Is Pope Francis Changing the Teaching of the Catholic Church? A Theologian’s Commentary on His Open Letter to Eugenio Scalfari

The media has made a big deal out of Pope Francis’s recent open letter. They have an uncanny ability to mess up all things theological, and I think this is no different. But then, “The Pope Teaches What the Church Has Always Taught” is not a very tantalizing headline.

If you want to read the entirety of his letter you can read an English translation here. Most of the articles that I read only quoted 15 words or so of his letter. Here is the section that has been criticized, with a bit fuller context for his statements:

“First of all, you ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith. Premise that – and it’s the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.”

Francis explains that the Christian faith teaches that the way is open for all persons to receive the unbounding grace of Jesus Christ, if only they “turn to him with a sincere and contrite heart.” This is the basic act of repentance that all Christians have taught as the door that opens the way of faith. He goes on to say that one who does not have faith is advised to “follow one’s conscience.” He claims that sin is the decision to choose evil against your conscience. While I’m no expert in Catholic moral theology, lets turn to the Catechism to get a sense for what he intends.

Paragraph 1776 and following describes the Catholic notion of conscience. “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God.” Essentially the argument is that God has inscribed God’s Word on the heart of every person. If one listens and obeys that Word, then they will do God’s will…and therefore have not sinned. Protestants struggle with this idea because they understand that original sin and its effects extend all the way down to a person’s core. The “noetic effect of sin” is a doctrine that insists that we cannot even reason rightly- about morality or anything else. So Protestants won’t like this teaching. But it is nevertheless consistent with Catholic teaching and the Bible that persons have been born with God’s Word made clearly known to them (see especially Romans 1:18-20).

The Pope did not say that following one’s conscience would grant a person forgiveness. Only turning to God with a contrite heart does that. But it will keep a person from committing further sin.

The Catechism also insists that the conscience requires a formation in Scripture and the light of revelation. “Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them (Par. 1786).” Francis did not say this on this occasion. I think he would have been wise to do so. But he need not repeat the entirety of the Catechism in a letter printed in a newspaper. Rather he simply gave direction to one that appeared to be a sincerely seeking person without faith in Jesus.

(On the other hand, it could be that this blogger is correct that Pope Francis is using the media intentionally to get them to promote Catholic teaching.)

In fact, aside from a reliance upon the life of the Church with which many modern evangelicals would be uncomfortable, the Pope actually sounds like an American evangelical. And I dare say that American evangelicals would do well to pay attention to their own dependence upon the life of the Church.

“For me, faith is born from the encounter with Jesus. A personal encounter, which has touched my heart and given direction and new meaning to my existence. But at the same time an encounter that was made possible by the community of faith in which I have lived and thanks to which I found access to the intelligence of Sacred Scripture, to new life that, as gushing water, flows from Jesus through the Sacraments, to fraternity with everyone and at the service of the poor, true image of the Lord. Believe me, without the Church I would not have been able to encounter Christ, also in the awareness that the immense gift that faith is is kept in the fragile earthen vessels of our humanity.”

And later he goes on: “The Christian faith believes this: that Jesus is the Son of God who came to give his life to open to all the way of love. Because of this you are right, egregious Doctor Scalfari, when you see in the Incarnation of the Son of God the foundation of the Christian faith.”

Whatever may be said about Pope Francis, I see no way to read him as other than a theological conservative. He is certainly progressive on liturgy and economics. These things will upset some Catholics, not the least of which will be some of the Vatican elite that elected him. But this Pope should be regarded as a friend of evangelical Christianity. Since he is pastor to 1.2 billion people, we should thank God for his ministry.

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  1. John Meunier says

    Thanks for this post, Jeremiah. I will note that John Wesley writes very similar things about conscience, which might be why the Calvinists accused him of being a secret Catholic. Wesley argued that what we call “natural conscience” is actually God’s prevenient grace at work in us, and that if we listen and respond to that grace, it will grow stronger.

    • says

      Thanks John. I often tell my Methodist friends that Wesley is just “Aquinas for Dummies.” They don’t love the last word, of course. But the informed know that there is some truth to it. (The exception might be that I’m not sure that Aquinas would have liked the use of the word “perfection.”)

  2. says

    Thank you for this. I’ve been scrambling around the past couple of days flapping my arms in the air, trying to convince various Protestants that they were getting it wrong and that Pope Francis wasn’t teaching what the media were taking away from it — but this is the best summary and defense I’ve seen by anybody. You put it into clear Protestant terms and mark where the differences and misunderstandings — and agreements — are.

    • says

      Thanks for your kind words Joseph. While I will never (I always say “never” with trepidation) become a Catholic, I understand that part of my ministry is that of interpreting Roman Catholicism for Protestants. The way I see it, an ecumenical theologian must regard that as a high calling.

  3. Dave says

    Thanks. I came across this from the Catholic Herald. There are also some problems with the English translation. To take one example:
    This is the official translation:
    To start, I would not speak about, not even for those who believe, an “absolute” truth, in the sense that absolute is something detached, something lacking any relationship. Now, the truth is a relationship!

    This is what the Pope wrote in Italian:
    Per cominciare, io non parlerei, nemmeno per chi crede, di verità “assoluta”, nel senso che assoluto è ciò che è slegato, ciò che è privo di ogni relazione. Ora, la verità, secondo la fede cristiana, è l’amore di Dio per noi in Gesù Cristo. Dunque, la verità è una relazione!

    This missing sentence (my translation) reads “Now, the truth, according to Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.” It is probably just a mistake, but it is big ommission.

    • says

      That is a very interesting omission. Not a sentence you would want to leave out! The translation that I linked to was not the Vatican’s translation. In fact it doesn’t even say who translated it and I was a little cautious about that but when I wrote it was all I could find. In any case, this unofficial translation has the sentence you mention.

      I’ve noticed the Catholic discussion of the letter has focused on this question of truth. The Protestants and the media have been concerned with the statements on conscience. I’m actually not concerned with what he said about truth either. Thankfully he said much more there. It may be confusing for non-philosopher/theologians, but I don’t think a specialist would consider what he said to be a denial of ontological correspondence and truth.

      • Dave says

        Thank you for responding. I think you clarifications about conscience are excellent btw. I had not seen Zenit translation, which you link to, before–though it is a good translation. The omission was from the translation La Repubblica provided, but that is one that some of the media have been quoting from. Pope Francis does not denying ontological correspondence and truth, but one thing he is doing is having a bit of fun with the etymological meaning of ‘absolute’–as the word used to have the sense of something ‘loosed’, ‘detached’ or ‘disengaged’, which is the sense of ‘absolute’ that the Pope pushes away from, refocusing on Christ as Truth (as in “I am the way, the truth, and the life”).

        • says

          That’s is interesting. I hadn’t thought of the etymology.

          I always think of questions of “absolute” truth being oriented toward American evangelical notions of truth. I’ve never heard a Catholic even talk that way. Have you heard that language among Catholics?

          I just assumed that most Catholics would speak like the catholic theologians that I read who all recognize a subjective and objective element of truth.


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