Papal Indulgence and the “Style of God”

Future Church historians, looking back at our time, will encounter multiple mysteries. They won’t be puzzled by the essential mysteries of the Faith such as the Incarnation and Real Presence, which are always with us. But they will scratch their heads at the many unnecessarily confusing, ill-informed, and divisive ramblings of the current occupant of the chair of St. Peter. Which we may piously hope will only survive as historical curiosities.

The latest in this sad series is his December handwritten letter to Sister Jeannine Gramick of New Ways Ministry, which just came to light, on top of an earlier letter praising that group, which has been condemned by previous popes and multiple American bishops for its unapologetic and unambiguous promotion of homosexuality.

Francis is notorious for psychoanalysis-at-a-distance – witness his repeated claims, based on nothing more, it seems, than some past experience in his own life, that all those “rigid” seminarians and young people in love with the Latin Mass – and “traditional” Catholicism more generally – have some hidden psychological problem and may be mired in something even worse – perhaps even the sin of a lack of charity.

Just as a simple matter of truth, it’s a bad idea to generalize about a large group of people of varying backgrounds and interests, distributed over scores of different nations and cultures around the world. It’s the kind of overgeneralization that you used to learn to avoid by the time you were a college sophomore.

Yet the person on earth who should be the most careful in his public pronouncements – indeed rash judgments – about other people, routinely deplores the mental and spiritual state of a diverse group of some of his Church’s most loyal followers. And just as rashly praises people at odds with the Church he heads.

I myself want to avoid, as much as possible, psychoanalysis-at-a-distance. But the Gramick letter raises several unavoidable questions. So far as anyone knows, Pope Francis is not a longtime friend of the Sister. In addition, he – and his closest advisors – have repeatedly demonstrated they know next to nothing about America and don’t much like what little they do.

Who exactly persuaded him that New Ways Ministry – despite multiple condemnations by popes and bishops – is suddenly to be regarded as a shining light of LGBTQ+ mercy in the American wilderness? Why would he believe such advisors? And why would he then go on to write such a fawning letter to a group that any serious American Catholic knows to be an unfortunate product of the chaos of the 1970s? James Martin SJ is, in his public stance, almost moderate compared to New Ways.

There are confused theological underpinnings to this: Francis not only rejects the legacy of St. John Paul II – amply demonstrated in the wrecking of various institutions, not least the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family. He seems also to have been convinced that the many bishops in America appointed by JPII and Benedict are not allies in preaching the Faith, but adversaries. This, too, is a gross overgeneralization. But it would explain a lot – e.g., why previously undistinguished bishops now serving in Chicago, Newark, and San Diego seem to have commanding voices in Rome.

[Photo: Grzegorz Galazka/NBC News]

Then there’s the Jesuit Axis. The James Martin, S.J.-Antonio Spadaro, S.J. line joins seamlessly with the ill-grounded animus against the American hierarchy. Let us never forget that the absurd reading of religion in America written by Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, which even liberal American Catholics saw as skewed, described the Catholic-Evangelical alliance in defense of family, traditional sexual morals, and much more as an “ecumenism of hate.” The pope has mentioned it favorably several times.

Just as “who am I to judge?” mostly gets a workout defending gays, “hate” has also taken on an ideological meaning these days. The Jesuit magazine America has even seen fit to run an article by a very young recent college graduate about why the embrace of Satanism by a gay black rapper should teach the Church about its record of “hate” – i.e., “homophobia.”

All this, however, operates on the level of ideas. And it’s of course no surprise that Francis continues his ambiguous gestures about gays. But it’s the excessive emotional warmth that Pope Francis displays towards Sister Gramick, a heterodox figure whom he does not even know well personally, that particularly draws attention. Why the need for this, which is a slap in the face for those popes and bishops who made very different judgments – and a cavalier disregard of the Jewish and Catholic moral tradition in such matters?

“You have not been afraid of ‘closeness,’ and in getting close you did it ‘feeling the pain’ and without condemning anyone, but with the ‘tenderness’ of a sister and a mother,” which displayed “‘the style’ of God.” And he added that he knew “how much she has suffered” describing her as “a valiant woman who makes her decisions in prayer.”

With respect, Santo Padre, but wrong, wrong, and wrong. Colossally. Far from being merely unafraid, Gramick and New Ways have been defiant proponents of homosexuality. Her own original order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, asked her to stop public teaching on sexuality. She chose to move to the Sisters of Loretto.

Was it the “style of God” not just to counsel sinners or those with problems, but to tell them they were fine just as they are? And as to decisions made “in prayer,” prayers to which God? It certainly isn’t the one who at the beginning of Genesis says, “male and female he created them.”

It’s all well and good and part of the Christian dispensation to accompany the marginalized – when they’ve been marginalized out of prejudice or hardness of heart. But there are also those who are marginalized for good reasons and should remain so unless those reasons are removed.

Indeed, it’s a good idea to look into those reasons carefully before reversing decades of proper evaluations by people who actually know something about groups like New Ways. Courage, the apostolate founded by Fr. John Harvey forty years ago, which both accompanies those with same-sex attraction and upholds Catholic faith and morals, should have been the recipient of this letter.

Charity plus fidelity is part of Catholicism’s singular moral realism. Sentimental indulgence is not “the style of God.”


You may also enjoy:

Brad Miner’s Homosexuality in Scripture

+Bishop Thomas Daily’s On Homosexuality

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.