Richard R. Gaillardetz

The 2016 Louis G. Vance Lecture

Oblate School of Theology


Each pope brings something of himself into the papal office, but few do so in a way that fundamentally reconfigures our understanding of the papacy itself. Karol Wojtyla brought his charisma, a flair for the dramatic, and a sweeping global vision into his papacy.  Joseph Ratzinger brought his theological acumen, baroque aesthetic sensibility, and personal shyness into his pontificate.  And Jorge Bergoglio has brought his personal humility, Ignatian spirituality, and refreshing informality into his papacy.  Is what we are witnessing with our current pope simply a refreshingly different style of leadership, but one easily left behind with the next conclave?  In other words, is the Francis pontificate simply a curiosity, an historical anomaly, or is the pope subtly reconfiguring the papacy in a way that might have a lasting impact on the exercise of the papal office itself.  Such a possibility was first proposed by Pope St. John Paul II just over two decades ago when, in his encyclical, Ut unum sint, he dared to ask whether we might imagine a new way of exercising the papacy, a way that remained faithful to the tradition yet was “open to a new situation” (UT 95).  I will argue that this is precisely what Pope Francis is doing.  He is not just bringing to the church a refreshing new papal “style”; he is refashioning what we have traditionally referred to as the papal magisterium.

An overwhelming majority of Catholics have welcomed his embrace of a simpler, less ostentatious papacy. Many have celebrated his move out of the papal apartment, his avoidance of baroque vestments, his “cold calling” ordinary Catholics, his pastoral provisions for the homeless at the Vatican, and his reassuring message of mercy.  Yet there remains a nagging concern for some, including, it would appear, a number of influential bishops, that this pope is introducing dangerous innovations that could threaten the patrimony of the Catholic faith. This past summer, forty-five scholars and clerics, including several bishops, signed an appeal to the pope.  They warned of nineteen different passages in the pope’s recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, that seemed to conflict with Catholic teaching.[1] More recently, four cardinals have publicly challenged Pope Francis to defend his orthodoxy on four points of doctrine that they believe were compromised by Amoris Laetitia.[2]

So what is going on here? My sense is that there are two “issues under the issues”[3] which must be addressed.  The first concerns how we understand the role of doctrine in the church, including our understanding of the gradation in levels of doctrinal authority and the development of doctrine.[4]  The second concerns how we imagine the actual exercise of teaching authority in the church, what we generally refer to as the magisterium.  In this essay, I will argue that Pope Francis is modeling a fresh understanding of the role of doctrine in the church while enacting a different kind of papal magisterium. Drawing inspiration from Pope St. John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, the Francis papacy is taking us down the proverbial “road not taken” in the post-conciliar church.  To appreciate this, we must first consider the emergence of the “modern” papal magisterium.



It is largely in the nineteenth century that we see the papacy becoming a dominant force in the articulation of church doctrine. It is during this period that papal encyclicals emerged as a significant medium for papal teaching in the papacies of Gregory XVI (1831–46) and Pius IX (1846–78), both of whom used encyclicals to condemn certain erroneous doctrinal positions.  Yet, as Klaus Schatz has noted, they did so with relative brevity and little intent to stimulate new theological insight.  Up to that point, as Schatz puts it, papal encyclicals functioned more as doctrinal “stop signs than directional arrows.”[5]

This began to change at the end of the nineteenth century as Pope Leo XIII (1878–1903) further expanded this papal teaching authority by promulgating much lengthier encyclicals that dealt with doctrinal and theological issues at much greater length than his predecessors. This expansion of the doctrinal teaching role of the pope would only continue, culminating in the papacy of Pius XII.

Archival research[6] has revealed an interesting fact that sheds light on the extent to which the modern papal paradigm achieved its apotheosis with Pius XII. We now know that, during the 1940s, plans were quietly being made for an ecumenical council.  Such a council, among a wide range of potential topics, would have focused on three agenda items:  1) a suppression of neo-modernism, 2) a reaffirmation of the papal magisterium, and 3) a solemn definition of the assumption of Mary. In 1950, Pius XII, on his own authority, solemnly defined the Assumption of Mary in Munificentissimus Deus, and in his encyclical, Humani Generis, he both condemned neo-modernism and reasserted papal teaching authority.  Pope Pius taught that once a pope has pronounced on a matter, not infallibly but in his ordinary teaching, that topic was no longer subject to free debate (HG 20). Why were plans for a council dropped during Pius XII’s pontificate?  We can’t know for sure, but perhaps it is because it made no sense to convene an ecumenical council when a pope could accomplish the same thing on his own authority and far more efficiently.

Over the course of two centuries, the papacy and its attendant curia would be transformed from its more traditional role as doctrinal court of final appeal to its modern role as supreme teacher and doctrinal watchdog of the church. This was the understanding of the papal magisterium on the eve of Vatican II.



In Pope St. John XXIII’s influential opening address at the council, Gaudet mater ecclesia, he offered an unambiguous affirmation of the church’s fidelity to its doctrinal heritage. However, he also insisted that this doctrinal fidelity means more than the rote repetition of doctrinal formulas.

…the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.[7]

This provocative passage marked a departure from the neoscholastic manual tradition. That tradition had dominated Catholic theology and catechesis in the decades prior to the council. It viewed divine revelation in static categories, as a collection of free-floating doctrinal propositions. The manual tradition offered what Juan Segundo has called a “digital” view of doctrine, one purged of its mystagogical and transformative character and rendered strictly regulative and informational.[8]   According to Pope John, by contrast, doctrine is rooted in particular historical contexts and has to be studied “through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought.” The authentic meaning of a doctrine can be apprehended only after a careful consideration of both the context in which the doctrinal teaching first emerged, and the pastoral context in which it is being appropriated. Most definitive doctrinal pronouncements emerged in the church not as theoretical proposals but as determinate responses to particular challenges to the received apostolic faith. Pope John believed the church must always be open to the possibility that a doctrine may need to be reformulated in ways that better express its deep meaning and which are more conducive to its proper communication in the modern age.

In his remarkable opening address at the council, Pope John then offered a critical assessment of the way in which church teaching authority had been exercised in the past. An emphasis on the vigorous condemnation of error must be replaced, he insisted, by the “medicine of mercy” and by persuasively demonstrating the truth of church teaching. This requires a teaching magisterium, he insisted, that is fundamentally pastoral in character. The church must not be content with offering a mere repetition of doctrinal formulations; what is demanded, he said, was a penetration of church doctrine in view of the pressing questions of our age.

The council followed the pope’s lead and consistently avoided treating the qualifiers “doctrinal” and “pastoral” as if they referred to different aspects of the church. The council presented church doctrine as something to be authentically interpreted and faithfully applied within concrete historical, cultural, and pastoral contexts. John O’Brien observes that with the work of the council

[the] pastoral had regained its proper standing as something far more than the mere application of doctrine but as the very context from which doctrines emerge, the very condition of the possibility of doctrine, the touchstone for the validity of doctrine and the always prior and posterior praxis which doctrine at most, attempts to sum up, safeguard, and transmit.[9]

Pope Paul VI understood well the full import of what Pope John was calling the church to.  In his address at the opening of the second session of the council, the first in which he would preside, Pope Paul VI invoked the vision of the late Pope John:

You have awakened in the conscience of the teaching authority of the church the conviction that Christian doctrine is not merely truth to be investigated by reason illumined by faith, but teaching that can generate life and action; and that the authority of the church is not limited to condemning contrary errors, but extends to the communication of positive and vital doctrine, the source of its fecundity.[10]

The council bishops did not renounce the need for church doctrine but rather placed church teaching in the context of a much richer theology of revelation as God’s self-communication, an invitation to divine friendship (DV 2). Although the fullness of divine revelation was communicated in the person of Jesus, the church does not possess a comprehensive and exhaustive grasp of that revelation. Rather, the council taught that the church lives in history moving “toward the fullness of divine truth” (DV 8). The church does not so much possess revelation as it is possessed by it; we might wish to say that the church is called to live into divine truth.

Catherine Cornille observes that, prior to the council, when humility was related to doctrine, “it has more often been regarded as an attitude to be adopted toward rather than about the truth of Christian doctrines.”[11] Individual Christians were reminded of the limits of human reason and exhorted to a humble posture of docile obedience in the face of the authority of doctrine. Vatican II, however, invited us into a new form of “doctrinal humility.” This doctrinal humility is evident in the council’s insistence that revelation not be treated as a divine answer book providing definitive solutions to all the questions of our time.  In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Today, Gaudium et spes, the bishops wrote:

The Church guards the heritage of God’s word and draws from it moral and religious principles without always having at hand the solution to particular problems. As such she desires to add the light of revealed truth to mankind’s store of experience, so that the path which humanity has taken in recent times will not be a dark one. (GS 33).

This more measured appraisal of the place of church doctrine is also evident in the council’s teaching on the “hierarchy of truths”:

When comparing doctrines with one another, they should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith. (UR 11).[12]

In this brief passage, the council introduced a crucial distinction between the content of divine revelation, understood as God’s self-communication in Christ by the power of the Spirit, and those church doctrines that, in varying degrees, mediate that content. Doctrinal humility, in this context, means recognizing that although church doctrine may mediate divine revelation, it never exhausts it.

Finally, according to Christoph Theobald, the council affirmed the intrinsically pastoral orientation of doctrine by attending to the recipients of the church’s teaching.[13] The Gospel is proclaimed to ordinary people within particular historical, cultural and social contexts: “For, from the beginning of her [the church’s] history she has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of various philosophers, and has tried to clarify it with their wisdom, too.…” (GS 44). This theme would reappear in the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity (Ad gentes), where the council imagines the Word of God as a “seed” that is always planted in the distinctive soil of a local culture (AG 22).  Doctrine can never be fully grasped apart from that cultural context.

We might say, by way of summary, that Pope John XXIII and Vatican II initiated a fundamental shift in how one conceives doctrinal/magisterial authority.  That shift was largely ignored in the post-conciliar papacies of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.  It is being taken up and developed with unprecedented vigor by Pope Francis.



Pope Paul VI responded in several constructive ways to Pope John’s call for a pastoral magisterium. In his first encyclical, Ecclesiam suam, Paul VI described a church constituted by dialogue among its members, with non-Catholic Christians, and with humankind at large.

It was Pope Paul VI who established the International Theological Commission and created the world synod of bishops. In one of his most under-appreciated documents, Octogesima adveniens, he proposed a dramatic decentralization of church teaching authority, suggesting that many important issues facing the church were better addressed at the regional level. [14]

Unfortunately, Paul VI is remembered not for these and other notable contributions but rather for the 1968 encyclical, Humanae vitae, in which he reaffirmed the church’s condemnation of artificial birth regulation.  His position in this encyclical has often been unfairly portrayed, but the fact remains that he chose not to accept the recommendation of the Pontifical Commission he reconstituted.  This decision gave at least the appearance of undermining the very dialogical and decentralized approach to papal teaching authority that he had initially encouraged.

The extended papacy of Pope St. John Paul II only continued a substantial yet often conflicted reception of the council’s vision of church authority. As himself a participant of the council, John Paul II did much to creatively receive and implement a wide range of conciliar teachings on topics as diverse as the theology of the laity, the church’s relationship with Judaism and other world religions, the relationship between religion and science, etc.  He also made a modest contribution toward a more pastoral magisterium with his eager embrace of the efficacy of the symbolic gesture. For many of us, our remembrance of his pontificate comes by way of a series of compelling media images: his kissing the ground upon the first visit to a country, his sitting in a prison cell in prayer with his would-be assassin, or more controversially, his wagging his finger at a kneeling Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, chastising him for his alliance with the Sandinista movement.  This pope understood well that within a media-saturated culture, such gestures and images offered a powerful means for communicating key Christian values.

This brings us to what may be the central contradiction of John Paul II’s papacy.  Although this Polish pope was the first to master the use of the symbolic gesture, those gestures were still accompanied by a sweeping and vigorous program of doctrinal policing within the church. He substantially rejected the decentralization of church authority and placed significant constraints on the doctrinal authority of episcopal conferences. His curia controlled the agenda and conduct of the world synod of bishops, disciplined dissenting theologians, and issued a deluge of ecclesiastical decrees.

John Paul II was succeeded by one of his most influential lieutenants, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He, too, participated at the council, as peritus rather than as bishop, and, as Pope Benedict XVI, he, too, contributed to the ongoing reception of the council, particularly regarding the council’s impulse toward ressourcement, a creative reappropriation of neglected theological streams and trajectories.  However, his main contribution toward a more pastoral magisterium came by way of his catechetically rich encyclicals, documents marked by deep theological insight into the mystery of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, he exhibited little of his predecessor’s grasp of the symbolic.  This was most evident in his fateful rescinding of the excommunication of a Lefevbrite bishop who had denied the holocaust. Indeed, Pope Benedict’s most significant symbolic gesture might have been his resignation from papal office, an act that did much to demystify the papacy.[15]



One of the characteristic features of the pontificate of Pope Francis is the thoroughly re-conceived exercise of papal teaching authority as a truly pastoral magisterium.  This new form of papal teaching authority possesses seven basic characteristics.


A Pastoral Magisterium Serves a Synodal Church

In the Fall of 2015, while the synod on the family was still in progress, Pope Francis gave what I believe was one of the most important speeches of his pontificate.  The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the synod of bishops.[16]  In that speech, he spoke not so much of the world synod of bishops as an ecclesiastical institution, even though that synod was currently in assembly, but of the broader ecclesial principle of synodality.  He noted that the word “synod” comes from the Greek, synodos, which could be literally rendered, “traveling on a journey together.”  In that speech he asserted, “it is precisely on this way of synodality where we find the pathway that God expects from the Church of the third millennium.”  This principle, he admitted, “is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.”  A church committed to “walking together,” he insisted, must resist the Neo-Scholastic separation of the people of God into two separate “churches”:  the ecclesia docens or teaching church, and the ecclesia discens or learning church. A synodal church must be, whole and entire, a listening church governed by the practice of mutual listening.[17] He then masterfully linked this listening church to the council’s teaching that all the faithful were given a supernatural instinct, a sensus fidei, for discerning God’s Word, penetrating its meaning and applying that Word more fully in their lives.

The pope insisted that, if we are to be a listening church, the commitment to synodality must be enacted at every level of church life.  It must be reflected in local parish and diocesan councils, in diocesan synods and provincial gatherings.  In what could be termed the Magna Carta of his pontificate, Evangelii gaudium, he had already challenged bishops to broaden their practice of consultation: “The bishop . . . will have to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law, and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear” (EG 31). What is particularly welcome in this text is the recognition that consultation is more than gathering together safe voices that function as little more than an ecclesiastical echo chamber. I suspect that most bishops and pastors—for that matter, most provincials, theology department chairs, deans and university presidents—think that they are consultative just because they seek out the opinions of others. The pope rightly insists that authentic ecclesial consultation within a synodal church, a consultation that aspires to be more than a pragmatic public relations maneuver, a consultation that wishes to be a genuine listening to the Spirit, must attend to a wide range of voices, including those in ecclesial exile.

In the five decades since Vatican II, there has been an ongoing skirmish between two ecclesiastical camps:  those who see episcopal collegiality as serving papal primacy and those who see papal primacy as serving episcopal collegiality.  Francis proposes that both primacy and collegiality must serve a third, more basic ecclesial reality, the deep synodality of the pilgrim people of God.


A Pastoral Magisterium Teaches More by Symbolic Gesture than Juridical Act

A second feature of a pastoral magisterium is exhibited in Pope Francis’ embrace of the power of the symbolic gesture.  This represents one of the most interesting links between Francis’ pontificate and that of John Paul II. Pope Francis has shown himself to be equal to his predecessor in the employment of the symbolic gesture. One could argue that, more than in his two encyclicals and two apostolic exhortations, Francis has evangelized most effectively by way of a series of startling symbolic gestures:  his request that the people of Rome bless him when he appeared on St. Peter’s loggia immediately after his election, his eschewal of ostentatious baroque vestments, his dramatic transformation of the Holy Thursday washing of feet ritual (visiting a juvenile detention facility and washing the feet of women and even Muslims), his establishment of Vatican showers for the homeless and his decision to have refugees accompany him on a return trip to Rome.  The principal difference in this regard between Francis and his Polish predecessor is that Francis has largely avoided the latter’s continuation of a more punitive exercise of authority within the church.


A Pastoral Magisterium is Committed to Ecclesial Decentralization

One of the key terms in Francis’ pontificate is “decentralization.” In Evangelii gaudium the pope wrote:

Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization” (EG 16).

This commitment to the decentralization of church authority has led the pope, for example, to give an unprecedented emphasis on the teaching role of regional episcopal conferences.  In Evangelii gaudium he writes:

The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit.” Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach (EG 32).

When he refers to the insufficient elaboration of an understanding of the doctrinal authority of episcopal conferences, Pope Francis footnotes John Paul II’s Apostolos suos. This appears to be an indirect judgment of the theological inadequacies of that document.  The high esteem with which he holds the teaching ministry of regional episcopal conferences is reflected in his frequent citation of them in his papal documents.  In Amoris Laetitia, he cites documents from various regional episcopal conferences ten times, and in his encyclical, Laudato si’, on care of our common home, he cites regional episcopal conferences twenty times.

A couple of years ago, a Brazilian bishop disclosed a conversation with Pope Francis in which he claimed that Francis was sympathetic to the pastoral urgency of the current priest shortage but felt that a proposal for married priests should not come from the pope but from regional episcopal conferences.[18]

This commitment to decentralization is also reflected in his efforts to reform the Roman curia. Indeed, perhaps more significant than his initial efforts at reform has been his determination simply to circumvent the curia altogether.  This is evident in his decision to create a commission to explore the ordination of women to the diaconate and his convocation of two assemblies of the synod of bishops to consider issues related to marriage and family.  Previous popes would have remanded these issues to a particular Vatican dicastery. Vatican journalist Robert Mickens has pointed out how, relative to the two previous pontificates, the flow of ecclesiastical texts emanating from the Vatican has been reduced to a trickle.[19]


A Pastoral Magisterium Exhibits an Appropriate Doctrinal Humility

A fourth key feature of Francis’ pastoral magisterium is his recovery of the council’s sense of doctrinal humility. For Pope Francis, just as for the bishops of Vatican II, doctrine plays a necessary role in the life of the church.  However, church teaching should not be used as an excuse for suppressing disagreement and doubt.  Few if any modern popes have spoken so honestly about the positive place of doubt and the dangers of false certitude.  In one of his many interviews he remarked:

If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt.[20]

In an open letter to a noted atheist and founder of the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, the pope admitted to a certain reluctance to speak of “absolute truth,” not because he was a “relativist” but because, for Christians, truth is mediated through a relationship with a person, Jesus Christ. As such, truth is always encountered in history.[21] This explicit acknowledgement of the historical conditioning of all church teaching has still unacknowledged implications for the life of the church.  It suggests that even authoritative doctrinal pronouncements must not be perceived as a dogmatic endpoint, forestalling any and all further debate. As the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once reminded us:

it becomes clear that statements of the magisterium (not only authentic statements but also definitions of dogma) do not simply represent an endpoint, a conclusion which needs only to be repeated and defended, but are continually involved in an unfinished and never to be completed process which itself is not actually inaugurated and cannot be completely controlled by the magisterium and the results of which in the future cannot clearly be foreseen.[22]

Pope Francis’ commitment to this doctrinal humility is in further evidence in his insistence that formal church doctrines be comprehended in relation to this more basic Christian message. Francis has gone into the dank papal closet where some of the most challenging council teachings have been carefully stored away, and brought out into the light of day the council’s provocative teaching on the “hierarchy of truths.”

All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, “in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith”. This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching (EG 36).

For Pope Francis, this teaching is about much more than ranking doctrines; the council wished to relate doctrine to something more basic, the core Gospel message. He writes:

Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary. The message is simplified, while losing none of its depth and truth, and thus becomes all the more forceful and convincing (EG 35).

The work of the magisterium must shift away from the “policing” function to which it has become habituated in the modern period and toward “the defense and vivid and up-to-date expression of the basic substance of the Christian faith.”[23]


A Pastoral Magisterium is Self-Critical

Fifth, Francis clearly believes that an authentic, pastoral magisterium must exhibit a healthy dose of self-criticism on the part of church leadership. In December 2014, he addressed the Roman curia and offered a remarkable example of self-criticism.[24] He spoke frankly of his concern that some members of the curia had succumbed to a series of spiritual maladies.   He began with the suggestion that curial officials too often act as if they were “lords of the manner,” forgetting the spirit of humility and generosity that ought to characterize their ministry. This was followed by a veritable “laundry list” of ecclesiastical “malaise.”  These included: 1) the ecclesial malady of “poor communication” in which people become comfortable working within their own self-contained siloes, losing track of the contributions of people in other areas, departments or churches; 2) the disease of “rivalry” that leads to a preoccupation with honors, titles and ecclesiastical status; 3) the disease of “gossip”; 4) the disease of “indifference,” a failure to attend to the needs and concerns of others or to encourage others, often out of jealousy; 5) the illness of “closed circles” that occurs when church members allow a tight group identification to prevent one from reaching out beyond their inner circle to other members of the church.

He has frequently denounced a form of “neo-clericalism” that he sees as rampant in the church.  In a letter to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, in his capacity as head of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the pope wrote:

Clericalism, far from giving impulse to diverse contributions and proposals, turns off, little by little, the prophetic fire from which the entire Church is called to give testimony in the heart of its peoples . . . It is not the pastor who must say to the layperson that which they must do and say; he or she knows more and better than us . . . It is illogical, and even impossible, to think that we as pastors should have the monopoly on solutions for the many challenges that modern life presents to us . . . Laypeople are a part of the Holy Faithful People of God and therefore are protagonists of the Church and the world; we are called to serve them, not them to serve us.[25]

In his recent apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, Amoris laeticia, rather than scolding those who have “failed” to live up to the demands of current church teaching, Francis recognized that it is often our church leaders who have failed the people. He criticizes clergy who are too enamored with rules and a spirit of judgment and bemoans a stress on “doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues” that fails to provide practical support for people facing concrete struggles of one kind or another (AL 36).


A Pastoral Magisterium Serves the Practice of Discernment and the Formation of Conscience

Pope Francis does not wish to treat adult Catholics as if they were children.  We are adult disciples of Jesus called to exercise our own discernment in living out that discipleship.  As disciples, the concrete conflicts we encounter are often “messy,” an adjective that Pope Francis uses frequently. Our concrete choices are often circumscribed by factors beyond our control.  In such circumstances, we cannot rely on the rigorous application of juridical norms but must engage in the practice of moral discernment.

We see an example of his attitude in his visit to an Evangelical Lutheran church in Rome in November of 2015. During a question and answer session, a Lutheran congregant shared with him the pain she experienced at not being able to receive communion with her Catholic spouse. In his response, Francis stressed the importance of Lutherans and Catholics sharing a common baptism.  He was careful not to challenge the formal Catholic doctrine and policy regarding intercommunion, but instead appealed to the practice of discernment:

There are questions that only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has, must be responded to on one’s own. . . . There are explanations, interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. . . I would never dare to give permission to do this, because it’s not my own competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward.[26]

The pope models here an authority rooted in a ministry of accompaniment. He explores further the demand for individual practice of moral discernment and the formation of conscience in the final chapter of Amoris laeticia.  Already in chapter two of that document Pope Francis lamented that church leaders, including himself,

find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.  We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them (AL 37).

This represents a bracing challenge to liberals and conservatives alike who are often tempted by a kind of paternalism that assumes that we understand a moral situation better than the persons to whom we are ministering.  Chapter 8 of Amoris laeticia ought to be distributed to every cleric and lay pastoral minister in the church. This chapter offers the most comprehensive, astute and balanced guide to the exercise of moral discernment that one will find in an official church document. When considering those whose relational commitments fall outside church norms, Francis offers a preferential option for mercy and inclusion. Pastors must discern “which of the various forms of exclusion currently practiced in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted.” This is not a repudiation of church doctrine; it is what doctrine looks like when it is actually put to the service of the life of ordinary believers.


A Pastoral Magisterium Does Not Offer Premature Doctrinal Pronouncements on Controverted Issues

Finally, Pope Francis is reluctant to offer premature doctrinal pronouncements on controverted issues. At both the extraordinary and ordinary assemblies of the synod on the family, Pope Francis was insistent that there should be no preemptive effort to remove controversial topics from consideration.  He encouraged the synod participants not to be afraid of disagreement. Later, reflecting on the fruit of the synodal assemblies in Amoris Laetitia, the pope remarked, “The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions” (AL 2). It followed then that, as the pope put it, “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” (AL 3).  Relative to his predecessors, it is striking how seldom Francis appeals to the language of “heresy” or “dissent.” Rather he seems to be more comfortable speaking of “disagreement” in the church and, with some important exceptions, welcomes that disagreement as an occasion for honest dialogue.

I recall a conservative Catholic journalist writing me after one of Francis’ famous in-flight interviews, asking what “theological note” should be attached to these “off-the-cuff” statements.  I admitted that, if we understand magisterial teaching in a juridical key, as the Neo-Scholastic manualists trained us to do, such statements carry little if any authority.  But what if we see in Francis’ many interviews a subtle re-imagination of papal teaching authority? What if these interviews are not an alternative to magisterial pronouncements but instead represent a new form of the magisterium, one that is explicitly dialogical, improvisational and provisional?  Such an approach creates an expanded ecclesial space for Catholics to engage the pope’s positions in a more open and dynamic fashion.

I have argued in this essay that what we are witnessing in the Francis pontificate is not merely the consequence of a pope bringing his distinctive style and personality to bear on the papal office.  His pontificate marks a new stage in the development of the Petrine ministry, a stage first announced by Pope John and then only haltingly enacted in the post-conciliar papacy prior to Francis.  I have suggested seven features of that characterize this new pastoral magisterium.  Perhaps I should conclude by saying a little more about what a pastoral magisterium is not.



By way of conclusion I would like to return to the questions with which we began this essay. I fear that many Catholics, on the left and the right, by thinking of the magisterium in a largely juridical key, focus too much on the matter of formally pronouncing on matters of doctrine. We have already heard from conservatives who fear this pope is bent on changing church doctrine. The question is not whether Francis agrees with doctrine ‘X’ or wishes to change doctrine ‘Y’.  Rather what we should be asking is, how does Francis situate doctrine in the life of the church and how does he enact a dynamic and pastoral teaching authority in keeping with this understanding? Many liberals and conservatives are unwittingly embracing the very notion of a doctrinal magisterium that Francis is trying to put behind us.

Conservatives who fear doctrinal change suffer from a too narrow and ahistorical conception of doctrine, one that assumes that doctrines, once articulated, are immune from development and change.  They fret that by extending the possibility of communion to those Catholics in “irregular” second marriages, Francis is changing church doctrine on marriage.  Yet they fail to understand that our teaching on marriage has a history of ongoing development across the centuries. For example, it was not until well into the second millennium that we came to an agreement on what constituted a sacramental and indissoluble marriage.

Liberals, by contrast, are generally in favor of and even impatient for doctrinal change regarding a number of controverted issues.  Yet their disappointment in Pope Francis on this score reflects the mistaken view that doctrinal change and development occur primarily by ecclesiastical fiat. In fact, history shows us that this is seldom how things work.  Neither side seems to fully grasp the character of a pastoral magisterium.

The history of doctrine shows us that doctrine does indeed change and develop, but rarely do popes instigate that change. Rather, church teaching generally evolves when pastoral contexts shift over time and new insights emerge such that previous doctrinal formulations simply no longer mediate the saving message of God’s transforming love. Consider the church’s condemnation of usury, the prohibition of garnering financial gain by charging interest to those to whom you have lent money.  This is a teaching rooted in the Old Testament (Lev. 25:36) and was taught for centuries in the church. Yet Catholicism no longer prohibits the charging of reasonable interest for the lending of money.  How did this teaching change?  It was not reversed by a single papal decree. Rather, there was a gradual and halting pastoral discernment that the teaching, at least in its classical formulation, no longer served the central values it was intended to protect, namely the welfare of the poor.[27] Pope Gregory XVI formally condemned the slave trade in 1839 but only after a Christian abolitionist movement had already been challenging Christian defenses of slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries. When Vatican II’s Dignitatis humanae brought about a substantive change in the church’s teaching on religious liberty, it did so only after a good century of ecclesial discernment by theologians, bishops and government officials that the previous teaching no longer did justice to the changing political context of the modern world.

Eamon Duffy captures the more circumscribed role of papal teaching in this process: “‘Definitive’ papal utterances,” he writes,  “are not oracles providing new information, but adjudications at the end of a wider and longer process of doctrinal reflection, consultation, and debate, often extending over centuries.”[28]  Magisterial teaching should conclude our tradition’s lively engagement with a particular question, not preempt its consideration. A pastoral magisterium calls for an exercise of teaching authority that never forgets that, as John Henry Newman put it, “truth is the daughter of time.”[29] A pastoral magisterium does not claim to have all the answers nor does it provide definitive solutions to every controverted issue. A pastoral magisterium acknowledges the here and now, normative character of current church teaching while always keeping open the possibility of further insight.  So we might ask:  which is more important, for a pope to act decisively in changing a given church teaching, or to carefully cultivate an ecclesial atmosphere in the church in which controverted questions can be boldly debated, new insights can emerge and the Spirit can work through the shared discernment of the whole people of God?

Certainly, church leaders are to be faithful to our doctrinal heritage. Yet they serve that heritage best not by wielding church doctrine as a club, but by heeding Pope Francis’ injunction to abandon a place of safety and certitude, and move from the center to the peripheries of human existence. As our pastoral leaders become accustomed to meeting the people “in the streets,” listening to their concerns, and attending to their wounds, they will know, as through a pastoral “connaturality,” how the church’s doctrine can best be employed or revised to announce God’s profligate mercy and solidarity with the poor and suffering. This is what a genuinely pastoral magisterium looks like.



Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College.


[1] “Catholic Scholars Appeal to Pope Francis to Repudiate ‘Errors’ in Amoris Laetitia,” National Catholic Register (July 11, 2016):  access on-line at:  http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/catholic-scholars-appeal-to-pope-francis-to-repudiate-errors-in-amoris-laet .
[2] Josh McElwee, “Four Cardinals Openly Challenge Francis over Amoris Laetitia,” in NCR Online (Nov. 16, 2016), accessed at:  https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/four-cardinals-openly-challenge-francis-over-amoris-laetitia.
[3] I take this phrase from John W. O’Malley who used it to identify deeper issues in play at the Second Vatican Council.  See What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2008, 8ff..
[4] I have written in some detail about several aspects of this issue elsewhere.  See, Richard R. Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority:  A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church (Collegeville:  Liturgical Press, 1997); By What Authority?  A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium and the Sense of the Faithful (Collegeville:  Liturgical Press, 2003); “The Reception of Doctrine:  New Perspectives,” in Authority in the Roman Catholic Church, edited by Bernard Hoose (London:  Ashgate, 2002), 95-114; “Prudential Judgment and Catholic Teaching,” in Voting and Holiness: A Catholic’s Guide to the Political Process, edited by Nicholas Cafardi (Mahwah:  Paulist Press, 2012), 66-80; “Doctrine Air:  Room to Breathe on Church Teaching,”  co-authored with Stephen Pope, Commonweal 143 (February 26, 2016):  11-12.
[5] Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present, trans. John A. Otto and Linda M. Maloney  (Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 1996), 167–68.
[6] See especially the archival research of Giovanni Caprile, “Pio XII e un nuovo progetto di Concilio Ecumenico,” La Civiltà Cattolica 117/3 (1966): 209-27.
[7] Pope John’s opening address may be accessed online at http://conciliaria.com/2012/10/mother-church-rejoices-opening-address-of-john-xxiii-at-the-council/#more-2134 (accessed on June 18, 2014).
[8] For an articulation and critique of this digital approach to doctrine, see Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Dogma: Faith, Revelation and Dogmatic Teaching Authority, trans. Philip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992), 108.
[9] John O’Brien, “Ecclesiology as Narrative,” Ecclesiology 4, no. 2 (2008): 150.
[10] Pope Paul VI, “Pope Paul [Address to the opening of the Second Session, September 29, 1963],” in Council Daybook:  Vatican II, 3 vols., Floyd Anderson, ed. (National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1965), I: 145.
[11] Catherine Cornille, The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue (New York:  Crossroad, 2008), 27-8.
[12] Translations of conciliar documents are taken from Austin Flannery, Vatican Council II:  Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations (revised edition, Collegeville:  Liturgical Press, 1996).
[13] Christoph Theobald, “The Principle of Pastorality at Vatican II:  Challenges of a Prospective Interpretation of the Council,” in The Legacy of Vatican II, edited by Massimo Faggioli and Andrea Vicini (New York:  Paulist, 2015), 26-37 at 28
[14] On this point see Kenneth Himes, “The Local Church as a Mediating Structure,” Social Thought (1986): 23-30.
[15] Unfortunately, the symbolic power of this gesture was undermined, to a certain extent, by the pope’s decision to be referred to as pope emeritus, (I believe he should have adopted the title, Bishop of Rome emeritus and be addressed in communication as Cardinal Ratzinger), to continue to wear the white papal alb, and to remain in residence in the Vatican.
[16] The text of this speech can be accessed on-line at:  http://saltandlighttv.org/blogfeed/getpost.php?id=66497&language=en .
[17] For a helpful analysis of the Pope’s ecclesial commitment to synodality see, L. Forestier, “Le pape François et la synodalitéEvangelii gauidum, nouvelle étape dans la reception de Vatican II,” NRT (2015): 597-614.
[18] David Gibson, “Are Married Priests Next on Francis’ Agenda,” National Catholic Reporter (May 9–22, 2014): 12.
[19]Robert Mickens, “Francis is Reforming Roman Curia by Circumvention,” NCR On-line (June 6, 2016).  Accessed at: http://ncronline.org/blogs/roman-observer/francis-reforming-roman-curia-circumvention.
[20]Pope Francis, “A Big Heart Open To God,” America (September 30th, 2013), available at http://americamagazine.org/pope-interview (accessed on June 17, 2014).
[21]Pope Francis, “Letter to a Non-Believer.” This letter can be accessed online at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco /en/letters/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130911_eugenio-scalfari.html (accessed on June 18, 2014).
[22] Karl Rahner, “Magisterium and Theology,” in Theological Investigations, volume XVIII (New York:  Crossroad, 1983), 54-73, at 62.
[23] Ibid., 72.
[24] A summary of the address can be accessed on-line at: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-christmas-greetings-to-e .  Accessed, January 4, 2015.
[25] Quoted in, Joshua J. McElwee, “Francis:  Spirit Works in Lay People, ‘Is not Property of the Hierarchy,” in NCR on-line (April 26, 2016), accessed on-line at: https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-spirit-works-laypeople-not-property-hierarchy .
[26]Quoted in Rocco Palmo, Whispers in the Loggia” (November 15, 2015), accessed at: http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/ 2015/11/life-is-bigger-than-explanations-to.html .
[27] See John Noonan’s still classic treatment of this in The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957); idem, The Church that Can and Cannot Change (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2005).
[28] Eamon Duffy, “Who is the Pope?” New York Times Review of Books (February 19, 2015 issue)  accessed  online at:       http://www.nybooks.com/
articles/archives/2015/feb/19/who-is-pope-francis/ .
[29] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, (6th edition., Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 47.  The original source of the dictum may be Francis Bacon.