…and I read it on the Internet so it must be true!

The latest gossip is that an Argentinian nun says Pope Francis told her that it was okay for women to use various forms of birth control and sterilization.

Surely not, but then again maybe.

Really? But then who can say for sure?

You can’t believe all this stuff, but then again maybe you can.

In his book To Change the Church Ross Douthat observes that this is actually the way Pope Francis works, and the way Jesuits have worked in the past. They chip away and chip away–never quite saying what they mean but never quite denying it either.

You’ll notice this is how James Martin works, for example. He never supports same sex marriage, but then he never condemns it either. If the document doesn’t forbid something they take it as given that it is not only allowed but preferred.

So the pope says something outside the box and everybody gets nervous.

Then the Vatican communications people go into damage control mode and only make things worse.

So let’s assume that the pope really did tell an Argentinian feminist nun that certain forms of birth control are ok.

Then the Communications Office says something bland like, “These words are not necessarily an accurate report of the Holy Father’s exact wording.”

What they don’t do is issue a stout denial like “The Pope never spoke to that woman.” nor do they issue an unambiguous clarification. Neither do they issue a statement from the pope affirming without doubt that he upholds Catholic doctrine and morals.

As a result more confusion, more doubt, more questions about the pope’s ability, his intentions and his game plan.

Well, maybe there is another angle as well. It could be that the pope wishes to foster confusion. In other words, he’s being unclear, ambiguous and open ended on purpose. Over at CRUX John Allen highlights the pope’s Holy Week speeches and homilies and paints the pope as “the great iconoclast” and the idol the pope is pushing over and breaking is what he calls the “idol of truth.”

More broadly, what we get is a full-blown, oracular statement of Francis’s underlying aim: He’s determined to smash the “truth-idols” he believes have taken hold of both the Church and the wider world, fueling a judgmental “culture of the adjective” that always leads with someone’s failures rather their underlying “faithful truth.”

This idol-smashing drive accounts not only for Amoris, but so much else about this papacy – from the kinds of bishops Francis is appointing, to why he keeps talking to an Italian journalist with a history of playing fast and loose with his words, to his sidelining of Vatican departments which, over the years, have seen their roles precisely as defending “abstract truths,” such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Is that what the pope is up to? By going back again and again to be interviewed by Scalfari, but making “private” phone calls advising people in irregular marriages to go to communion anyway, to having private conversations allegedly telling Protestants to receive Catholic communion, nuns that contraception is OK and refusing to clarify confusing and ambiguous statements?

OK, I get it. Let’s not cling simply to discursive statements of faith like the creed or the catechism. Let’s not cling to rules and regulations and be all rigid and legalistic. Let’s move beyond these things to a true, personal encounter with Christ and a relationship with God.

Of course the encounter with Christ and the relationship with God is wonderful and good, but for most people the way they get there is by using the doctrines and moral precepts as the ladder to climb on or the map for the journey.

Some people can get obsessed with the ladder and the map, but then we need cartographers and ladder makers too.

Is this really what the pope is up to? If so, then I’m afraid it strikes me as painfully dated. Isn’t this what the bell bottomed priest said in the 70s? “Hey man, you should only really go to Mass because you love Jesus! If you don’t really want to be here. Don’t be here!”

Then when Mass numbers began to plummet the same priest scratched his head and said, “I don’t understand. Why are Mass numbers going down?”

Duh. Because you kept telling them they didn’t need to come to Mass so they didn’t.

The biggest problem with Pope Francis’ personal but maybe not so personal phone calls, his private but not really private interviews with ancient atheists, and his private comments to just about anybody anywhere about anything is that eventually fewer and fewer people will take him seriously.

By undermining the “idol of truth” he cuts off the branch he is sitting on. Perhaps one of the “truth idols” he is breaking intentionally is the “infallible pope” truth idol. OK, but in doing so, he should not be surprised to find that people just don’t listen to him. Why should they? They want the pope to speak the truth, not shift around in the shadows of ambiguity and double speak.

We’re now in a pretty dodgy situation, and I’m not so much worried about the defense of Catholic faith and morals. All that is clearly stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and we don’t need the Pope to be hammering away at it every other day.

The big problem is that Pope Francis’ (and therefore the papacy’s) own authority is undermined. An increasing number of the faithful simply don’t pay attention to either him or the headlines about him, and if the faithful aren’t paying attention you can be sure he doesn’t have much credence among the non-Catholics.

Furthermore, while knowledgable Catholics can dismiss headlines like, “Pope Says No Hell” you can be sure that our separated brethren read this and write off the Catholic Church as being just like any other liberal Protestant denomination.

They’re not right, but I can understand their reasoning.

All the more reason for Catholics at the local level to up their ante and be more radiantly, positively, joyfully Catholic. Now is the time for some truly dynamic, radical Catholicism to appear.

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