In 1981, John Paul II released Familiaris Consortio, a document which stated that unless the divorced and remarried abstain from sex, admitting them to Communion would “objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist”.
In 2016, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia called this teaching into question. “It is possible that in an objective situation of sin … a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” A footnote adds: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.”
Amoris Laetitia was vague and ambiguous, but many took it as an invitation to do away with Familiaris Consortio. And not only that. As John Paul II observed, Familiaris Consortio’s conclusions are based on Scripture and supported by the constant witness of the Church. While leaving things open-ended, Pope Francis has appeared to welcome those interpretations that contradicted the traditional teaching.
This contradiction has now led to conflict. In the wake of Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II established the John Paul II Institute in Rome, an academic institution devoted to the study of marriage and family. Pope Francis has now replaced the leadership of this institution with men hostile to the legacy of John Paul II. (Imagine Donald Trump being made president of the Barack Obama Presidential Library.) Several professors have been summarily removed, apparently for their adherence to Familiaris Consortio.
John Paul II’s legacy, long thought to be secure, is now imperilled. The men whose influence he sought to limit now propound their ideas from his Institute and in his name.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. At the end of Benedict XVI’s papacy, conservative Catholics had every apparent reason to be confident. Since 1978, firmly conservative popes had been appointing bishops. All the cardinals eligible to vote in the 2013 conclave had been put there by John Paul or his even more conservative successor, Benedict. Young priests were increasingly orthodox. How could the direction of the papacy change so abruptly?
One reason is the genuine liberality of John Paul and Benedict. As a rule, they were not averse to promoting their theological opponents. They worked around, rather than silenced, all but the most flagrant dissenters. One can see this liberality at work in the origins of the John Paul II Institute. None of the several pontifical colleges in Rome was prepared to present the Church’s teaching on marriage and family fully and forcefully. Rather than remake the colleges by overhauling their staffs, John Paul started a new institute.
Perhaps this indirect method was the best that could be done without tearing apart the Church. But sometimes it was presented as an ideal. One of the mottoes of the long John Paul–Benedict papacy was, “The Church always proposes; she never imposes.” This was in part a reminder that the Church does not support conversion by the sword. But it was also seen as an affirmation of freedom within Church and society, a promise that the Church would take a less “authoritarian” approach towards dissent within its own ranks. There was no need to silence error. One only had to proclaim the truth.
In retrospect, the problem with this line of thought is obvious. If I always propose that my child not take a cookie but never impose it, he will cease to take my proposal seriously. Words that are not backed up have no meaning, no force. If the Church says contraception is wrong but does not act as if contraception were wrong, the Church loses credibility. The pattern was repeated in countless cities. The bishop might write a solidly orthodox column in the Catholic paper each week but do nothing to shut down the dissenting parish next door. Without action, even his good words became useless.
Every pope, every bishop has three fundamental tasks: to sanctify, to teach and to govern. These tasks are derived from the three offices typically attributed to Christ: those of priest, prophet and king. Since at least the Second Vatican Council, Catholic leaders have been embarrassed by the last of these. As the Church sought to comes to terms with the democratic age, using the king’s power to advance the prophet’s teaching came to be seen as retrograde and impolite. Governance meant balancing the books and promoting dialogue, rather than disciplining dissent.
Francis is not afraid to exercise his kingly authority. Some men still think that proclaiming the truth is sufficient to defeat error. Francis would never be so naïve. He has not only proposed a new understanding of marriage and family, he has begun to impose it. Even those who believe he is neglecting Catholic doctrine and acting unjustly towards those who defend it should be able to acknowledge what is sound in his approach. We need popes and bishops ready to act not only as priests and prophets, but also as kings.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things