I have been Catholic for 8 years now. This is my third year as a member of the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter. Never have I been so dismayed as a Catholic by what I hear in the news about our hierarchy and their doings.
I recall fondly now speaking with the Protestant father of a friend over breakfast. He was reading a newspaper as we sat at his kitchen table on a sunny day in Abilene, Texas while I was visiting. I was relatively a new Catholic at the time.
“Looks like your Pope just said contraception is okay now.”
I do not remember what my answer was at the time, but what I remember quite clearly was the immediate and absolute certainty in my mind that Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Institution formerly known as The Roman Inquisition had not said that, and the media was pulling a typical telephone-game stunt, where they take something the Pope says out of context, then further distort it by asking “experts” what they think of what the Pope supposedly said.
Sure enough, on further investigation the Pope had said that the use of a condom by a paid fornicator could represent the awakening of a moral sense of social responsibility to limit the spread of sexually transmittable infections, although the act was intrinsically disordered, as every marital act that is not a free, total and exclusive act of charity is disordered. This nuanced thought, a small comment in the midst of a much larger interview, was ripped out of context, distorted and dressed up in post-modernist nonsense. And it was a relief to see that it had been so ill-misused. For my expectations for the modern press are low. And Benedict would not say something so at-odds with Catholic moral theology.
Alas, fast-forward to today. Frequently I find myself utterly at a loss for words at the seemingly out-of-touch (Am I the one out of touch because I read the Catechism, the Councils and the Church Fathers?) comments and inactions of Pope Francis. Hence, realizing I am likely not alone, I have decided to blog about it from my unique view as a former Episcopalian and now a member of one of the Ordinariates. As the title suggests though, I will try (after voicing my gut reaction) to interpret the comment in the most generous light possible, before concluding. I hope thereby to exercise justice towards the Holy Father, and to come to a more balanced view myself. Will this be an ongoing series? I hope not.
What Francis Said This Time:
“From the moment she was born until the Annunciation, to the moment she encountered the angel of God, I imagine her as a normal girl, a girl of today, I can’t say she a city-girl [sic], because she is from a small town, but normal, educated normally, open to marrying, to starting a family. One thing I imagine is that she loved the Scriptures: she knew the Scriptures, she had done catechesis in a family environment, from the heart. Then, after the conception of Jesus, she was still a normal woman: Mary is normal, she is a woman that any woman in this world can imitate. No strange things in life, a normal mother: even in her virginal marriage, chaste in that frame of virginity, Mary was normal. She worked, went shopping, helped her Son, helped her husband: normal”.
My Gut Reaction:
By saying Mary was “normal” His Holiness diminishes Mary and distorts her completely and utterly unprecedented role as immaculately conceived, free from Original Sin. This is a dogma. Just as Francis’ Amoris laetitia betrays a Protestant understanding of the layman’s conscience as being the supreme arbiter in things moral, so he betrays a Protestant understanding of the Mother of God as being a “normal girl”. There is nothing normal about Mary, as reading any single page out of the work of Louis de Montford will tell you. Her immaculate conception – not out of some kind of necessity that she had to be sinless in order to conceive a sinless Son, for this would imply an infinite regress. For then Mary’s mother St. Anne would also need to be sinless to conceive a sinless daughter – but out of love for His Son, to give Him the World’s Best Mother, quite literally.
Francis further shows his typical carelessness and either unbelief, malice or woeful ignorance by claiming Mary was “open … to starting a family”. This is indeed the Protestant view of Mary. But the Catholic mind sees in her question to the Angel Gabriel, “How can this be? For I do not know man,” the reality that Mary had charted a highly abnormal course for herself, even in her marriage to St. Joseph, prior to the Annunciation. What could be more normal than conceiving a child, if she and Joseph had intended ordinary marital relations? No. Mary was not “open to starting a family” in the way people usually mean this. She had determined a life of virginity for herself, and she knew God and St. Joseph would honour that.
A More Generous Interpretation:
Francis is attempting to pronounce a fundamental truth by insisting that Mary was “normal”; a double truth: Mary was not proud, on the one hand. And on the other hand, sainthood is the destiny, the idealized outcome, for every person. And in this sense, Mary’s state was normal, i.e. normative. (Could there be a mistranslation here leading to the words provoking my gut reaction above?)
Just as Jesus did not attract any unusual attention to himself while carrying out his vocation as a carpenter, Mary’s holiness did not make her stick out to anyone. She blended in with the people she lived with, despite her unprecedented sanctity of life.
By emphasizing this, Francis seeks to continue his crusade against elitists, by condemning clericalism (though not the sin of sodomy), and those who would try to achieve holiness akin to Mary’s holiness through ostentation. The Catholic Faith is not limited only to the learned. It is not a gnostic religion, but one that posits a God who is the loving Father of all people, and every human person can in fact be a saint. Sainthood should be the norm, and there’s no reason it can’t be for everyone.
In truth, I still lean toward my gut reaction. Given the Catholic/Protestant debate over the identity of Mary, and the Catholic dogmas we are committed to believe as Catholics, Pope Francis’ words seem extremely ill-chosen and either (a) designed to undermine Catholic doctrines of the Perpetual Virginity and Immaculate Conception of Mary for the purpose of some misguided syncretism with Protestantism, or (b) extremely poorly chosen and clumsy. But we must also allow for (c) a poor translation, since I do not speak sufficient Italiano to judge.
Are you worried about this? Have we been here in the Before Time? No, actually. As Episcopalians we felt cowed, unable to speak out on important dogmatic reproductive issues, against euthanasia, and for traditional marriage. The documents of our alleged Ecclesia viae mediae were too vague to allow such a stance, for they were designed to be acceptable to people who felt these practices were acceptable to the Doctrine of Christ elucidated by the Scriptures and two millennia of Christian History. We have not yet gotten to the point where these issues are directly under attack by our own Church, though the silence can at times be deafening, nor do I think we shall through any dogmatic statements from the Holy See.
The Church is indefectible in her doctrine by a divine grace of God. That is the reason the papacy continues as an institution at all. That is the only reason her doctrine is perfect. That which comes after cannot contradict that which came before, although in the nature of explanation it can make matters more explicit. Students of History can also reflect that Popes have attempted to alter dogma before (most notably Pope John XXII). Didn’t work. So, relax, do your duties well, don’t sin, and go to confession regularly. God will sort the rest out.
But ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. – Hebrews 12:21-4
Comments are welcome. Moderation is on. I shall not tolerate the calling of Francis a definite “anti-Pope” or by his pre-papal name unless referring to his pre-papal deeds in any comments appended this article.
Written by Dr. Foster Lerner of Incarnation Catholic Church in Orlando, Florida; a parish of The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter © 2018.
Foster graduated from the Honors College of Baylor University (Waco, TX) with a Bachelor of Science in Biology, and a Master of Arts in Biology from the same the following year. He was received into the Catholic Church in his Junior Year of undergraduate study. He recently finished his Doctorate in Osteopathic Medicine from Nova Southeastern University and is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in medicine. Due to his current work and residence location, he currently attends Holy Dormition Byzantine Catholic Church in Ormond Beach, Florida most Sundays and Incarnation Catholic Church in Orlando, Florida (Ordinariate) monthly or more frequently when possible. He is a canonical member of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.