A Mother’s Day Message: The Pope and A Consistent Ethic of Life
A papal homily this past week is making news. On Thursday, Pope Francis reminded his audience of an important theological concept known as the development of doctrine. Though the pope did not use this term explicitly, he endorsed it with his remarks. Put simply, the development of doctrine refers to the ways in which Church teaching develops over time. It is the work of the Spirit guiding the Church as anticipated in Scripture: “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you” (John 14:26). Jesus also said, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16:12-13). This is important because there are those who oppose development and believe that “the Church never changes.” The Truth never changes, for Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life” as we heard in the Gospel today; but, our understanding and expression of the Truth develops over time under the guidance of the Spirit.
Catholic News Service reports that Pope Francis used modern examples of the Spirit guiding the Church. “While people once even used religious reasons to justify practices such as slavery, the death penalty and ‘wars of religion,’ over time the Holy Spirit has deepened the church’s understanding of the Gospel, the pope said May 11 in his homily during morning Mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae.”
A few weeks back, I wrote about slavery and its persistence and prevalence in the modern world in numbers that are as sickening as they are surprising. Most everyone would agree with the pope that slavery is objectively, gravely evil (the matter required for a sin to be mortal). Yet, some Christians defended slavery as part of God’s ordering of the world and hence part of the “natural law.” Some clerics and Church institutions even owned slaves. Scripture, a text we revere as “The Word of God,” even seems to have endorsed slavery in some places, saying, “Slaves be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ” (Ephesians 6:5; see also Colossians 3:22 and 1Peter 2:18). The Word of God, though, is always formulated in human language with human limitations, and hence, is subject to a developing understanding of its meaning. The Spirit, indeed, guides us “to all truth.”
The controversial part of what Pope Francis said regards not slavery but the death penalty. While the Catechism (#2267) and traditional moral theology have left a slight opening for the use of capital punishment in cases where there is no other means to defend society from an unjust aggressor, Pope Francis seems to have closed that door. A homily, of course, is not a definitive act of papal magisterium, but nonetheless the pope’s words matter. He followed his categorization of slavery as a “mortal sin” by saying, “The same goes for the death penalty; for a time, it was normal. Today, we say that the death penalty is inadmissible.” By saying “The same goes for…,” he ties together the death penalty and slavery, implying that “inadmissible” means the kind of objective and grave evil that is the matter of mortal sin. This hints at a development of doctrine (and will be so if the pope expresses it repeatedly in various forms or writes it in a formal manner of teaching, e.g. an encyclical or a revision of the Catechism, etc.). The Spirit, it seems, has been moving the Church in this direction since at least Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s formulation of a consistent ethic of life.
This, I think is how the pope’s homily should be interpreted. The Church is recognizing that a pro-life ethic is a guiding set of norms that helps us to think appropriately about all moral issues. Thus, the pope also made news this week by decrying the U.S. designation of its most powerful non-nuclear bomb as MOAB, meaning the Mother Of All Bombs. Pope Francis said, “I was ashamed when I heard the name… A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is happening?” This is nothing other than the moral reasoning of a pro-life thinker being brought to bear on weapons of mass destruction. It is a consistent ethic of life at work.
“A mother gives life,” the pope said. This is what we celebrate today on Mother’s Day. Mothers are about freedom, not slavery. Mothers offer mercy, not death penalties. Mothers want peace for their children, not destruction and endless war. As the Church develops in its understanding of morality and of God, it appears that the Spirit is moving us towards motherhood, teaching us to be pro-life at every stage and in every circumstance of life; teaching us again that God’s love is like a mother’s love. And does this not make us think also of Mary, Our Blessed Mother? Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us, that we may be open to every movement of the Spirit, that we may follow your Son more faithfully, and that we may embrace life at every moment as the Father’s gift to be cherished. Amen.
Happy Mother’s Day!