PopeWatch: A Letter From Grisez

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A letter from Catholic theologian Germain Grisez to Robert Moynihan, founder and editor in chief of Inside the Vatican Magazine:

Dear Dr. Moynihan,

Insofar as I understand what Pope Francis had to say, I can agree with him, but he said some things that I do not understand, and that have already been made bad use of by the secular media. Take the following passage:

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

The teachings of the Church certainly are not all equivalent. There is a hierarchy.

But what is the point of saying that the Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently”? Making this assertion suggests, unfortunately, a caricature of the teachings of recent pontificates. I assume Pope Francis would reject that reading. But where, then, is the state of affairs that needs to be overcome?

Proclamation in a missionary style does focus on essentials. But the new evangelization cannot proceed as if the Gospel has not been already preached, and either understood or not, but in either case, rejected. Still, I agree that what is central needs to be presented more clearly and forcefully than has generally been the case. Unless people believe that Christ has risen and will come again and gather into his kingdom all who are ready to enter, and unless they hope to be among those ready to enter, there is no use trying to instruct them about what they need to do in order to be ready to enter.

But what is meant by “moral edifice of the Church”? Many people mistakenly think that the moral truth the Church teaches is a code she has constructed and could change. If that were so, it could collapse like a house of cards. Perhaps Pope Francis means that the moral teachings, though they are truths that pertain to revelation, will collapse for the individual who lacks hope in the kingdom to come. But who knows what he means? The phrase is impressive. It reverberates in one’s depths. But if it was suggested by a spirit, it was not the Holy Spirit, for it is bound to confuse and mislead.

I’m afraid that Pope Francis has failed to consider carefully enough the likely consequences of letting loose with his thoughts in a world that will applaud being provided with such help in subverting the truth it is his job to guard as inviolable and proclaim with fidelity. For a long time he has been thinking these things. Now he can say them to the whole world — and he is self-indulgent enough to take advantage of the opportunity with as little care as he might unburden himself with friends after a good dinner and plenty of wine.

Germain Grisez

A Pope has an office like no other.  Every action he takes, and every word he speaks, will be examined with an intensity that cannot be overstated.  If Pope Francis did not understand that before, I think he probably understands it now.  Whether he cares that his words receive such scrutiny, only time will tell.


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  1. Pope Watch indeed! Could we be overdoing the watching? I don’t recall a Pope Watch when Ratzinger was elevated. I do not want to take issue with your great blog, specially since you are not alone in this Pope vigilantism. I today’s Chiesa blog (thank you for turning me on to another excellent blog) Sandro Magister talks about “alarming” liturgical changes and points towards Pope Francis bowing instead of genuflecting after consecrating. What next? are we going to start timing how long The Pope holds the host up?

    Maybe we need to take a minute to think: What happens if after all our Pope Watching we conclude that we do not “like” Francis, what is next? a call to disobedience?

  2. With reference to Darwin’s earlier remarks, since the end of the long 19th century we have had three popes drawn from the Holy See’s diplomatic service, two from the ranks of academic theologians, one a scholar of variegated interests but with a terminal degree in theology, one was an institutional apparatchik who supervised the diplomatic service, and one who served for a month.

    We have had little experience in living memory with an occupant in the chair of Peter whose studies and work history would not have inculcated habits of precision or discretion in public statements.

  3. “I don’t recall a Pope Watch when Ratzinger was elevated.”

    We tend to cover most major papal actions here fairly closely, and sometimes critically, although your overall point is well taken. I am doing the PopeWatch series because I detect in Pope Francis the same sort of thinking that was prevalent within the Church during the latter part of the reign of Pope Paul VI, and which that Pope deplored, and which John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI labored mightily to reverse. I think we may well be returning to the bad old days of “spirit of Vatican II” craziness, and I do not think Pope Francis yet comprehends the furies he is in the process of unleashing. I hope I am wrong but I fear that I am probably correct. In regard to Pope Francis, if my fears are realized, I will adopt the traditional Catholic practice when confronted with an uncongenial Pope: point out mistakes and errors and pray for better days under a future pope.

  4. “In regard to Pope Francis, if my fears are realized, I will adopt the traditional Catholic practice when confronted with an uncongenial Pope: point out mistakes and errors and pray for better days under a future pope. ”

    : )

  5. Yes. Each of our words will be under a scrutiny as well.

    Pope more so? Yes. Or maybe not?
    Is he changing the teachings of our Catholic Church? Is he?
    Be careful , for the mercy you give is the measure you will receive. Our words
    do hold much weight…or do they?

  6. Philip,

    It is merciful to address flaws. It is injustice not to. How one addresses them is most important.

    Excessive tolerance is false charity. I have, personally, experienced the consequences of this
    excessive tolerance throughout the last more than two decades of my life. It is scandalous.
    It destroys lives. it destroys faith. It destroys families. It must stop. I do not know if Francis will
    choose wisely. I certainly hope he does. But, the only indications I have are his words. To me, he
    is frightening. But, if the Cross is what God wants for me. So be it. Let His will be done.

  7. Karl.

    Thank you. The prayers to Our Lady this weekend will most certainly include clarity for our Holy Father.
    If his words are laying a foundation to support unholy changes to doctrine, then God forgive me for the benefit of a doubt.
    Naive is not an attribute.
    Praying for Our Holy Father.

  8. It seems to me there is no problem, but one only for those Rod Dreher termed ‘Mottramists’.
    Unfortunately, many Catholics as well as those outside have this mindset, and are often found to have some combination of a clericalist, pedantic, or scrupulous personality, too. It goes with the territory.

  9. I agree totally with this article, and, as usual, many who do not like what it says cannot stay with the issue. This man is dangerously close to being heretical, and he shows considerable shallowness in spiritual understandings., not to mention an incredible imprudence. He is either painfully naive, or something else more sinister is at work. Let us pray for Holy Mother Churhc.

  10. It is interesting to agree with Germain Grisez, renown because of the new natural law, which is not natural and is in almost complete disagreement with traditional Catholic natural law.

    But he is right in his concern about the Pope.

  11. Sadly, the pope’s comments have been distorted so as to confirm the contention of Clinton’s Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, who proclaimed that we need to get over our obsessive-compulsive “love affair with the fetus”. As a corollary reflection, it should be noted that it is ironic that the Democratic Party platform
    affirms that no child has any right to be born – and thus that our President had
    no right to be born. That platform and the HHS mandate of the Affordable Care Act assert that any fetus, including Obama before his birth, is merely a preventable disease, a parasite in its mother’s uterus. Obama himself has asserted that, if one of his daughters was pregnant out-of-wedlock, he would
    not want to have her “punished with a child”. With over 70% of African-American
    children conceived and born our of marriage, are we to join with Obama in asserting that these children are punishments, rather than sacred blessings?

  12. Yes, there is a Pope-Watch, because Pope Francis has done everything possible to communicate ambiguity. Part of it is his educational background: Pope Francis has not had years of profound study and training like JP2 nor BXVI, years of refining and studying Catholic theology at a profound level. He had a weak training in the late 60′s at a middling theology school in Buenos Aires. He failed to complete his dissertation and PhD at Frankfurt—that speaks volumes. The last pope who had a such a lacuna in systematics and dogmatic theology was Paul VI (he studied systems at the MIlan seminary and obtained a PhD at the Gregorian in Canon Law, but mainly he was in the Vatican diplomatic corp) and he was at a marked disadvantage in defending Humanae Vitae to its chorus of “New Theologians” like Hans Kung and Charles Curran. Yes, the last pope without a doctorate was Pius X, Giuseppe Sarto: but Sarto was an outstanding student at his seminary, and was from limited financial means, so he couldnt obtain a PhD for that reason alone. He was nonetheless appointed as a teacher in dogmatics and systematic theology, in which he was outstanding, at the Treviso seminary—so again, it is important to have a pope who deeply comprehends Catholic theology. It is important that a pope be able to literately and effectively teach the faith and to comprehend the meanings of his words–just for example, as Pietro de Marco observes, Francis confuses words [“to judge” (“Who am I to judge?” speaking about (are we to presume active) homosexuals) with “to condemn.”] Francis says “proselytism is solemn foolishness, it makes no sense,” rather dismissing great Jesuits before him like St Francis Xavier and Bl. Peter Faber (Faber he says he models himself upon). Is the Great Commission over (Matt. 28:16-20, Go teach all nations..) ? Francis says “Each of us has his vision of the good” … “we must incite him to proceed toward what he thinks to be the good.” Well, we know that Kinsey, Fidel Castro, and Lenin certainly had visions of ‘the good’—-are there no objective elements and standards that the Church teaches is a single objective good? Of course there are. Bergolio/Francis confuses all these. The fact is, that the numerous ambiguous messages and contradictory statements seem to be increasing, and I can predict that soon, in a year or two years, there will be a serious crisis of faith he will have precipitated in the Church (He already did so to a great degree when he called morally committed Catholics “obsessed” about “homosexuality, abortion, and contraception.”) So, quo vadis, Pope Francis? And yes, there is good reason for a “Pope-Watch”.

  13. I am a very traditional Catholic. I attend the TLM. I love my Catholic Faith with all my heart. I am saddened by the loss of Catholic identity that has taken place in the last 50 years. I feel my beloved Catholic Church has mostly become Protestant, with the exception of my fellow tradtionalists who adhere to the tradtional faith. I agree with all that has been written thus far in this blog. I too, am frightened of what may follow. I feel that not only doctrine, but the Gospel message is becoming “mushy”. I love you, we all love each other and EVERYbody is gonna go to heaven….”
    But most importantly, I am wondering not only about this Pope’s agenda, but WHAT ABOUT those cardinals who elected him. What were they thinking?

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