From the Mothership here in St. Francisville, I wish a happy Feast of St. Francis to our Catholic readers. I continue to collect stories and essays from all over from people trying to get a bead on who Pope Francis is, and what he’s saying to the world. This assessment from veteran Vaticanist Sandro Magister is making the rounds among orthodox Catholics. Excerpt:
There is nothing in this program of the pontificate that could turn out to be unacceptable to the dominant secular opinion. Even the judgment that John Paul II and Benedict XVI did “very little” in opening to the modern spirit is in line with this opinion. The secret of the popularity of Francis is in the generosity with which he concedes to the expectations of “modern culture” and in the shrewdness with which he dodges that which could become a sign of contradiction.
That is a shrewd judgment, and, I think, right on target.
Catholic theologian Chris Roberts says that the Pope’s words in the media can sound alarming, but not if you put them in theological context (which the media don’t do). Excerpt:
The risk that Francis will be misunderstood by the popular media is real. Popular media will seize on certain phrases out of context and make a meal out of them. Consider how, in the pope’s previous interview with the Jesuits, he said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.” But insisting on those issues, as if they were the main point of a 12,000-word interview, was pretty much the mainstream media’s focus for the next two weeks (for starters, consider this headline in the New York Times).
NARAL, the abortion advocacy organization, demonstrated in an offensive but clear way how an ideological perspective on Pope Francis misses the point. After the Jesuit interview, they published a graphic on their Facebook page, “thanking” Pope Francis on behalf of “pro-choice women everywhere.”
But on closer inspection, the joke’s on them (as this blogger humorously depicted; warning, the language is coarser than what we normally use at CatholicPhilly.com). Yes, the pope said that we need to talk about other topics, in addition to the culture war hot buttons. But in the very next paragraph, he also insisted that “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
Here again is a profoundly evangelical mind at work. His methodology is to concede that the “culture war” has taken the Church sometimes into a moralistic place, to concede that our righteous anger is not the same thing as the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But then to insist on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to dust off the diamond, and trust that a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ has moral consequences. In short, to win a new hearing for the Gospel and its moral consequences (which will include abortion, gay marriage and contraception – these things have their moment).
Pope Francis’ intent is to soften hardened hearts. The lesson for Catholics who want to follow him is to convert our own hearts as we adjust to a more patient and perhaps more gracious way of doing things, confident that the bedrock teaching isn’t going anywhere.
When you read the whole interview, you see how cleverly and gently Pope Francis is nudging Scalfari, a non-believer, to a Christian perspective. Combativeness is not necessarily the mark of piety. And I suspect future pronouncements will clear up some of the more questionable things the pope said. On proselytism, for example, Pope Francis this week gave a sermon in which he quoted his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, as saying that the Church doesn’t grow through “proselytism,” but “attraction” and “witness.” I believe this refers to Pope Benedict’s statement that the best testimonies for Christianity have been art and the lives of the saints. In other words, the Christian appeal is more about intuition than intellect. At least from my own Orthodox perspective, there doesn’t seem anything terribly wrong with that. I imagine Pope Francis will have more to say about conscience at some future time.
I understand this. I would almost certainly not have become a Christian if I had been directly proselytized. Walker Percy was speaking of people like me when he said the language of the Church has been hollowed out in modernity. The only way for me to have taken the Church’s message seriously was an indirect way. This is not true for everybody, but it was true for me, and I suspect is true for a lot of people who remain hard against a direct challenge. On the other hand, Magister highlights the risk of taking a too-subtle approach: you never say anything that upsets the secular world, therefore you never say anything that challenges it either. You risk giving the impression that you don’t really believe in the message, or that people need to hear it.
After two recent interview with La Repubblica and La Civiltà Cattolica, it has become clear that the dialogue he desires will be informal and unguarded. It is the kind of dialogue usually reserved for close friends and, of course, very susceptible to misunderstanding when it isn’t. This is why Francis has delivered his beautiful daily homilies ex tempore and chosen intimate interviews rather than public speeches as his preferred way of communicating with his Church and the world. Francis has decided to approach the world on casual terms, and the world has responded with overwhelming love for him, if not always perfect understanding of the faith.
How, then, should Christians read his interviews? Talmudic explanations of how what he said was not what he really meant or, on the other hand, what the faith really teaches miss the point. Francis is not so much aiming for precision as shooting the breeze.