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Pope Francis’ Truly Shocking Remark 

No, it wasn’t his comment to the Italian bishops [1] about frociaggine (“faggotry”), homosexual cliques in seminaries, which the Vatican felt required a semi-apology. Nor the subsequent remark to young priests about gossip being “a women’s thing.” [2] (Apology, probably, to come.)  Forget calling conservatives “suicidal” [3] (and any apology). Not even the stark “No” he pronounced during his CBS interview with Norah O’Donnell when she asked whether women will ever be deacons or have some other ordained status in the Church.

The truly shocking thing he said was lost amid the usual “culture war” issues. It came, instead, when he gave the reason why he has not and cannot authorize the blessing of “irregular couples.” (CBS transcript [4], 27:32) Many Catholics and others aren’t so sure he hasn’t done so with Fiducia supplicans. Most African bishops rejected the document. The Orthodox made public statements about it harming ecumenical relations. But Francis said, and on network television to millions, that he can only bless individuals not those couples because, “The Lord made it that way.” (El Señor lo hizo así.)

He made this truly shocking remark quickly, in passing, almost under his breath. No one has much noticed. But the whole of Catholicism stands – or falls – with those six (original, cinco) words. Either what we believe and what we believe we are supposed to do correspond to what God, the Creator and Lord of the cosmos, ordained eternally, or we’re just following what the media think of as Church “policies,” which can be altered – as they are in secular politics – by pressure groups and leaders’ shifting opinions.

The liberal media weren’t prepared to hear that and, as a result, didn’t.  If they had, it might have raised an even more ferocious outcry than all the controversies of this papacy combined.

Think about it. The pope has gained the goodwill of the mainstream media by his bonhomie and welcoming sinners of all kinds. There’s nothing wrong with that – indeed, a good deal right, properly done. The problem is how it’s been done, which has given the impression both to his supporters and critics that he’s radically changing what God has ordered. And pace his defenders, there’s ample evidence in what he’s done and said elsewhere, and the appointments he’s made in the Vatican and in dioceses around the world, that those impressions are not entirely wrong.

Still, if Francis had explained that he stops short – and must do so – on the teachings that the world wants changed about gays and women and married priests, things like abortion and surrogacy, too, because God Himself has spoken on these matters, and that God calls everyone (todos) to Catholic belief and behavior, many – especially in the media – might have walked away. But he would have seized a moment: for evangelization.

He has the proven ability to charm almost anyone he’s talking with. And if speaking Catholic truths had produced a sharp pushback, he could easily have made a good-natured reply that, of course, he’s a Catholic and the pope of Rome. And what else could he be expected to believe or do?

The Tempest Calmed by Niccolò Circignani, 16th century [Gregorian Tower, Vatican City]

Instead, he says different things with different people. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., of Luxembourg, whom the pope has appointed General Rapporteur for the Synod on Synodality, publicly stated that the pope believes, as he does, that Church teaching on homosexuality has now been shown, by science, to be false. He later walked back what he said, but there’s no doubt in the present writer’s mind that Francis said that. In private.

Similarly, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Limburg Bishop Georg Bätzing, remarked that he was shocked by the pope’s stark “No” to female deacons, claiming he’d never heard Francis speak in such terms.  That also must have surprised Sister Linda Pocher, a German nun and advisor to the pope [5], who has said that Francis “is very much in favor of the diaconate of women.” And added that he’s only trying to figure out the form it should take.

Even a largely good document like Dignitas infinita encourages similar puzzlement. On the one hand, it affirms the Biblical view of all human persons as possessing great dignity because of the way they have been created by God. But it also states firmly: “Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes, apart from this fundamental truth that human life is a gift, amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God, entering into competition with the true God of love revealed to us in the Gospel.”

Sister Jeannine Gramick (whom the pope has praised as practicing “the style of God”) of New Ways Ministry, an openly pro-homosexual “Catholic” organization, objected – along with other progressive Catholics – that the one side of the document contradicted the other. At bottom, it doesn’t, but to explain why would require making a more serious effort to explain God’s way than the Vatican and Francis have been willing to make.

The golden thread that runs through all things Catholic is that “the Lord made it that way.” This directly contradicts the egalitarianism and radical autonomy that have replaced older, saner notions like equality before the law and liberty under God.

The new fundamental beliefs deny that God made and rules the world. Rather, under the new covenant, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey) Anything else seems – to people who have been catechized by the postmodern world – to be illiberal, anti-democratic, patriarchal, hierarchical, judgmental, medieval, discriminatory, homophobic, transphobic, even “fascist.”

A Catholic, indeed any serious monotheist, knows that radical self-definition is not freedom. It’s bondage. To our own whims and blindness, to an existential emptiness without possible remedy. In fact, the deeper the self’s embrace of its own inventions, the less free and the less happy it is.

Of necessity, because it’s living in an unreal, virtual world. Not the world that the Lord made in His way.

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.