Pope Francis joins the human quest

Pope Francis on his way to greet pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican.  Photo: Giulio Napolitano/Shutterstock 
Pope Francis on his way to greet pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican.  Photo: Giulio Napolitano/Shutterstock 
Published April 15, 2016

Modernity has not been kind to those upholding the truth of the gospel as well as the authority and unity of the church. Global Christian communions, for example, currently encounter significant internal challenges to the truth claims and structures that have long served them well.

Some of our best theological minds are engaged with what it means to maintain the “Good News first delivered to the apostles and saints” for our time and in spite of schismatic threats to the visible Body of Christ. How distressing when liberals and conservatives clash destructively on issues such as divorce or gay marriage.

The Roman Catholic Church and its head, Pope Francis, is an interesting case study as he transitions his global community from past to future and through the great ambiguities of the present.

Ross Douthat, a conservative New York Times columnist, has written a clarifying article entitled “The New Catholic Truce” (April 10, 2016).

Here are some seminal points:

So far, left- and right-wing Roman Catholics have found ways to remain “officially” united and the church’s official teaching remains conservative, even as the everyday life of Catholicism is shot through with disagreement, relativity and dissent. The impression given is still essentially unchanging, holding firm to the traditions. But from the outset of Pope Francis’s pontificate, it was clear that he was dissatisfied with this understanding. He wanted to renegotiate its terms in liberal Catholicism’s favour and in ways conservative Catholics deem impossible. The Pope’s new letter on marriage and the family demonstrates the self-contradiction between “unchanging” and “flexible” doctrine.

On the one hand, he does not challenge the traditional teaching on matters such as divorce, while on the other, he encourages existing practice in many places-i.e., the informal admission of remarried Catholics to communion by sympathetic priests. The truce is still in effect, but its terms have definitely changed. A formal teaching remains that remarriage without annulment is adultery, and a mortal sin. That consoles conservatives to a point.

But there is also now a new papal teaching in favour of the truce itself. The post-1960s disconnect between doctrine and pastoral practice has now received a papal imprimatur. By this truce, the Pope seeks to renew the church. It is not a change of doctrine, but encouragement for innovation locally. He “licenses” innovation but encourages the church’s contradictions. In truth, it may even ultimately undermine his authority. What the church once stated authoritatively, it now proffers tentatively in tones of self-effacement.

The Pope intends this language as a bridge between the church’s factions-just dogmatic enough for conservatives but perpetually open to more liberal interpretations. His deliberate ambiguity offers a centre of sorts for a deeply divided church. But not one, I fear, that’s likely to permanently hold.

I applaud Douthat for the clarity he brings to such complexity. But I hope he is wrong, because I admire the pastoral commitment to mercy and humanity the Pope advances. In the long arc of history, I believe Pope Francis will be recognized as leading prophetically.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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