The Ever-Astonishing Pope Francis
There’s another lengthy interview with the Pope out today. It captures what is so extraordinary and what is so exasperating about the man. I find it impossible not to like him. I mean, how can you not love a pontiff who talks this way?:
Many church leaders have been [narcissists, the interviewer says].
“You know what I think about this? Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”
The Pope said that. Yes he sure did. And then:
I am not anticlerical, but I become so when I meet a clericalist.
[The Pope] smiles and says, “It also happens to me that when I meet a clericalist, I suddenly become anti-clerical. Clericalism should not have anything to do with Christianity. St. Paul, who was the first to speak to the Gentiles, the pagans, to believers in other religions, was the first to teach us that.”
Amen! Amen, amen, amen. A pope said these words. I’m in awe. Again: how can you not love this guy? If you read the full interview, you’ll see how Francis turns around and interviews the journalist (an atheist), and tries to find common ground with him.
But then there is also this:
Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?
“Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.”
Your Holiness you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.
“And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”
I find this incoherent from a Christian perspective. I don’t see how one evangelizes on this. It seems that Francis deeply wants to “make the world a better place,” which is obviously commendable, but that he doesn’t have any interest in making converts. In fact, he tells the atheist journalist to be at ease, he doesn’t want to convert him, he just wants to get to know him. I understand this; it resonates with me. I really like getting to know people, and don’t see people as potential targets for conversion, but rather people worth getting to know in and of themselves. When I was not a Christian, I would have avoided straightforward evangelists. Francis’s approach would have been far more appealing to me. He may be doing a new thing here in terms of personal evangelization, and if so, it makes sense.
And yet, I don’t get the universalism behind encouraging people to “move towards what they think is Good.” What the Wahhabist thinks is Good is not the same thing as what the secular materialist thinks is Good, and is not the same thing as what the Amish farm woman thinks is Good. I mean, obviously there will be some overlap, but if the Pope believes there is no reason to insist on Christian particularity, if Jesus is true for him, but not for everyone, then why evangelize at all? The Pope says in this interview:
I believe I have already said that our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope. We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love.
This is the Social Gospel, is it not? It should be obvious why this sort of thing concerns people who worry that the transcendent nature of the faith, and its hard teachings, are at risk of being lost. And yet, if you read the entire interview, you can see how the Pope is evangelizing the journalist, denying that he is trying to convert him, but also denying to the atheist that conversion is impossible for him.
However you stand on Francis, he is certainly the most fascinating religious personality to come along since John Paul II. On that I think we can all agree. I blog so much on him because for better or for worse, he is impossible to ignore.
UPDATE: Here’s Russell Moore on the interview, which he calls a “theological wreck.” N.B., he’s a Southern Baptist pastor who likes Francis and wishes him well. Excerpt:
If Pope Francis wishes to reclaim the primacy of the gospel, he must simultaneously speak with kindness to those outside of its reach and speak of the need for good news. What these interviews seem continually to do is what evangelical theologian Carl Henry warned Protestants of in the 20th century, of severing the love of God from the holiness of God. God is, Henry said against both the liberal Social Gospel and obscurantist and angry fundamentalism, the God of both justice and justification.
Without speaking to the conscience, and addressing what the sinner already knows to be true about the day of giving an account, there is not love, only the consigning of the guilty conscience to accusation and condemnation. If the church is right about the personhood of unborn children (and I think it is), then why would we not be “obsessed” about speaking for them, and for the women and men whose consciences are tyrannized by their past sins?
It is not good news to say to such consciences, “Well, we’re all brothers and sisters,” if what they feel in their psyches and read in their Bibles (and in their Catholic catechisms) is that those who commit such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. We must speak with tenderness and gentleness, but with an authoritative word from God, that there is a means of reconciliation. The burdened conscience doesn’t wish to hear “It’s all okay.” The burdened conscience is freed by “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1).
UPDATE.2: A reader in the comboxes makes a devastating comparison:
“Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.” — Pope Francis
“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” — Justice Anthony Kennedy, from the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey ruling, upholding the right to abortion.