Pope Francis and Church “Rules”

When Pope Francis said in his recent interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J.: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. . . It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time” – my initial reaction was, “who or what is he talking about?”  As far as I can see, my archdiocese, Milwaukee, is beyond reproach in terms of overemphasis on abortion, contraception, gay marriage, etc.

The pope adds, “I have never been a ‘right-winger.’” He would be glad to know, then, that none of the pastors I have had in forty-five years residence in this city would fit that description either – their homilies have never touched on these three hot-button issues that “are being talked about all the time.”

But when the pope in the same interview faults the Church for locking itself up in “small things, in small-minded rules,” the liberal media, newspapers and TV, interpret his remarks to refer, yes, specifically to abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. These issues, for them, constitute the substance of “small-minded rules.”

My liberal friends, who hardly ever say anything to me about religion, spontaneously volunteered some “hurrays!” and “yes, finally!’ when they heard the news, apparently relieved that the Church was now taking steps to overcome its fixation with what the pope calls “small things, small-minded rules,” rather that concentrating on important things like social justice. So, if this is a common interpretation of the interview, we are dealing – at least – with a “PR” problem.

What is the pope’s reference to “rules” all about? Abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, don’t qualify as Church rules. Abortion has to do with the Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue; contraception comes under the category of natural law; “gay marriage” flouts very clear Scriptural injunctions.

The pope doesn’t get very specific, but refers to “ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now. . .have lost value or meaning.” His language has a tendency to need further clarification when he enters these thickets. Strictly and officially, the only “rules” that could possibly fit this characterization are the six Precepts of the Church.

Some readers are probably scratching their heads at this mention of the Precepts. I haven’t heard of Gallup or Pew Research polls concerning the general acquaintance among Catholics with these precepts. But judging from my unscientific personal inquiries with friends, I would conclude that very few Catholics, especially Baby Boomers and later, would be able to enumerate them.

             Walking on Water (Saving St. Peter) by Ivan Alvazovsky, 1888

There are some variations in the wording of the precepts, but they include:  

1) To respectfully and devoutly assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.
2) To fast and abstain on the days appointed. 
3) To go to Confession at least once a year during the Easter Season.
4) To receive the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist at least once a year during the Easter Season. 
5) To contribute financially to the support of the Catholic Church.  And
6) To never violate the laws concerning the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Now, precept 6 would, of course, include a restriction of contraception. But as I mentioned above, this “issue” is just a reiteration of an element of natural law; and in any case the pope mentioned in his interview that he is a “son of the Church” and not about to question the Church on that issue or the other two issues mentioned.

So which, if any, of these precepts are rules that have “lost value or meaning”? The only precept that I personally would think fits in this category would be No. 1, insofar as it includes obligation of attendance at Mass on eight Holy Days of Obligation, in addition to Sundays. Speaking ecclesiastically, this is a big deal. Attendance on these days, according to the Catechism, is required sub grave, i.e., under penalty of mortal sin.

But as I mentioned in a previous column, on the basis of my own experience, apparently hardly anyone in my cluster of Catholic parishes observes that rule regarding Holy Days. And it also seems to me that this requirement may have “lost value and meaning,” and should be reconsidered in terms of the “binding and loose-ing” powers entrusted to Peter and his successors.

Since most of the Holy Days of Obligation, except Christmas and New Years’ Day (i.e., the feast of Mary, Mother of God) fall on days when many adults and children are at work and/or school, and since in most countries they are not national holidays, perhaps some relaxation of this rule would be in order. As St. Paul admonishes in Romans and other letters, sin and law go hand-in-hand; and where there is no law, there is no sin. St. Paul’s reference was to multiple Mosaic laws, which caused problems for Jewish Christians, but this principle also seems to be relevant to Church laws, which explicitly obligate sub grave.

I presume that the Church would not want to remove the obligation sub grave for attending Mass on Sundays, since this precept is just an interpretation, for Catholics, about how to observe the Third Commandment about “keeping the Sabbath holy.”

Any law that binds “under penalty of mortal sin” and is hardly observed by anyone should be a candidate for reconsideration, simply out of deference to individual consciences, which should not unnecessarily be overloaded. Clearly the pope has not said, as the MSM infer, that the Church’s positions regarding abortion, contraception, or gay marriage are examples of “rules that have lost value or meaning.” 

But if there are laws or rules for the universal Church that are superfluous or outdated, these should be specified and reconsidered. However, as the pope indicates in the same interview, it is important that whatever laws or rules are inculcated, are done so always in the context of Christ’s mercy and the Gospel of salvation.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.