Dear Pope Francis:
I write this letter to you as a priest to the Bishop of Rome and as a son to a father. I write with a heavy heart, and I know that heaviness of heart is shared by many of my Catholic brethren both clergy and laity.
I watched the early news one morning last week to find that one of the headlines proclaimed that in an interview on the flight from Mexico to Rome you indicated that the Church’s teaching on contraception may be undergoing a change. As in the past, I went to the official translation of the interview to ascertain what you said. You never said that the teaching contained in Humane Vitae is no longer part of Church teaching. But you did speak about contraception not being an absolute evil and then went on to offer an example concerning Paul VI’s allowing nuns to use contraceptives because they were in danger of rape, which, even if that were the case, is a context quite different from marriage. You must be able to see how secular reporters could take your words and jump to the conclusion that your words were a signal that the Church’s teaching on the moral evil of contraception is undergoing a change toward a more permissive view.
Dear Pope Francis, you are not a good teacher in these situations. Teaching the truth about good and bad is a difficult task in a secular and self-centered world. It requires both clarity and nuance, neither of which was present in any of the conversations you had with the reporters. Often when I am perplexed or disheartened I turn to the writings of Blessed John Henry Newman. Please allow me to send you the two following passages from his writings that I believe would be of great benefit to you and to all who are commissioned to teach the Catholic faith in an authentic manner. The first quote is from Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, that amazing work in which Newman talks about conscience and its relationship to the teaching of the Church, specifically the teaching of the Petrine Office.
The sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted—so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect this is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous.
Dear Pope Francis, what Newman is telling you and me is that teaching right and wrong is very difficult and must be approached with great humility and careful use of reason. Emotion and off-the –cuff remarks have no place in the teaching of right and wrong, and certainly no place in random remarks with reporters who are much more savvy than you are on how to get headlines in the morning news.
The second quote from Newman is from Development of Christian Doctrine, which some consider his magnum opus. This section deals with the need for Revelation in matters of faith and moral and the teaching role of the Church.
The common sense of mankind…feels that the very idea of revelations implies a present informant and guide, and that an infallible one; not a mere abstract declaration of Truths unknown before to man, or a record of history, or the result of an antiquarian research, but a message and a lesson speaking to this man and that…We are told that God has spoken. Where? In a book? We have tried it and it disappoints; it disappoints us, that most holy and blessed gift, not from any fault of its own, but because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given. The Ethiopian’s reply, when St. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, is the voice of nature: “How can I, unless some man shall guide me?” The Church undertakes that office.
The teaching Office of the Church is as important as Scripture. We do not believe in sola scriptura. And you, Pope Francis, are the head of that Teaching Office. But you are not the Church. You are the Pope, the Supreme Teacher of the Church. But you are not the Church, nor can the Church be reduced to you alone. The latter error of reductionism is embraced not only by worldly reporters but also by faithful Catholics. This is the result of the transformation of the papacy in the past fifty years into a world super star, which transformation is a deformation in the development of the doctrine of the papacy. That you bear the burden of the Supreme Teacher of the Church in an unbelieving world is the reason why you are loved by the Catholic faithful and are the object of their prayers. But please remember that your burden is the burden of the Cross, and therefore you must always be seen as a sign of contradiction by the world, such that when the world sees you and hears you, they see through you to the Cross of Jesus Christ and the love and mercy of God that the Cross shows forth.
Please accept a piece of filial advice from a humble priest. Make a long, silent retreat this Lent and do what has to be done to listen to the God who is not heard in earthquake, storm or fire but in a tiny whispering sound.
Father Richard G. Cipolla