him, believes in and acts out of the “hermeneutic of reform.”
There’s one more thing to note about the mislabeling of Francis as a pope of discontinuity and rupture. Not only is this inaccurate, but it’s also a very precarious theological position. Without realizing it, those who believe Francis is following a hermeneutic of discontinuity, can unwittingly follow a hermeneutic of discontinuity themselves!
As I said, the hermeneutic of discontinuity means upholding the new things, while disregarding the old things. But the hermeneutic of discontinuity can also apply to those who uphold the old things, while disregarding the new things. Remember, Pope Benedict called for a synthesis between the old and the new. The rejection of either represents a rupture in the church.
So we can see how this becomes a precarious theological position. One might start by critiquing a theological point in Amoris Laetitia, believing it represents a rupture. But when Amoris Laetitia is actually shown to represent the “hermeneutic of reform,” the critique itself becomes an expression of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity.” And in the end, this logic can lead to a denial of the dynamic synthesis between the old and the new, including the Second Vatican Council.
The antidote to this new expression of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” is found within the documents of the Council. That’s why Benedict always insisted that the texts themselves be the concrete and precise basis for all reform today.
So, what can we say after five years of Pope Francis? What kind of reformer is he? He’s a reformer in the true spirit of Vatican II, synthesizing fidelity to the tradition with dynamic new approaches. In the words of the great Benedict XVI, he’s a pope of “innovation in continuity”.
Happy anniversary Pope Francis!
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