It seems to me that there are two primary ways to respond when any pope writes something in one of his officially-promulgated texts which at first strikes us as incorrect. The first way is to assert that the pope is wrong (and perhaps begin immediately to alert all who will listen to this “fact”). The second way is to consider carefully how a statement which strikes us as questionable could be understood (perhaps even better understood) to be perfectly true. A case in point arises from those who claim that, in his Apostolic Letter on the Liturgy (Desiderio Desideravi, June 29, 2022), Pope Francis has misstated the requirements that must be fulfilled for someone to receive Communion.
The passage in question is the first two sentences of paragraph 5:
The world still does not know it, but everyone is invited to the supper of the wedding of the Lamb (Rev 19: 9). To be admitted to the feast all that is required is the wedding garment of faith which comes from the hearing of his Word (cf. Rom 10:17).
I have encountered the argument that there is a “natural meaning” to this passage which asserts that a mere expression of “belief” is sufficient to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, which is to say that no moral commitment or repentance of sin is required. To the contrary, the argument continues, the Council of Trent taught that “faith alone” is insufficient for the reception of Communion (which is certainly true in the sense intended in its context). Therefore Pope Francis has taught something that can only be understood to be wrong.
There are two grave problems with this argument: The first is the assertion of a “natural meaning” to the Pope’s words which reduces the understanding of the word “faith” (or words “garment of faith which comes from the hearing of the Word”) to mere belief in certain doctrines without any corresponding moral commitments or change in life. And the second problem is the assumption that the word “faith” must always be used in the same sense as the Council of Trent was using this word when the errors of the Protestants were uppermost in the Council’s collective mind—that, in effect, we are never to understand “faith” under any other aspect or in any other way.
Natural and spiritual meanings of faith
Both assumptions are unjustified. In the first place, most people today—and especially well-instructed Catholics—do not use the term “faith” in a univocal “natural” sense of mere “belief in doctrinal propositions”. While it is true—and has always been true historically, I think—that the term “faith” is sometimes used as a synonym for “belief”, it is also true that even in our own contemporary “natural” usage the word has several other meanings. When someone says “I have faith in Mr. Jones”, he does not mean that he believes a series of doctrinal propositions. He means that he trusts Jones. When a Catholic young man says to his fiancée, “No, we cannot use contraception when we are married because I accept the Catholic faith”, he does not mean primarily that he believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God but rather than he is obedient to the moral injunctions which he knows come from Christ through the Church.
So even at what we might call the “natural” level of ordinary conversation, the departure point for the protest against what Pope Francis wrote leads down a false trail. But if we consider the whole phrase “the wedding garment of faith”, we find ourselves at once in Christ’s parables, in which the lack of a wedding garment signifies a complete lack of respect and preparedness for the occasion. And things get even worse if we consider the matter more theologically. For while there have been many distortions of the concept of “faith” over the centuries—and while the Church was rightly very sensitive to its theological reduction to mere “intellectual belief” in the sixteenth century—faith as proclaimed by Jesus Christ and as explained throughout the New Testament (most clearly but not exclusively in the letters of St. Paul) very clearly involves three things. Faith in Jesus Christ is:
- Belief in Christ’s teachings;
- Trust in Christ’s promises;
- Obedience to Christ’s commands.
Note how well this understanding explains that famous passage in the Letter of James which touches precisely on this subject, though from a slightly different angle:
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. [Jas 2:17-18]
In other words, the apostles simply could not conceive of any real (or living) faith in Christ that does not involve a radical transformation of our lives and our actions. Neither can I. Neither, I hope, can Pope Francis.
Self-evidently, if we credit Pope Francis with even this rudimentary understanding of the meaning of “faith” (a living definition, as it were, apart from a scholastic definition or a common usage in theological manuals), then it is wholly gratuitous and even bizarre to assume that he intended the term in some common “natural” sense, or even that he should have realized that this is how it would be invariably understood. As I have indicated, even in our “natural” (or normal) use of the term today, the argument is unconvincing.
Accusing the Pope?
By the way, the remainder of paragraph 5 in Desiderio Desideravi reads as follows:
The Church tailors such a garment [the garment of faith] to fit each one with the whiteness of a garment bathed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14). We must not allow ourselves even a moment of rest, knowing that still not everyone has received an invitation to this Supper or knowing that others have forgotten it or have got lost along the way in the twists and turns of human living. This is what I spoke of when I said, “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 27). I want this so that all can be seated at the Supper of the sacrifice of the Lamb and live from Him.
Pope Francis may not be the greatest pope who ever lived. He may, as a man, misunderstand many things. I have had occasion myself to offer clarifications, and obviously I am choosing to do so here. But clarification of an officially promulgated papal text is infinitely superior (and infinitely safer) than a condemnation of its errors along with advice to ignore it, whatever we may think of a particular pope. This is especially true when, if we will but remove our own blinders, further investigation can lead to an enrichment of our Catholic understanding.
In any case, as the previous quotation demonstrates, the voice of Desiderio Desideravi does not sound like that of a pope who is trying to minimize the personal and even ecclesiastical transformation that Holy Communion can bring about. Ever mindful of such a stupendous invitation, we should strive in every respect to “discern” in the Eucharist that “this is my body, given for you” (1 Cor 11:29; Lk 22:19).
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