Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Presumably out of deference to the current pontificate, almost nobody is saying something that is obvious and important: that there ought to be no conflict between the doctrinal and the pastoral, the rule and the allowing of exceptions. To the best of my recollection, it was ever the fact that clergy exhibited understanding of error and weakness. That’s what the word “pastor” means.

Yet, latterly, something quite different is being asserted: that we require a new approach, that insistence on the primacy of doctrine amounts to “rigidity,” if not indeed Pharisaism. The buzzword is “pastoral,” spoken as if it were intended to forestall talk of laws.

All this seems directed not at leniency or at mercy but at the dismantling of rules. But that would be an intrinsically disordered idea: Without the rule, there can be no waiving, no “mercy.” To emphasize the exception to the exclusion of the constant is to imply that the “periphery” can exist independently of a center. Sometimes it even seems that concepts like “mercy” and “compassion” are being used to intimidate the anxious faithful into silence. To be truly Christian, we are told, we must abandon legalism and scripturalism—more or less altogether.

Two years ago, Pope Francis described “rigid people” in the Church as “sick” and suggested they were likely to be leading double lives. On other occasions, he has described such people as heretics rather than Catholics, people with “weak hearts,” whom he would like to trip up with banana peels so that they would see they are sinners.

“Rigidity is not a gift of God. Meekness is; goodness is; benevolence is; forgiveness is. But rigidity isn’t!” Such people, he added, “do not know how to walk on the path indicated by God’s law.”

“They appear good because they follow the Law; but behind there is something that does not make them good. Either they’re bad, hypocrites, or they are sick. They suffer!”

As a counterweight to “rigidity,” the pope proposes “discernment,” or “incomplete thought.” According to papal confidant Antonio Spadaro, discernment entails eschewing “a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.”

Leaving aside the spleneticism of the pope’s remarks (and did you ever imagine yourself writing such a sentence?), at their heart lies a profound confusion. It sometimes seems that the pope’s identification of what might be called theological deplorables is founded not on a diagnosis of error but on a visceral dislike. And upon this abhorrence he has raised an entirely more concrete edifice: the quasi-magisterial idea that rules are undesirable because inflexible, whereas “pastoralism” (forget rules!) is good because compassionate.

Such thinking has become the dominant trope of the Francis era. It springs with equal facility to the lips of journalists and of priests. Having escaped from the pope’s grasp, the “pastoral” buzzword has become a code for total license, which needless to say is neither in the gift of men nor in the interests of men.

Pastoralism, moreover, has always existed—just not ideologically. And that is the point of pastoralism.

In Universal Father, his 2005 biography of Pope John Paul II, Garry O’Connor describes in intimate terms the February 2003 visit of then–UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family to the Vatican. The occasion, though arranged in advance as a private visit, coincided with the imminent invasion of Iraq. John Paul had already indicated his profound opposition to the mission proposed by Blair and then–US President George W. Bush.

O’Connor describes stumbling upon the story when he overheard a discussion between a monsignor in the English College and the English primate, “Cardinal Cormac.” The author was acquainted with Blair’s wife, Cherie, who gave him the inside track for his book.

The Blairs, with three of their children, spent twenty minutes with the pope, during which John Paul told Blair that it was up to him to decide what to do over Iraq and that he was glad the decision was not his to make.

Next morning, the Blair family attended a Mass said by the pope. Cherie Blair had been a lifelong Catholic, her husband an increasingly devout Anglican who would later convert to Roman Catholicism. Tony read the first reading: Isaiah, “I it is who must blot out everything.” Their daughter Kathryn did the second, from Corinthians: “Jesus was never yes or no: with him it was always yes.”

According to O’Connor, the pope then gave communion to Cherie, her husband, and their children. “I’m not sure you should put that in,” Cherie fretted to O’Connor when she described the episode to him later.

For some years after he and Cherie were married, Tony Blair had attended Mass in Islington with his family, receiving communion regularly. In 1996, not long before he became prime minister, he was warned off this practice by the then–Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume. Blair responded that he had been unaware that his receiving communion was causing offense, and he undertook not to do it again, though grumpily adding, “I wonder what Jesus might have made of it.”

A few weeks after the Blairs’ meeting with Pope John Paul II, a Catholic Herald report of the episode was met by denials from the Vatican. But Vatican sources would later confirm the communion story to Garry O’Connor and others, offering the justification that there were no Anglican churches in the Vatican to which Blair might have gone to receive.

On the face of things, in giving Tony Blair communion, the pope had gone against his own previously expressed “rigidity.” In February 2001, exactly two years before, he had written to the German cardinals: “There exist in certain places confusion and abuses—for example, the frequent practice of intercommunion—which does so much harm in the search for an authentic unity. An ecumenism which more or less leaves on one side the question of the Truth, can have only the appearance of success.”

Two weeks after dispensing communion to Tony Blair, John Paul again robustly emphasized through a Curial directive that communion should not be dispensed to non-Catholics, though he also repeated a view expressed previously that Catholics and non-Catholics could take communion together in “special circumstances.” There exists a provision that non-Catholics may receive communion “on a unique occasion for joy or for sorrow in the life of a family,” but the relevant teaching document stresses that, even in mixed marriages, “Eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional”—such as the baptism or confirmation of the couple’s child. To satisfy the requirements, the applicant must assert his belief that the body and blood of Christ is present in the bread and wine.

O’Connor explained John Paul’s gesture: “Here was an example yet again of Karol Wojtyła the spontaneous man, not wanting to unsettle the circumstances of privacy and family intimacy, instinctively making the human gesture.” He later told the Daily Telegraph: “His instinct in these situations was always to say yes, and he often had to be restrained by officials who wanted him to say no.”

Was this not pastoralism? The allegedly most rigidly doctrinal of popes was stretching the rules in which he possessed a profound and unwavering belief, so as to extend a kindly hand to an interchurch family, perhaps taking into account the moment of particular stress and anxiety they were experiencing.

Had he applied the “pastoralism” of the present time to this episode, however, John Paul would have ensured that the media immediately got to hear about the incident, then proceeded to muse in public about the need to show more “mercy” and “compassion” for non-Catholics wishing to receive communion. Instead, he remained silent and let the benevolence of the gesture speak for itself.

The current attempt to elevate what is called pastoralism above what is called doctrinalism is bogus of its nature and disingenuous in its intent. Pastoralism is no more or less than the exercising of discretion and sensitivity in witnessing to scripture and the “Law.” Sometimes pragmatic, it does not confuse the sometime necessity for common sense with dispensability of principle.

For one thing, the “Law” in this sense is not merely scriptural; that it is written down is not the reason it should be obeyed. Before it was ever written on papyrus or paper, it was written on the lintel of heaven and the hearts of men, declaring Truth and defining man’s nature and its limits. In this sense, the pastor merely serves to remind man of how he is made; he does not seek to impose on him anything that is alien, arbitrary, or abstract. To exercise “leniency,” therefore, would be meaningless of itself, like a doctor giving permission to a man who has had a heart attack to eat more cheese. The “beneficiary” might take the license as an act of generosity, but the risk is all his. Mercy and compassion require the dispenser to have skin in the game. To relax rules that are not yours to waive is a little like being “generous” with someone else’s money.

For another thing, there is a difference between being lenient or indulgent in a specific instance and seeking to extend leniency to all situations in the guise of “benevolence.” If a traffic cop who is about to issue me a speeding ticket buys my (let’s say true) story about a sick aunt on the other side of the city and goes instead with a stern lecture, I may be grateful for such a small mercy. But I would hardly think it appropriate that the cop and I should immediately initiate a crusade to dismantle the structure of speed-control legislation so that, in the future, all cops could wave on all speedsters with a shrug and a cheery thumbs-up.

And the highway code is not at all like the law written on the hearts of man, being indeed a manmade, purpose-built, codified schema arrived at for a precise and narrow purpose. In a sense, the traffic code is an “imposition” on drivers, but it is imposed as the cost of enabling us to travel about relatively quickly without killing others or being ourselves killed. To say the least, the law of the human heart is of an infinitely higher value and importance.

To dispense with the “Law,” therefore, cannot be seen as an act of mercy, but at most as an occasional and immediate gesture of relief, sympathy, and support. As such, it cannot automatically be deemed a good in all circumstances, but at most only in situations wherein the need of the implicated person is particular, immediate, and acute. In his gesture towards Tony Blair, John Paul did not recklessly abandon his belief in the importance of the rule against offering communion to the unbaptized: It is to be presumed that he merely weighed the necessity of extending a gesture of gentleness and understanding to a man in the throes of a great dilemma, alongside perhaps a more immediate impulse to avoid causing upset and embarrassment to the man and his family. He therefore, without prejudice, waived the rule—for that occasion only.

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.

Photo by Aleteia via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles