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A discerning Church


Don’t expect Pope Francis to soften the Church’s teaching on abortion anytime soon. In a talk last Sept. 20 to gynecologists, he insisted: “Every unborn child, condemned unjustly to being aborted, has the face of the Lord, who before being born, and then when he was just born, experienced the rejection of the world.”

Nor do the much-quoted lines in his recent interview with the editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica suggest a reversal of Church teaching: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

What Francis insists on throughout the interview is not a change in teaching but something deeper, and indeed a whole vision of the Church. In his words, “A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

I see here a parallel with the presentations in St. Luke’s Gospel of the early preaching of John the Baptist and that of Jesus. John begins with denunciation (“You brood of vipers! Who has warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”), Jesus with a gentle invitation (“The Spirit of God is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor”). Clearly, Francis favors the approach of Jesus.

This applies, in Francis’ thinking, also to dealings with homosexuals and with those living in invalid marriages. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”

Earlier he had said, “This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?”

I find it impressive that Francis frankly admits to past mistakes; as a young Jesuit superior in a very difficult time, “my authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative.”

But he learned, and as he points out, societies and the Church learn and develop over time. “Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”

This growth in understanding comes through “discernment,” meaning a quiet seeking of God’s will as one advances step by step. “This discernment takes time. For example, many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change…. Discernment is always done in the presence of the Lord, looking at the signs, listening to the things that happen, the feeling of the people, especially the poor.”

Finally, reading the interview, I had the strange feeling at places that I had seen this before. And then it came to me—comments which our Cardinal Chito Tagle made over Vatican Radio back in October. For example: “You may be saying the right things, but people will not listen to you if the manner by which you communicate reminds them of a triumphalistic, know-it-all type of institution.” “I realized that the sufferings of people, and the difficult questions that they ask, are really invitations for us to, first, be in solidarity with them, not to pretend that we have all the solutions and all the answers.” “They see a concrete face of God, in a Church that can just sometimes be silent with them, be as confused as they are, also telling them, ‘You know, we share the same situation of confusion and searching.’”

John J. Carroll, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and sociologist, longtime resident of the Philippines, and founding director of what is now the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues. E-mail:

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