Pope Francis Said What? — Contraception and Catholic Doctrine

Pope Francis. Credit: Alan Holdren/CNA.

As well intentioned Pope Francis seems to be, he sure can generate a lot of misunderstandings of Church doctrine. I think it’s important to call out these instances and try to clarify them. After all, I don’t want the secular media, who aren’t the most Catholic friendly, having the final word interpreting the pope’s words.

While the pope’s supposed twitter war with Donald Trump has garnered a lot of attention, he also made statements about the use of contraception to combat the Zika virus in South America.  This didn’t get the amount of attention it deserves as it will live well beyond a few tweets between a presidential candidate and the pope. I fear the media will quote this in the future whenever the Catholic Church and contraception are mentioned.  Here’s the specific part of the transcript I want to focus on (bold is mine):

Paloma García Ovejero, Cadena COPE (Spain): Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”

Pope Francis: Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.

Here’s the problem. Did Pope Paul VI actually permit nuns in Africa to use contraception? Pope Francis’ argument hangs on the premise that a previous pope had a doctrinally sound reason for doing so. Surely, Pope Francis can refer to some papal document from Pope Paul VI supporting this position right? But it looks like the pope has been hoodwinked by a Catholic urban legend. I came across a great article by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf that examined the root of the “Pope Paul VI permitted nuns to use contraception” myth.

English: picture of pope paul VI Español: foto...
English: picture of pope paul VI Español: fotografia del papa pablo VI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I encourage you to read the entire article, the tl;dr version is that the scenario of nuns in Africa using contraception was written as a hypothetical example in a theological article about the principle of double effect that was published two years before Paul VI became pope. Like any urban legend, it starts based on some actual event and then little changes to the details are applied.  Like a game of telephone, eventually the story the persists is nothing like the original. There’s even a similar version of this story except it’s St. John Paul II instead of Paul VI and Bosnian nuns replace African nuns.

I understand why the New York Times or the Washington Post may mistakenly report this myth as fact. After all, they probably think Nancy Pelosi is an authority on Catholic doctrine. But I would hope that the pope would be better informed and not repeat an urban legend as truth. What’s worse is that while the words attributed to Paul VI or St. John Paul II are myths, the words of Pope Francis are not. He actually said them and believes that they are rooted in Catholic teachings. I fear that over time the Paul VI myth will be replaced with Pope Francis’ own words.  After all, who needs to keep a myth alive when you have the words straight from the pope’s mouth?

The pope’s off the cuff statements create a challenge for those who want to show the world the reality, truth, and beauty of the Catholic Church.  When the truth in areas like contraception are blurred, it waters down the appeal of authentic Catholicism.  Going back to the book, Rome Sweet Home, that I wrote about recently, part of the reason the Hahn’s left the protestant church was because they started to see inconsistencies and too much gray area in the doctrine.  They saw the Catholic Church as an unwavering rock of well reasoned, biblical doctrine that created an opportunity to truly live in the fullness of God’s grace.  Catholic doctrine may not be the easiest to understand and follow, but at least it’s true.  Speaking of rocks, the office of the pope should be acting as the doctrinal cornerstone as Jesus commanded Peter.  That is why Pope Francis’ interviews, where he creates a lot of confusion, bothers me so much.  When the pope gives off the cuff comments, I feel like he weakens the divinely appointed role and power of the papacy.

Retable de l’Agneau mystique

Whenever I think of Church doctrine, my thoughts go towards the Fourth Glorious Mystery of the rosary — Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.  I think that one of the reasons God assumed Mary into Heaven is because her duties as our mother extended beyond her earthly life.  God chose her to be our mother for all ages to come.  And like a good mother, Mary desires us to know our faith and see its depth and beauty.  There is so much misinformation out there about the Catholic Church, both intentionally and unintentionally spread.  It’s our responsibility to learn all that we can so we aren’t led astray into a false or watered down sense of our rich faith.  Holy Mary, we pray to you for guidance to learn as much as we can about the Heavenly Kingdom you so greatly want us to enjoy.  Amen.

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Did Pope Francis Really Say it is Bad to be “Very Catholic?”

I almost feel like I need to start a What Pope Francis Means is… section on RosaryMeds.  It’s not that I think what Pope Francis says is wrong.  In fact, both Pope Benedict and Saint John Paul II also said many things that, without looking through a well formed theological lens, one could interpret as going against Catholic doctrine.  But because of Pope Francis’ off the cuff style, he opens more doors than his predecessors for incorrect justifications of uncatholic behavior for those who wish to take it.

In today’s article, let’s look at this report from the National Catholic Reporter about Pope Francis’ remarks during his weekly Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square:

“We all know in our communities, in our parishes, in our neighborhoods how much hurt they do the church, and give scandal, those persons that call themselves ‘Very Catholic,'” the pontiff said Sunday.

Francis was speaking Sunday in an off-the-cuff moment during his weekly Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square, which focused on one of Jesus’ teachings about the role of the proscribed laws of the faith of his time.

“The literal observance of the precepts is something sterile if it does not change the heart and is not translated into concrete attitudes,” he said, giving examples: “Opening yourself to the encounter with God and God’s word in prayer, searching for justice and peace, giving help to the poor, the weak and the oppressed.”

“The exterior attitudes are the consequence of what we have determined in the heart,” said the pope. “Not the opposite! With outside attitudes, if the heart does not change we are not true Christians.”

What Pope Francis Did NOT Say

Some people could take Pope Francis’ words to mean that it is okay to not embrace all the teachings of the Catholic Church.  After all, you don’t want to be that goody-goody who is “very Catholic” or “too Catholic” as I’ve heard some refer to those who try to follow the precepts of the Church.  Without proper reflection, the pope’s comments could be taken as an endorsement of “cafeteria Catholicism” where you can pick what part of the doctrine you want to follow.  As long as you have a good heart or a just cause it’s alright to skip Mass on Sunday, support pro-choice causes, and not really buy into the “we are sinners in need of forgiveness” idea.  After all, the pope says that being very Catholic can be a bad thing right?

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Sorry Nancy, the pope isn’t saying those who are pro-life are bad Catholics

Of course Pope Francis is not saying that you can embrace uncatholic behaviors and still be a Catholic in God’s grace.  Nor is he telling practicing Catholics to butt out of the lives of those who have fallen away from the Church.  Unfortunately, for those looking for excuses for their behavior and shortcomings, you can easily pick and choose the pope’s words to support your actions.

What is Pope Francis Saying?

In my view, Pope Francis’ comments come down to a single word: PRIDE.  It’s not that trying to be a very good Catholic is a bad thing, but you start getting into sinful territory when you start to believe that  you’ve achieved some state of heavenly perfection in this lifetime because you follow all the rules.  You give scandal when you try to lord that false perception of perfection over others.  The very act of believing you are a better person than others because you follow the rules prevents you from being a fully realized Catholic because you fail to acknowledge your sinful act of pride.

My search for “pride” didn’t turn up any family friendly pictures. Here’s a cat instead.

There is an old saying that I’m going to paraphrase — being wise means understanding that there is a lot you do not know.  I think that’s important to meditate on when thinking about how good of a Catholic you are.  Someone who is truly very Catholic understands that they have a lot of sins and shortcomings that they need to work on.  No one can achieve perfect Catholicism in this world (Mary and Jesus excluded of course).  That is a state reserved for the souls in Heaven.  Even the saints acknowledged that they were poor sinners who had to battle various imperfections throughout their lives.  Even those who were the most holy among us like Saint Pope John Paul II went to confession weekly because he had the humility to know he could still be a better Catholic.

The Rosary Connection

The rosary relates to Pope Francis’ comments in two ways.  First, we pray it so that we can more humbly approach our faith.  When I meditate on the various mysteries and think about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, I understand the long road I have before me in areas of my life where I need to improve.  I don’t think anyone who earnestly prays the rosary can believe they are very Catholic when compared to the lives of Mary and Jesus or even the martyrs, apostles, and saints.  If I ever do start to feel prideful and that there isn’t any more I  can do to be a great Catholic, meditating on the rosary brings me back to reality.

The rosary also helps me become very Catholic, but very Catholic in the right way.  As Pope Francis said, we should focus on changing our hearts, not just our exterior attitudes.  Think about the Third Luminous Mystery of the rosary.  Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven and calls us to a life of conversion.  This conversion is a conversion of heart, not actions.  Because when we do have a true conversion of heart and orient ourselves towards God, the actions will naturally follow.

Think of it like this, you aren’t very Catholic because you go to Mass on Sunday.  You are very Catholic because you love God with all your heart and want to embrace Him by listening to His Word and celebrating the Eucharist at Mass.  True conversion and becoming very Catholic starts from within with regular prayer and reflecting on what areas of your life need improvement.  The rosary is a great tool that leads you to true Catholicism, not a false, prideful one.

Most people won’t have a “Road to Damascus” moment like St. Paul. Conversion is a lifelong process.

Need more help getting the most out of the rosary?  Download my free ebook chock full of rosary intentions to meditate on.

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Mary’s Rosary Promise #13

I have obtained from my Divine Son that all the advocates of the Rosary shall have for intercessors the entire Celestial Court during their life and at the hour of death.

Imagine that a little 9 year old child walked up and asked you to teach him some basic mathematics.  You excitedly run to the bookshelf and pick up your linear algebra book from college.  You figure that solving a few matrix equations should be a good introduction to math.  You start running through some sample problems when the child’s eyes just glaze over because he has no idea what you’re talking about.  You slow down and really step him through the process.  You even start taking out pieces of paper to explain the intersection of planes.  But no matter how slow you go and what you do, the 9 year old is just lost, confused, and frustrated.

English: This is a diagram describing the line...
Uh, run that by me one more time?

It’s not really your fault or the child’s fault that he could not pick up basic math concepts from linear algebra.  It was just a mismatch in the child’s understanding of math and what is required to understand a complex topic like linear algebra.  The little child did not have adequate prerequisite knowledge to comprehend linear algebra.  He may be incredibly bright for his age but he still can’t instantly conjure up 10 years worth of math concepts no matter how hard either of you try.

Trying to understand God is much like a little child trying to comprehend linear algebra.  No matter how hard we may try, God’s nature is just something beyond our comprehension.  In fact, our gap in understanding God’s nature is infinitely greater than the child’s gap in understanding complex mathematical concepts.  Mathematics may be a large field, but at least it’s something possibly within the realm of understanding given enough time and practice.  God’s nature, on the other hand, is something that is infinite and beyond human comprehension regardless of how much time and effort you put into it.

Take someone who is quite well catechized like Pope Francis.  His understanding of God may be 100x greater than the average Catholic.  But if God’s nature was represented as grains of sand on the entire planet, the pope’s knowledge of God would still just be one or two grains of sand worth (and that’s being generous).  There’s a reason why God is the Alpha and Omega.  His nature is infinite and beyond what are finite minds can possibly comprehend.

But that is where the celestial court comes in to help us better understand God.  A more common term to describe the celestial court is the communion of saints.  You profess your belief in it every Sunday when you pray the Nicene creed when you say “I believe in the communion of saints.”  The communion of saints are so important in the Catholic Church partly because they help us better understand what God wants of us.  Each saint was a living manifestation of an aspect of God’s nature.  When we look at the saints and what they did in their lives, we get a mosaic of who God is.  Granted, it’s still a very rough picture of God, but it’s better than nothing.  We may be like children when it comes to understanding God, but the saints’ examples give us the basic lessons for understanding how God wants us to live.

A detail from John Nava's tapestry of the comm...
A detail from John Nava’s tapestry of the communion of saints. Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For example, St. Francis demonstrated humility and charity by giving up a life of comfort and wealth for a life of poverty and service to the poor.  St. Faustina shows us the virtues of mercy and compassion.  St. Maria Goretti showed us forgiveness.  St. Madeleine Sophie Barat showed us unconditional love.  Soon-to-be-saint John Paul II shows us that we all have the inner strength to follow God despite our worldly situation.  All of these are virtues God wants all of us to exhibit.  But again, we have no way of fully comprehending God’s Will directly from Him.  But we can understand aspects of God’s Will by looking at the saints.

Like Mary’s other promises, she promises us intercession.  Mary offers us her personal intercession in previous promises and now she includes help from the communion of saints.  We need all the prayers we can get and we should rejoice that we belong to a faith that promises so much help from people living in God’s grace.  I know I take comfort that I don’t face life’s challenges alone but have the help of the saints in Heaven.  I also have them as role models for how I can achieve eternal salvation no matter where I am in life.  I remember this saying I once heard on the radio — every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.  In other words, not all the saints lived very saintly at some point in their lives but they were able to “wise up” and commit themselves to living God’s Will.  Hopefully we can follow in their footsteps and do the same.

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Spiritual Drivers’ Ed. — Mary’s Rosary Promise #5

Those who trust themselves to me through the Rosary will not perish.

I feel this is one of the more vaguely worded rosary promises and is subject to a lot of misunderstanding. To perish means to die, typically in a sudden or untimely way. What is Mary telling us exactly? She can’t mean that those who pray the rosary will never die. If that were the case, I would see thousand-year old women walking around the mall. And Mary can’t really mean sudden or untimely either. I’m sure there are plenty of people who prayed the rosary regularly who died in a car accident or sudden illness. Even St. Pope John Paul II (I feel we’re close enough to call him a saint) died an untimely death due to Parkinson’s and he was a great promoter of the rosary. Is Mary lying to us when she promises that those who pray the rosary will not perish?

Pope John Paul II
Certainly a saint could not have perished. What’s Mary talking about?

The key to the promise is understanding that Mary isn’t talking about the physical body not perishing. She means one’s eternal soul not perishing. Those who pray the rosary will not face a sudden or untimely death of their souls. But that raises another question. What does it mean to have your soul die? After all, how can something that is immortal die? It’s true that your soul never stops existing. When Mary talks about you perishing, she means that your soul spends eternity in Hell instead of in Heaven. And you decide to go to Hell (yes, you decide!) when you die in the state of mortal sin which is:

  1. A sin of grave matter.
  2. You have full knowledge of the gravely sinful nature of the action.
  3. You freely choose to commit the sin in light of that full understanding.

I summarized the Catechism’s three criteria for mortal sin deliberately because there is a lot of misunderstanding of it. Many people think that committing a mortal sin is like getting caught in a spiritual speed trap via a divine traffic camera.  The perception is that God surprises good people with a list of mortal sins when they die so that He can send them to Hell.  But mortal sin isn’t something that just creeps up on you any more than a person can accidentally drive 120 mph on the wrong side of the road. The driver racing like a maniac is not doing it by accident unlike someone who may be driving 5 mph faster than he should.  In the later case, the driver is still doing something wrong but is not committing a gravely serious infraction.  On the other hand, the crazy driver understands that what he is doing is against the law and seriously reckless when he puts the pedal to the metal and takes off like a rocket. Likewise, you can’t accidentally commit a mortal sin because, by definition, you need full knowledge of the grave matter and consciously choose to commit it.

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God doesn’t want to “nail you” committing a mortal sin.  (Photo credit: Rob-Wei)

Does that mean you should try to learn as little about what the Catholic Church teaches so that you can commit as many grave sins as you want without them being mortal sins? Sorry, but morality doesn’t work that way. The person driving at triple-digit speeds can’t say he didn’t know he was breaking the law as he passed by and ignored many speed limit signs. Similarly, Catholics are called to attend Mass every week, receive the sacraments (most of which involve some instruction on Church teachings), and learn their faith. The Catholic Church puts down many moral “speed limit signs” to alert people of what is right and what is wrong.

Back to the driver, even in the unlikely event that there was no speed limit posting, he should know that driving that fast is incredibly unsafe. And, even in the absence of understanding a specific Church teaching, humans have a sense of the natural law of what is good and evil and are called to abide by it.

What does all this mean in the context of Mary’s rosary promise that those who pray the rosary will not perish? Those who pray the rosary will be more in tune with the natural law, develop a well-formed conscience, be more motivated to learn Catholic teachings, and be more receptive to God’s Will. Regular rosary prayer will steer someone away from mortal sin so that he will not perish in the fires of Hell. Mary isn’t giving you a clean slate through the rosary (that is what the Sacrament of Confession is for), but she is giving you a tool to avoid committing mortal sin in the first place. That is the heart of the promise. You won’t perish despite your mortal sins, but instead you won’t perish because you will have no mortal sins on your soul.

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Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing

The rosary has the ability to heal and mend what is broken in our lives. Fr. Dwight Longenecker, on Catholic Online, discusses how praying the rosary brings us inner peace by replacing all that is earthly with what is heavenly.

Blessed Virgin Mary - Mother of God
Image by Ted Abbott via Flickr

The rosary has the ability to heal and mend what is broken in our lives.  Fr. Dwight Longenecker, on Catholic Online, discusses how praying the rosary brings us inner peace by replacing all that is earthly in our life with what is heavenly.

From the article:

In a mysterious way Christ’s perfect life and the perfect love he shared with his mother, flow into the wounded places in our lives. This grace empowers us to return to the confessional with a clearer vision. It helps us to be open to the healing Christ brings through the Eucharist, and it gives us the strength to continue the daily hard work of being transformed into Christ’s image.

I really like this idea of replacing our “wounded places” with Christ’s love.  It goes hand-in-hand with many of the message from Mary at Medjugorje when she asks us to clean out all that prevents us from fully accepting God’s graces.

The article also discusses how our lives mimic the values and themes seen in each mystery of the rosary:

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Rosarium Virginis Mariae writes, “The rosary marks the rhythm of human life, bringing it into harmony with the rhythm of God’s own life.”

Pope John Paul II said that we can reflect on all the joys, sorrows, and challenges in our lives by looking at the ones shown in the mysteries of the rosary.  Over time, through rosary prayer, our ways begin to mimic Jesus’ ways revealed in those mysteries.  For example, we see Jesus taking up the cross in the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery.  We know that Jesus fell down repeatedly and yet He always got back up and continued on.  We can learn that we all have our “crosses” in life and at times we might fall (either by sin or just lacking faith and spiritual energy).  However, to imitate Jesus we must get up and continue working towards His kingdom.

The next time we pray the rosary, let us ask ourselves what each mystery reveals about our own lives.  Are we imitating what Jesus did in those mysteries or are we ignoring His teachings and example?

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