The People Speak Out

Local voices connecting globally

This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.  (Pope Francis)

Canon Law 212 calls upon the laity to speak up:

2 - The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.

§3. - According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.


Many in the reform movement want to move quickly to condemn the recent challenge to Pope Francis' authority.

However, in responding we would be wise to learn from the recent US election, and from Brexit and similar expressions of discontent around the globe in recent years.

A subtitle of a recent (2012) book by Jonathan Haidt captures our challenge: “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

People on both sides of these divisions are unable to understand the other side in terms that make sense.  The result is disrespect of what is important to the other side.

One observer of the recent US election put it this way: “The Republicans’ great success in rural communities has been that even though they often champion economic policies that would not help these people – indeed, policies that often hurt them – they demonstrate respect, by identifying with them culturally, religiously and emotionally.”

The four Cardinals and the thousand bishops behind them are not alone.  They speak for tens of thousands of “good Catholics” who feel disrespected by the changes in Church teaching apparently being considered or promoted by the aggiornamento of John XXIII, Vatican II, and now Francis.

Justice requires change.  In that sense what we are trying to do is on the right side of history.  Church teachings and practice which discriminate against women, against those who are divorced and remarried, against LGBT people, are unjust.  The Spirit within confirms that these teachings and practices are unjust, and this emboldens us and gives us hope.

Yet change comes with a price.  It is not free.  Ironically, change which increases justice in our eyes at the same time decreases our moral capital in the eyes of those who see change as an unraveling of what they know and rely upon.

Jonathan Haidt says this about moral capital:  “moral capital refers to the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.”

He continues:

“If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism— which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity— is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.”

There is reason to believe that Francis has a deep and profound understanding of this dynamic.  A few days ago he did an interview with Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian hierarchy.  The following is from the NCR account:

The church and its members are asked to be docile to the Holy Spirit, he said, and to let the Spirit do the work because the Spirit knows when “the time is ripe” for things.

“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."

Divisions are born when the church looks too much too itself and not to the real light of Christ, which the church reflects like the moon does sunlight.  “Looking at Christ frees us from this habit and also from the temptation of triumphalism and rigidity,” the pope said. The guide for knowing the right path to take is always understanding the importance of following the Holy Spirit, he said.

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 he is following the model of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s that 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 not given in bad faith, 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 in bad faith to foment divisions."

Change is hard when many people rely upon the law for “moral capital”.  It was the same problem Jesus faced.  Jesus preached going beyond the law to the reign of God, to reliance upon the Spirit.  Francis is saying the same thing, and the four Cardinals are trying to force him into the box of the law.

The metaphor Francis uses is quite charming: the light of Christ (the sun) frees us from the habit of being bound by the Church’s reflections of that light (the moon), which are its teachings and practice.  Francis is very clear about the role of the Spirit – the role that each conscience has by becoming more responsive to the Spirit – yet the four Cardinals, are rejecting the Spirit so that their investment in the law, as “moral capital”, will be preserved.

What can we do to support Francis?  It would be good if we could address the challenge of “moral capital”, which in its current state is overly reliant upon doctrine/law -- the “reflected light of Christ, rather than the light of Christ.”

Otherwise, we will just have to wait for something else to give the Spirit the sense that “the time is ripe”.

This is the point of the proposed “call for papers to address change.”  If change itself does not have a firmer foundation in the “moral capital” of the Church, conservative positions – such as those advanced by the four Cardinals – will continue to seem more respectful of the “cultural, religious and emotional roots” of large numbers of good Catholics.

It will be a challenge to be respectful of the four Cardinals, the thousand bishops, and the many good Catholics whose “cultural, religious and emotional roots” are discomfited by change.

But this is something that we can do, and Francis is paving the way.{jcomments on}