Countering Andrew Napolitano on the Catholic Church

Judge Napolitano's op-eds questioning Pope Francis got it wrong.

Pope Frances addresses a crowd (Vatican News Service)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 2015 – Fox legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, a Catholic, recently penned two newspaper columns, “Is the Pope a False Prophet?” and “A Papacy of Novelty,” in which he questioned in what direction Pope Francis was taking the church.

I have had the privilege of knowing Judge Andrew Napolitano since he was a first-year law student and I was an undergraduate senior at Notre Dame. I also had occasion to appear before him when he sat in Bergen County, New Jersey. So, it is with great reluctance that I write in response to these columns. However, they should not stand unanswered.

I share some of the fears raised by Napolitano in “A Papacy of Novelty,” in which he suggests through a series of “What ifs” that the Church could be led to irrelevancy should it diminish truth to attract more members. However, Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church to enable it to provide a mercy that is consistent with truth. The Spirit’s influence was exerted during last year’s synod on the family, where many bishops rose up against a liberal draft summary (relatio) of the synod, forcing a rewrite in accord with church teachings. Catholics should trust that the Holy Spirit will be guiding this second installment of the synod.

Some specific points raised by Napolitano, though, must still be addressed.

First, the judge attributes the dwindling numbers of Catholics to the changes in the mass and the sacraments.  I admit that having the priest facing the altar has been a temptation for some celebrants to place themselves at the center of the mass rather than Christ, whose sacrificial offering to His Father is re-presented at mass. Yet St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis and many priests have demonstrated the reverence and solemnity with which the new rite can be celebrated. Thus, I don’t believe that this change was a primary reason for the reduced number of Catholics since the conclusion of Vatican II.

Contrary to the judge’s assertion, Vatican II was not the cause of this state. Rather, it resulted from a more intrusive secular culture that the laity was ill prepared to counter. After  Vatican II, the laity was hearing about how they could be “ministers” at mass and in the parish while the real revolution of Vatican II was the restoration of the universal call to holiness, not just for the clergy and religious but also for the laity. Each member of the church, including the laity, was called to develop a personal intimate relationship with Christ and become leaven in the world. The laity would have the special responsibility to undertake for the love of God all the noble tasks performed in their family, social, and business life. Jesus was to be the pre-eminent driving force in their lives. St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI did everything they could to implement this understanding of Vatican II. However, at the local diocesan and parish levels, there was a major failure of catechesis.

In addition, Catholic universities rarely communicated this message. Not only did they neglect the call to sanctity, but they also failed to provide the intellectual—theological and philosophical—tools to understand, articulate and implement the Church’s teachings in areas, including marriage, life issues, politics and business ethics, which most affect people’s lives.

Second, Napolitano criticized the pope’s authorization of priests to administer absolution to those who have committed the grave sin of abortion. However, the pope was in no way weakening the church’s teaching on abortion. Canon Law 1398 provides that “A person who procures a successful abortion incurs an automatic excommunication.” St. John Paul II explained in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, “[t]he excommunication affects all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attachedand thus includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed. Only the ordinary of the diocese has the authority to lift the excommunication. That authority may be communicated to priests, which Cardinal O’Malley recently advised had already occurred in most United States dioceses. As the supreme pastor, Pope Francis is merely extending this authority to all priests in the world during the upcoming Year of Mercy. The fundamental elements—penance, confession and reparation– of the sacrament of reconciliation must still be satisfied. In taking this action, Pope Francis is following the lead of St. John Paul II, who in the same encyclical entreated women who had abortions:

“The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”

Third, Napolitano had expected a rail against capitalism per se. However, in his speech to Congress, the pope, who has a legitimate concern about the undue influence of the greedy and ignoble in the monied class—might it be said, for instance, crony capitalism– reiterated what he had said in his recent encyclical: “’Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.’”

Despite the fact that Pope Francis has the propensity to say things in a controversial manner, he has not changed any church doctrine. The fears of Napolitano and others like him will likely prove to be unfounded.

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