The Pope Is Catholic After All

By Tim Busch and Mary Rice Hasson
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Originally posted in the Wall Street Journal.

Catholics, take heart. Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the Amazon Synod, released Wednesday, is no truth-and-tradition-shredding document. On point after point, the Holy Father reiterates the longstanding teaching of the Catholic Church—whether on the role of the priest, the centrality of women to the church’s mission, or the continued importance of priestly celibacy.

Over the past few months the pope’s critics within the church have worried that the Vatican would chip away or discard Catholicism’s moral theology. The rhetoric sometimes made it sound as if the sky were falling, taking the Barque of St. Peter with it. Such fear is unbecoming of all who place their trust in God and believe his promise that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church.

These concerns came from genuine care. At the conclusion of the Amazon Synod in October, the bishops voted to recommend the ordination of married men as priests in certain South American regions, despite millennia-old Catholic teaching and discipline to the contrary. They also recommended further discussion on allowing local women to be deacons. Under Catholic doctrine, deacons receive Holy Orders, as do bishops and priests. This sacrament always has been reserved to men. The fear was that abandoning such teachings in the Amazon was the first step toward change across the entire church.

It didn’t help that some senior prelates seemed, and still seem, intent on abandoning these precepts. German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of the pope’s closest advisers, recently held a dueling synod in his home country over the Vatican’s objections. Cardinal Marx, who also sat on the Amazon Synod, explicitly said it would be “helpful” for his own meeting to open debate on the church’s teaching.

Yet in this week’s apostolic exhortation, the Holy Father essentially upheld the church’s position on priestly celibacy. To address a shortage of priests in the Amazon region, he called on bishops to “promote priestly vocations” and encourage the kind of “missionary” zeal that has spread the faith throughout history. As for female deacons, Francis declared that a change would weaken, not strengthen, women’s role in the church: “It would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective.”

The pope has shown discernment, prudence and leadership and situated himself in the great Catholic tradition. His letter tracks a recent book written by Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Whereas many in the media, and in the Vatican, tried to paint the book as an assault on Francis, both pontiffs agree on core Catholic teachings.

Despite Pope Francis’ words, concerns remain that confusion over doctrinal matters will continue and that he may reopen the debate. The better path is to trust that God is in control.

In the 1960s, the Vatican established the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, which overwhelmingly recommended rejecting the church’s prohibition on contraception. Pope Paul VI responded with the famous encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (1968). He powerfully reaffirmed the church’s ancient and unchangeable understanding of human sexuality, even though the majority of society, and perhaps the majority of Catholics, felt otherwise.

Millions of Catholics hold up Paul VI, canonized in 2018 by Pope Francis, as proof of God’s fidelity to the church. We should trust that God is guiding the current pope, too.

Catholics must remain vigilant about threats to the church’s teaching. We should always defend the truth with charity and clarity, admonishing those who demand that the church bend its teaching to the times. On that score, the apostolic exhortation has some passages that deserve further reflection and explanation, especially those on ecological matters and the relationship between the Gospel and the culture. But there is a profound difference between fighting for what’s right and giving in to fear that things will go terribly wrong.

For all Catholics, this is a time for renewed faith.

Mr. Busch is founder of the Napa Institute, a Catholic lay organization. Ms. Hasson, a board member of the Institute, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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