A number of bloggers are struggling with Pope Francis’ comment about family planning and Roman Catholics “breeding like rabbits.” On the one side are those who think Francis is only speaking to the wider public and would choose his words more carefully if addressing the faithful exclusively:
When Francis speaks to the mainstream media, like it or not, he is choosing to speak to non-Catholics. Faithful, practicing Catholics are not his primary audience. If you are expecting Pope Francis to be speaking to you as a practicing Catholic when he addresses the media, you will be devastated.
From the other corner comes the spin that those outside the church don’t know how to take Francis’ off the cuff statements:
The Church has never taught that Catholics are to have as many children as possible. They can use abstinence, including the selective abstinence of “Natural Family Planning,” to limit the number of children they bear.
Yet such nuance is bound to be lost on the Pope’s secular audience. Just as his comments saying that Catholics should not be “obsessed” with abortion have been used as cudgels against political candidates who oppose abortion and gay marriage, Francis’s rabbit comment is likely to be used as yet another weapon against Catholics faithful to church teaching.
Damned if we get it, damned if we don’t.
But the point about Pope Francis saying things the way he does because he is speaking to non-Roman Catholics raises an interesting (to me) question. Why does the pontiff carry on a conversation with the wider world and how do I get to join it? I mean, if the pope’s jurisdiction is truly universal, then he is my pope as much as Jason and the Callers. In which case, if I have to listen to him, shouldn’t he have to hear from me once in a while?
Or is it the case that the universal jurisdiction of the papacy only extends to a spiritual authority which Francis has by virtue of certain Christians being in fellowship with him?
It seems to me that papal discourse is still caught between the older Unam Sanctam outlook of the papacy as the highest authority even above temporal authorities, and the newer Vatican 2 conception that sees church power largely in spiritual terms (except within Vatican City which has its own police, prison, bank, and postal service). Protestants in the United States took a long time to figure out that when Reinhold Niebuhr spoke, he wasn’t speaking for or to all Americans. But the coverage and following of the papacy surely hasn’t captured the distinction between the real power that the papacy has over Roman Catholic life and institutions, and the apparent moral authority that appears to give the pope permission to speak about everything Satan to tsunamis. Meanwhile, no one seems to notice that no one cares what other bishops might have to say. For all of Francis’ talk of collegiality, he is hogging the limelight. And do journalists actually realize that even if they don’t believe in papal supremacy the way the cover the Holy See indicates they support papal supremacy.
I’m sure Jason and the Callers could clear all of this up (if they ever commented on the contemporary state of the communion to which they call).