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Bolivian President Evo Morales (L) exchanges gifts with Pope Francis during a meeting at Quemado presidential palace in La Paz on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, arrived in Bolivia on the second leg of a three-nation tour of the continent’s poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds. AFP PHOTO/JUAN CARLOS USNAYO

“Three months ago, in a country, in a city, a mother wanted to baptize her newly born son, but she was married civilly to a divorced man. The priest said, ‘Yes, yes. Baptize the baby. But your husband is divorced, so he cannot be present at the ceremony.’ This is happening today. The Pharisees, or Doctors of the Law, are not people of the past, even today there are many of them. That is why we shepherds need prayers.”

Thus Pope Francis at Santa Marta last October.

As presented in the Gospels, the Pharisees were men who cared so much for the letter of the Law that the Spirit of it passed them by; one feels they were the spiritual predecessors of modern Health & Safety experts. Jesus was clear about the importance of not binding the people with extra burdens. Any priest who acted in the manner described by the Pope, should have recognised that his actions were not going to contribute to family stability, or even, perhaps, to the bringing of the cild to baptism. It is hard to know quite what the priest thought he was achieving.

In such circumstances, the ‘rigorism’ condemned by the Pope, seems to stand rightly condemned.

But then when, as last February, the Pope takes the line that rigorism includes priests who tell divorced people that they can remarry, he seems, to many of us, the ignore what the Lord Jesus says in Mark 10:1-12. To accuse any priest who upholds that teaching as a ‘Pharisee’ seems to take the word to that point of uselessness occupied by a word like ‘fascist;’ anyone of whom one disapproves, falls automatically into that category. It is a word for the polemicist, not the apologist.

No Catholic can cavalierly dismiss the insistence on dogma as pharisaism. The Laws of the Church derive from the teachings of Jesus. Yes, and of course, how easy it would have been to have been able to do as the original Pharisees could, and allow divorce on certain grounds; but Jesus was clear on this. We can, as many churches have, choose to caveat His words, and effectively allow divorce; but try as we might, we cannot pretend we are abiding by His words.

All of this is by way of prelude to Fr Thomas Weinandy’s thought-provoking article in In the National Catholic Register. A member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, Fr Weinandy spoke on the theme of the four marks of the Church: “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.” All of these were, he said, at risk, not least from the confusion created by the Holy See itself.

This is a theme we have considered here recently. There is certainly a place of robust discussion and deep questioning, and even for the sort of contrarianism which can make a seminar or lecture go with a swing, but it seems an unlikely role for the holder of the See of St Peter, not least in an age of instant communication. An septuagenarian who, by his own admission, does not read social media, may, perhaps, have an imperfect understanding of how his words are received by millions who do not spend their time in theological controversy. Fr Weinandy has a better understanding, and that gives him cause for concern.

In spite of all the controversy following Vatican II, there was never any doubt over where Blessed Paul VI, St John Paul II and Benedict XVI stood regarding the Church’s “doctrine, morals, and liturgical practice.” But, Fr Weinandy

“Such is not the case, in many significant ways, within the present pontificate of Pope Francis,” Father Weinandy continued. Praising the Pope for his personal holiness and his concern for the young and the marginalised, he goes on to observe:

that “at times” the Holy Father appears to identify himself “not as the promoter of unity but as the agent of division,” and that his desire to — in the Pope’s own words — “make a mess” in the belief that a greater unifying good will emerge, is a cause for great concern.

By doing nothing to calm the doctrinal division and moral discord within the Church caused by some of his own ambiguity, the Pope, Fr Weinandy suggests, may have transgressed has transgressed the foundational mark of the Church – “her oneness.”

It seems hard to counter Fr Weinandy’s thesis. Does that mark him out as a ‘rigorist’? Are there not, as suggested in the opening paragraphs, times when rigor is necessary? I would suggest that Fr Weinandy’s interesting lecture is read by all with a concern for these things. I would further suggest that attempts to write him off as a Pharisee miss the point. Dogma is dogma. doctrine is doctrine, and if one does not like them, then there are plenty of alternative ecclesial communities which will accommodate those of that point of view.