The transcript of the Holy Father’s meeting with the Polish bishops last month in Kraków – released after his return to Rome – provides useful keys on how to interpret the Pope’s words.
All the hallmarks of Pope Francis’s rhetoric are there. There is good practical advice about missionary parishes: “If there is Confessional with the light on people always come, always!”; “Is there a place for the children to play?”
There is too the customary insult drawn from his experience of the apparently doleful state of the Church in Argentina: “There are parishes with parochial secretaries who seem like ‘disciples of Satan’, who scare the people away.”
(That was too much even for the Vatican press office, which rendered “discepole di satana” as “ungodly” in the English translation.)
Then there was this after the Holy Father’s answer about parish life: “I don’t know if this is a simplistic answer, but I don’t have any other. I’m not a brilliant pastoral theologian, I just say whatever comes to mind.”
Which offers the helpful indication that Pope Francis is best understood as not speaking theologically, or at least not using precise theological language. He speaks spontaneously about whatever is in his heart, whatever comes to mind, and it should be understood in that fashion.
In the course of that same answer on parish life, Pope Francis said: “What I am saying may seem heretical, but it is how I see things. I believe the parish structure is analogous to the episcopal structure, different but analogous. The parish cannot be touched; it has to remain as a place of creativity, a reference point, a mother, all these things. It is where that inventiveness has to find expression.”
Heresy has a precise meaning, an “obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith”, as the Catechism puts it (CCC 2089). It is impossible to imagine how thoughts about the pastoral importance of parishes could be heretical. Indeed, if heresy really meant heresy in the papal mind, it is hard to imagine that Pope Francis would casually mention that he might be dabbling in it. What he means by heresy is something other than its use in theology, most likely its colloquial use describing an opinion contrary to conventional thinking.
There are two other recent examples of such a non-theological approach to fundamental matters of the sacraments and morality. On June 16, 2016, at the pastoral congress of the diocese of Rome, Pope Francis answered a question about marriage in which he famously said that the “large majority of marriages” are not valid. That was later altered to read “a part” of marriages are invalid. In the same address though, the Holy Father remarked that “I have seen a great deal of fidelity in these cohabiting couples, a great deal of fidelity; and I am certain that this is a true marriage, they have the grace of matrimony, precisely because of the fidelity that they have.”
That is incorrect in terms of sacramental theology. It is not possible to attain the grace of a sacrament without receiving the sacrament. Moreover, it is a total reversal of the Church’s sacramental theology to say that “precisely” because of something we do – “fidelity” – we then “have the grace of matrimony”. It would imply that if we don’t see fidelity, the grace of matrimony was not received.
The key is to understand that the Holy Father is not speaking theologically, but rather commenting in more equivocal language about the human experience of cohabiting couples, about which he is likely correct. It can be confusing, because “grace” has a precise and important meaning, but Pope Francis does not use the word “grace” as the Church usually employs it.
Also in June, Pope Francis addressed the question of the death penalty, repeating words from the Angelus address of February 21, 2016: “The commandment ‘thou shall not kill’ has absolute value and pertains to the innocent as well as the guilty.”
The fifth commandment does not have an “absolute value” that applies equally to the innocent and the guilty. The Catechism makes it clear that that “universally valid” (“absolute”) prohibition on killing applies to an “innocent person” (CCC 2261). If the prohibition really did have a “universal value” for both the innocent and the guilty, it would prohibit a father using proportionate and, if necessary, lethal force against an aggressor about to rape or kill his daughter.
Obviously, that’s not Catholic teaching and not what the Pope means. He uses “absolute value” in a way different from the way it would be used in the catechism or theological discourse.
The Holy Father explained in Kraków that he says what comes to mind, and not with theological precision. It helps to keep that in mind, to benefit from his wisdom without distractions over his phrasing.