Rome correspondent Edward Pentin has an interesting report at the US National Catholic Register: that Pope Francis has received a petition of nearly 800,000 signatures from around the world, including 202 prelates, “calling on [him] to issue words of clarity on the Church’s teaching on marriage and family”. The petition states that “it would prevent the very teaching of Jesus Christ from being watered down and would dispel the darkness looming over our children’s future”. Eight cardinals are among the signatories. Other cardinals didn’t sign “for reasons of prudence” as they “interpreted the petition as criticism of the Holy Father”.
What to make of this news item? Coming just before the October Synod on the Family, it is safe to assume that it hopes to forestall the conflicting reports that emerged from Rome at last year’s Synod on the same subject, when “conservative” members of the hierarchy were seen to be at odds with “progressive” clergy and faithful members of the Church throughout the world were left bewildered and scandalised.
No one doubts the Holy Father’s own understanding of Catholic theology on marriage. I have just been reading a book, published by Our Sunday Visitor and available from Gracewing, entitled Pope Francis and the Joy of Family Life. Its publication is surely timed to coincide with this October Synod and to reassure members of the Church that the Holy Father has no intention of changing the Church’s teaching on marriage.
Over and over again in these “Daily Reflections”, taken from the Pope’s homilies and addresses, he speaks of the sanctity and sacredness of marriage, warns against attempts to redefine the institution of marriage and the “ideological colonisation of families”, discusses the two elements of “communion and generation” intrinsic to the sacrament and emphasises the “one flesh” reciprocity of husbands and wives.
So why is there the need for a petition, which speaks in strongly worded language, of “the darkness looming over our children’s future”? I think there are two reasons: the first is that what the Holy Father knows and believes and writes in formal documents as head of the Church is often distorted by the world’s media when he speaks informally and off the cuff; the second is that his constant pastoral emphasis on the need for mercy and “evangelisation through attraction, not proselytism”, as he states in the book referred to above, has caused disquiet among clergy and lay people who believe that proselytising and catechesis must go hand in hand with mercy.
An article in The Catholic Thing by Robert Royal brings this out. He quotes the Holy Father’s speech to the bishops assembled for the recent World Meeting of Families at St Charles Borromeo Seminary, when Pope Francis told them they “must invite young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family”. As Royal points out: “How do you invite and persuade young people to marry other than by giving them ideas different than the ones dominant in the culture?” The answer is, you have to teach them; to convince them that Catholic theology on marriage is good, true and beautiful – infinitely wiser and more profound than the shallow messages about “relationships” constantly transmitted by the culture surrounding them.
Those defending Pope Francis’s approach argue that he “is trying to win souls, not arguments”. But winning “souls” can’t be divorced from reason; people have intellects as well as hearts. The consequence of the “Pope effect” might be that sometimes you can bypass arguments with the sheer force of your loving compassion – as people who have met Pope Francis testify. But this is not sufficient for parents and pastors trying to help the next generation discern truth from lies, to reject the “darkness” implicit in what the world tells them is normal and good and to choose the narrow way, that of Christian witness to marriage.