A headline in one of the tabloids trumpeted that Pope Francis Blessed Gay Weddings.

Typical. They grab an inch of rumor and take a mile of headline.

The rumor is the result of a documentary film that was edited in such a way to give the impression that Pope Francis believes civil union ceremonies for homosexual couples are the best way forward, and that families of homosexual parents should be condoned.

Is this really what the Pope thinks? Is he establishing a new policy? Is he in favor of gay weddings? We have to wait and see if the Vatican issues any kind of clarification.

Unfortunately, Pope Francis is not big on clarity. Instead he seems intent on “making a mess.”

I could write about the issue itself and relate my experience in the UK–in which the gay activists pushed first for civil unions and said “Don’t worry we’re not interested in gay marriage. We just want equal civil rights!” Then, before the ink was dry on the civil unions legislation they started pushing for same sex marriage, and once that was yielded they began pushing for same sex marriages in church.

However, I’m not going to argue this point or push the obvious point of whether the pope and his advisors are naive or duplicitous in this situation.

Instead, I would like to explain why this pope does what he does. I’ve just completed an article for Crisis magazine which explains it further, but the simple answer is this: Pope Francis believes in the “pastoral approach” rather than the “dogmatic approach.” Dogma defines and specifies the beliefs and principles of the faith–the doctrines, rules and regulations. The pastoral approach is the art of applying those beliefs, doctrines, rules and regulations to real situations.

From the beginning of his papacy we can see that Pope Francis has preferred the pastoral approach. In fact, for the faith to be real and lived out we do need good pastors who can help the faithful live the doctrines and the rules as faithfully as possible. However, if the approach is only pastoral and never dogmatic the faith is reduced to mere utilitarianism–“what works is what’s true.” If the approach is only pastoral we end up with moralistic, therapeutic Deism….a man made religion of doing good and making the world a better place and helping people.

Of course it is a worthy thing to make the world a better place and help people, but that is the result of faith. It is not the faith.

The pastoral approach is not only Pope Francis’ approach, it is the approach of much of the Catholic Church since the 1960s.

The good thing about the pastoral approach is that it really does help many people connect with the faith and find ways to live out the faith. It is also, arguably, a good way of evangelizing. It shows the faith in action and inspires people to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

The problem with the purely pastoral approach, however, is that it is open to charges of situational ethics–that is to say, we adjust our beliefs and our moral principles according to every different situation and circumstance.

“Oh!” the defenders of the pastoral approach will cry, “Dogma hasn’t changed. The teaching hasn’t changed. This is simply a practical application in particular circumstances!” The problem with this is that the vast majority of people (especially non-Catholics) really think the pope is infallible whenever he speaks and in whatever he does. Of course they don’t explicitly believe in such a thing, but that’s what they think

That’s why the British headline writer transliterated the pope’s supposed idea into an infallible change in church doctrine. “Pope Now Blessed Gay Weddings!”

This very shiftiness and ambiguity is why the purely pastoral approach is so close to situational ethics. It’s a flexible friend.

Situational ethics is built on the assumption that there is no such thing as revealed truth that is timeless, and there is no such thing as a universal law which applies without exception to all times, places and people.

I’m not saying Pope Francis is pushing situational ethics, only that an approach to the faith with is only pastoral must, in effect, be the same thing as situational ethics.

We don’t know the pope’s true feelings about civil ceremonies for gay couples. There have been signs that this is exactly what he proposes. There are other signs from him in the past to indicate his opposition to such a proposal.

We should wait and see, but in the meantime, it’s worth thinking again about the pastoral approach and its proper relationship to both doctrine and the role of the papacy.

I’m cogitating on these matters a fair bit and plan to write further on it in the days to come.

Stay tuned!

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