Law and Spirit

There has been a lot of press over the last several days over some comments Pope Francis made last week when he met with the presiding board of CLAR (the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious Men and Women). For “lefties” the good news was something like, “Pope Francis said it doesn’t matter what the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) says.” For “righties” the bad news was something like, “Pope Francis said it doesn’t matter what the CDF says.” As with most headlines, neither side really got it.

Both sides miss that what Pope Francis really was trying to convey was something about the tension between law and the spirit, a persistent tension. If our only concern is the letter of the law, we end up with a stultifying system in which there is no growth and change. On the other hand, if we jettison law and purport to be blown only by (our perception of) the Spirit, we lack any mooring.

Contrary to the claims of some that the Pope’s remarks undermined the teaching authority of his office, tt seems clear to me that Pope Francis was not at all suggesting the CDF was irrelevant, that its views didn’t matter. Rather, he urged groups like the CLAR to do what they were called to do in their prayerful judgment, recognizing that they could be in error. “Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing … But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward … Open the doors, do something there where life calls for it. I would rather have a Church that makes mistakes for doing something than one that gets sick for being closed up.”

I think all would do well to stop trying to capture this Pope with short headlines that are incapable to capturing any nuance at all. There is a creative tension in his words that require more than a knee-jerk effort to label.