In an interview with 'Avvenire,' the official newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, Pope Francis defends his teachings from critics. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope Francis dismisses critics of his teachings

By  David Gibson, Religion News Service
  • November 18, 2016

VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis is defending his efforts to make the Catholic Church more open and pastoral in its ministry, telling an interviewer that his opponents have a legalistic mindset about Christianity that only sees the faith in “black or white.”

The pontiff’s lengthy interview in Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference, was published Nov. 18 and followed days of news coverage of demands by four cardinals who have concerns about Francis’ approach.

The four say that focusing on ministering to people in their particular circumstances is eroding the church’s doctrinal absolutes and that Francis must dispel any ambiguities or face serious consequences.

The four critics, led by U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, a Rome-based prelate, had written privately to Francis in September. He asked the pontiff to state whether passages in the landmark document Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love") on ministering to families that he had issued in March could be interpreted to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion in some cases.

On Nov. 14, the cardinals went public with the letter because they learned that Francis was not going to respond to their demands that he answer five specific questions about the document.

The cardinals said they wanted to clear up doubts about whether the document undermined the church’s teaching on sin and the permanence of marriage.

Then in an interview published Tuesday in the National Catholic Register, Burke raised the stakes by saying that if Francis did not offer a clarification, the next step would be to make “a formal act of correction of a serious error” – a phrase that some believe is tantamount to accusing the pope of heresy.

Avvenire’s interview with Francis focused largely on ecumenism and Catholicism’s relations with other churches.

But the pope also took the opportunity to push back against his critics – he did not name them – who view the faith through the lens of “a certain legalism, which can be ideological.”

“Some people – I am thinking of certain responses to Amoris Laetitia – continue to misunderstand,” Francis said. “It’s either black or white (to them), even if in the flow of life you have to discern.”

Asked about critics who accuse the pope of “Protestantizing” the Catholic Church – an objection often raised by conservative Catholics in the U.S. – Francis said, “I don’t lose sleep over it.”

He insisted that in his efforts to stress the mercy of God and the the church, he is following on the path of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which set the church on a path to internal reform and greater engagement with the world.

“As for opinions of others,” he said, “we always have to distinguish the spirit in which they are given. When there is no ill will, they help with the way forward. Other times you see right away that the critics pick bits from here and there to justify a pre-existing viewpoint; they are not honest, they are acting with ill will to foment divisions.”

“You see right away that a certain ‘rigorism’ is born out of a lack of something, from a desire to hide inside the armor of one’s own sad dissatisfaction,” he said.

Francis suggested that one of his favorite films, Babette’s Feast, a 1987 Danish drama, offers a good example and lesson on this dynamic.

The papal document Amoris Laetitia was Francis’ summation of two extraordinary Vatican meetings of the world’s bishops, held in 2014 and 2015, that sought to reorient the church’s approach away from a focus on doctrinal formulations and the reiteration of rules and toward accompanying people in difficult or unusual circumstances.

But the document has become a flashpoint for an increasingly open struggle between old guard hardliners and supporters of Francis.

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The four cardinals raised legitimate concerns over his interpretation of Amoris Laetitiae. It is most distressing that His Holiness chose not to answer their concerns directly but instead, to criticize the individuals rather than the points they...

The four cardinals raised legitimate concerns over his interpretation of Amoris Laetitiae. It is most distressing that His Holiness chose not to answer their concerns directly but instead, to criticize the individuals rather than the points they want clarified. Is this all he can say?

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