Pope Francis has made headlines for his statements on issues like capitalism, free speech vs. offensive speech, the environment, and same-sex marriage. This week we ask whether the Pope's interventions on political issues represent a legitimate and healthy exercise of religious freedom, or a breach of the norms of church-state separation necessary for democracy to function.
By: Nicholas P. Cafardi
To what extent can any of Pope Francis’s statements on capitalism, free speech, the environment, and same sex marriage be taken as authoritative in any sense for Catholics? In his famous interview with Father Spadaro in Civilta Cattolica, Francis himself said, “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent.” He was referring to the Catholic Church’s teaching on the hierarchy of truths. This comes from the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in their Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, No. 11, in which they write, “When comparing doctrines with one another [Catholic theologians] should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of Christian faith.”
The highest level of truth is revelation, or the word of God revealed in sacred scripture, both in the Original Covenant and the New Covenant. Next are those truths that are simply logical extensions of revealed truth as deduced or elaborated by the Church over the ages. Finally there are tertiary truths, positions that the Church has consistently taught but that are not specifically rooted in Revelation, nor are specific corollaries of it. Tertiary truths are no less true than revealed truth. This “hierarchy of truths” simply refers to how close a truth is to revelation, the center of all truths.
Pope Francis, in his teaching, has focused almost exclusively on the Gospels—revealed truth—and he has made a central part of his teaching the truth revealed in Matthew 25: We will all be judged by Jesus at the end of time based on how we treated His poor. This is the highest level of truth. This was the primary point of Evangelii Gaudium, Francis’s apostolic exhortation.
In a formal sense, Francis has issued only two teaching documents, the encyclical that he co-wrote with the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, Lumen Fidei, and Evangelii Gaudium. In assessing his public statements, it is probably a mistake to talk about the teaching of Francis. Mostly what Francis does is preach, an act different from teaching. He has chosen, in his morning homilies at Casa Santa Marta, to be the world’s pastor, preaching to us on a daily basis. This is a new type of papal pronouncement that we are not used to. We are not used to our popes giving us daily homilies, and we are unsure how to take them.
For example, what level of truth do we assign to a Casa Santa Marta homily? Such a question is probably the wrong question to ask, just as it would be wrong to ask what level of truth we assign to the Sunday homilies we get from our own pastors. Homilies are meant to encourage us in the faith by throwing light on the scripture readings of the day. The same could be said for Pope Francis’s interviews. These are not meant to be formal teaching occasions, but they are meant to make us think about our relationship with Christ and his Gospel.
This is all new with this pope. We are not used to popes giving daily homilies or lengthy interviews, or holding regular press conferences, and so we ask, What value do we assign these statements? What level of truth? Again, these are the wrong questions. The right question is instead whether Francis’s preaching is challenging me to be a better, a closer follower of the Lord. That is what good preaching does: It issues personal challenges. It moves hearts and minds. One must remember, however, that preaching and teaching are not the same thing.
Pope Francis has said that he is working on a new encyclical on the environment, and in what some are characterizing as a preemptive strike, a few commentators have already opined that no Catholic is bound by the pope’s environmental views. This reaction can be traced back to William Buckley’s famous dismissal of Saint John XXIIII’s economic views in his 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra, with the famous quip, “Mater, Si,Magistra, No.” But papal encyclicals are more than preaching. They are formal teaching documents and cannot be so easily dismissed, at least not by anyone who considers himself a believing Catholic.
To the extent that a papal encyclical gets into the weeds of climate change and relies on scientific opinion to make theological judgments, then its theology will only be as good as its science. That would be a mistake. But it is revealed truth, in the first chapter of Genesis, that God made man the steward of all creation. When the Holy Father elucidates on what that revealed truth means in today’s world, in terms of how people must treat creation, then such teaching would require the assent of the Catholic faithful.
There is no doubt in my mind that the discomfort that some experience with Pope Francis is a result of his style of “poping,” which is so different from what we have seen before. He is not easy to characterize. Is he a man of the left or of the right? Once again, this is the wrong question, and the mindset that asks it is the wrong mindset. It evinces a need to pigeonhole the pope so that we can use him and what he says for our own partisan purposes. This needs to stop.
For too long, Catholics, at least in the United States, have beaten each other up for political purposes. We hurl anathemas at each other: “You cannot support that political party and be a good Catholic.” And for too long, papal pronouncements were used to support “non-negotiable” political positions. Francis makes such posturing very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. His Church is not the world’s courtroom. It is the world’s field hospital, where our primary task is to take care of those who are hurting: the hungry who need food, the thirsty who need drink, the strangers who need welcoming, the naked who need clothes, the sick who need care, the prisoners who need human contact. That is truth at its highest level, the Lord’s own words.
Nicholas P. Cafardi is a professor of law and dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law.
This piece was originally authored on February 5, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.