An orthodox Catholic friend e-mails this David Gibson report on Pope Francis’s most recent phone call, saying he can’t believe this news is not getting more attention. I think he’s right. Here’s Gibson:
Did Pope Francis tell a divorced and remarried woman that it was okay to take Communion even though her parish priest denied her the host?
That’s the latest kerfuffle created by the “cold-call” pope who on Monday, the day after Easter, called an Argentine woman who had written to him about whether she should receive communion at Mass even though she was divorced and remarried.
“There are priests who are more papist than the pope,” the pope himself reportedly told Jacquelina Lisbona.
Great line, great story — but is any of it true? The details have been shifting.
Gibson has been updating his post to stay on top of the latest reports. As of this writing, what we know is this:
1. The Vatican confirms that Pope Francis did telephone the Argentine woman on Monday.
2. The Vatican would not disclose what the Pope said to her.
3. The woman says the Pope told her to go find another parish where the priest would give her communion.
4. While not discussing the Pope’s words to the woman, the Vatican spokesman says that one should not draw broad conclusions based on a pastoral conversation between the pope and a lay Catholic.
The Vatican spokesman is insane if he thinks that will be sufficient, though to be fair to him, what’s he going to say if the Pope really did something this stupid? Damian Thompson of the Telegraph is exactly right here:
The Vatican MUST clarify this or the Catholic world will divide into celebration and panic http://t.co/SshGfAijPC
— Damian Thompson (@holysmoke) April 23, 2014
Why is this such a big deal? Because if the Pope himself told a Catholic to defy licit Catholic teaching on something as central to the faith as the Eucharist, the implications are enormous. To be sure, there are pastoral reasons why this mercy might be extended to people. “Father Bergoglio,” as the Pope reportedly identified himself on the call, might well have extended them. But the pontiff doing the same thing, and so casually, is potentially explosive. A pope simply can’t say, “Defy the church, don’t worry about it.” Well, he can say it, and he might have done; the papal spokesman declining to talk about it is hardly confidence-inspiring.
My Catholic correspondent is a solid guy of unexcitable temperament, but he writes that for the first time, he thinks the people who have been talking about the potential for Francis’s indiscipline to spark schism might not be crazy. Before you dismiss that as paranoia, think about what this kind of gesture coming from a pope means. It may well be the case that the Catholic Church ought to change its teaching about divorced people receiving communion. If I were the pope, I can well imagine I would eagerly search for a way to allow for that in Catholic teaching, and to push through the reform. However, to the best of my understanding, no pope has the authority to revoke church law at this level on his own (unlike, say, changing church disciplines). If Francis said on the phone call what is alleged to have said, then by his example, he implicitly grants a papal blessing for anarchy into the life of the Church. He may have meant that call only as a pastoral mercy, but he cannot possibly have been so naive as to think that it will be taken as such by the wider world — a world in which many, many people want Rome to abandon its teaching.
Can he have been?
Let me state this once again, to make my position clear. The issue here is not whether or not the Catholic Church should change its position on permitting divorced Catholics to receive communion. The real issue is the pope advising a Catholic to defy binding church teaching, especially on a very serious theological matter of great controversy. What kind of message does this send to the Catholic world about authority in the Catholic Church, when the pope himself advises a layperson to defy the Church’s authority? If this isn’t schismatic, what is it? Serious question.
This might not be the occasion, but sooner or later, one of these phone calls is going to provoke a severe theological and ecclesiological crisis. Can we at least agree that somebody ought to disconnect the phone line into the papal apartment?