Papa Frankie and “the interview”…

English: Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter ...

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

This probably won’t be the only time I write about “the interview” with Pope Francis that was published on 19 September 2013 in Civiltà Cattolica. Indeed, a few days ago I began a more formal post about the issues involved, but the following is comprised of comments I made more recently in other conversations about it online and, thus, are somewhat off the cuff.

My basic feeling about Pope Francis’s most noteworthy comments is nonplus.

And then some.

This, of course, means that I, like Dale Price at Dyspeptic Mutterings, am one of the uncool kids, a curmudgeon, a disaffected conservative, daft, a right-wing cafeteria Catholic, and every other dumb label that is used to stifle sensible commentary in the Catholic blogosphere.


So be it.

Just this afternoon I heard Fr. Fessio explaining to Raymond Arroyo that Francis is an old-school Jesuit, y’see, and is therefore crafty; just look how he’s gotten everyone talking about the issues! (Never mind that the issues everyone keeps talking about are the ones that Francis said we should not obsessively keep talking about.) Unfortunately, though, from, to NARAL, to Andrew Sullivan, to some of my own secular friends, all this talk is as seditious and gloating as it is voluble. I grant that liberal backers of a supposedly post-orthodox Francis are misreading him, but the point is that certain of his most central expressions gave them ample light by which to do so, and his subsequent lack of any retraction or clarification only reinforces the misinterpretations. Unless it’s literally true, as the ad men say, that any press is good press, the sheer amount of talking taking place after the interview does not reflect the newly tweaked stature of the Church and the impact of Francis’s leadership at this juncture.

But to return to Fessio’s comments.

“Frankly” speaking, I find them disingenuous, as if EWTN would not talk about “those issues” unless the Holy Father had said what can only be described as scandalous remarks, and as if the press would not have done their best to spin Catholic teaching no matter what Francis had said. Interestingly enough, as Cardinal Bergoglio he never had trouble speaking bluntly, clearly, and with great frequency about the Church’s central moral teachings. Is the pope’s collar really so much looser than the priest’s, now that he’s been elected as the voice of the Church?

The mainstream press is obsessed with the “pelvic issues,” so getting them to talk about how idiotic the Church is with respect to those issues is not the hard part. It’s their job to talk up the Church’s draconian ways and to spin as much as they can in a liberal direction. The hard part is getting the Church’s wisdom out in as clear a way as possible amidst all that inevitable chatter. Unfortunately, Francis made the easy part much harder than he should have, and now it falls to the laity to play whack-a-mole with the secular retorts that will probably echo for weeks to come. Hence, while I agree with Crude that “Pope Francis is scaring the hell out of social liberals”, I think that tends to only half of the story. With a teacher like this, who needs liberal spin doctors?

I know I’ve already made my point, but, for all you masochists, I’m going to unpack my position even further, and hopefully this week I can follow up with that more systematic (and more irenic) discussion of these issues.

+ + +

The Holy Father said:

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

What’s my reaction not only to the Pope’s words here but also to people’s reactions to them?

“The words ‘false dichotomy’ have been ringing in my head since ‘the interview’. They’re ringing even more loudly now.”

A solution to my nonplus suggested by a friend?

“The real dichotomy is not between Jesus and the rules, but between talking about the latter without a clear foundation in the former. …  In today’s post-Christian, post-modern culture, talking about natural law to people who don’t even know the kerygma or have a personal relationship with Jesus is exquisitely counterproductive.”

My response?

I firmly agree, but, again, what keeps nagging at me is how the opposition between the kerygma and the moral law that the Holy Father discussed in “the interview” seems to have come out of nowhere. I have no concrete idea what he is talking about. Pro-life atheists might be a good example of people that have truncated the/a moral law from its larger home in the Gospel, but I’m truly baffled by the idea that Francis apparently holds that “the Church” has done the same. Ours is the Gospel of life, and everyone knows that, which is why both enemies of the Gospel spit upon the moral teaching of the Church and enemies of the good (life) execrate moral truth as merely Catholic propaganda in disguise.

My first impression of Pope Francis was that he was trying to out-Evangelicalize the Evangelicals, and I think that still holds. He has seen on the ground in South America how the “simple,” “radiant” good news of a passionate personal relationship with Jesus trumps the Church’s liturgy, morality, and venerable tradition (cf. the sizable defections from the Faith to Pentecostalism). Those defections, however, are based on a lie, or at least on a misperception that is as perfidious as it is prevalent, namely, that you can be a legalistic Christian (i.e. Catholic) or a passionate Christian. That’s a false dichotomy and the one that the Pope props up most blatantly in the interview. He does note that moral consequences “flow” from the kerygma, but, as I think is painfully obvious, that otherwise traditional idea has been lost amidst a tangled heap of caveats and, more to the point, amounts to an explicit endorsement of the Pentecostal misperception that a clash between moral law and the Good News is, and long has been, the de facto reality in the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis is basically smiling and saying, “Hey, we’ve got Jesus, too! Let’s put the polemical issues aside (for a while, I guess) and focus on the ‘essentials’, like God’s mercy and the Church as a welcoming home for all people.” This is grand and correct, but, again, it just reinforces the Protestant lie that the Church some time ago forgot about Jesus and forgot about God’s love by obsessing over legalistic, “small-minded rules”.

(Pause now to watch the CBS video segment to which I just linked. Just watch it. Let it wash over you. Breathe it in. Quell your orthodox urge to ‘explain’ how the Pope is being misinterpreted. Watch it, accept it at face value, and realize that is the message Pope Francis is implanting in the world, whether he means to or not.)

Even while researching for this post, I came across comments that “this pope” really “gets the [contemporary] culture” and that he is finally moving along with the whole Church in the right direction, towards the lost. In case you didn’t know, such sentiments are just code words for how Protestants and non-believers praise a less strict, less articulate, less Catholic Pope.

Paul VI most certainly “got the culture” when he pegged it in Humanae Vitae. The broad cultural response? Not praise, not relief, but brief outrage and then a sustained stopping of the ears.

Pope John Paul II most certainly “got the culture” when he pegged it as a “culture of death.” The cultural response? Not praise, not relief, but rage and disdain. (Moreover, contrary to the idea that an emphasis on moral truth joepardizes the Gospel’s alluring radiance, note that John Paul II advanced the cause of the Divine Mercy just as much as he opposed the culture of death.)

Benedcit XVI most certainly “got the culture” when he diagnosed it as being enslaved to the dictatorship of relativism. The response? Outrage and mockery, not glad-handed spin.

Yet only now is the Pope being heralded as someone who “gets it”, and precisely when he utters ill advised words about the very things that cripple our culture from being receptive to the “simple,” “radiant” Gospel message. It may be spin, but so far Francis has an almost gleeful knack for giving ample grist for the spin mill.

Indeed, consider––please actually read––no less a thinker than Germain Grisez’s discomfiture with Francis’s key remarks of late:

“… [W]hat is the point of saying that the Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a ‘disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently’? Making this assertion suggests, unfortunately, a caricature of the teachings of recent pontificates. I assume Pope Francis would reject that reading. But where, then, is the state of affairs that needs to be overcome?

“Proclamation in a missionary style does focus on essentials. But the new evangelization cannot proceed as if the Gospel has not been already preached, and either understood or not, but in either case, rejected. Still, I agree that what is central needs to be presented more clearly and forcefully than has generally been the case. Unless people believe that Christ has risen and will come again and gather into his kingdom all who are ready to enter, and unless they hope to be among those ready to enter, there is no use trying to instruct them about what they need to do in order to be ready to enter.

“But what is meant by ‘moral edifice of the Church’? Many people mistakenly think that the moral truth the Church teaches is a code she has constructed and could change. If that were so, it could collapse like a house of cards. Perhaps Pope Francis means that the moral teachings, though they are truths that pertain to revelation, will collapse for the individual who lacks hope in the kingdom to come. But who knows what he means? The phrase is impressive. It reverberates in one’s depths. But if it was suggested by a spirit, it was not the Holy Spirit, for it is bound to confuse and mislead.

“I’m afraid that Pope Francis has failed to consider carefully enough the likely consequences of letting loose with his thoughts in a world that will applaud being provided with such help in subverting the truth it is his job to guard as inviolable and proclaim with fidelity. For a long time he has been thinking these things. Now he can say them to the whole world — and he is self-indulgent enough to take advantage of the opportunity with as little care as he might unburden himself with friends after a good dinner and plenty of wine.”

Them’s fightin’ words!

And I happen to agree with Grisez.

In more than one discussion lately, I have noticed, with great consternation, how frequently the laity’s response to Pope Francis lately involves confused attempts to reconstruct a sensible intent from what he said. “Yeah, I know he said this, which could be misinterpreted by, oh, say, the slavering hordes of the Church’s foes, but I think what he really meant is….” “Yeah, I know some things he says don’t come across too well, but really he’s just saying exactly the same things as the past two popes, I just need to weave together a bunch of sporadic quotations to show that.”

Bergoglio was a high school teacher, so he of all people should know about presented effect, about the way in which juvenile, sex-addled brains twist every possible statement into something deviant. Instead he seems to think he’s speaking to some fellow seminarians, in his youth, well past curfew, on the threshold of Vatican II. As Robert Royal puts it in his highly recommended editorial on “the Spirit of Bergoglio”, “You can’t stop people from misinterpreting you. But the pope is among other things a teacher. And a good teacher has a moral responsibility to guard against misinterpretation.”

In any event, my central question remains: Whom, precisely, did Francis have in mind that is constantly so obsessed with “those issues” that they displace the primacy of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection? That’s what I have been trying to figure out. Was he implying that his predecessors were imbalanced in their teaching leadership? Or that the laity are? Or some set of bishops? Unless he clarifies exactly where the imbalance is, and who really embodies the unhealthy obsession, his remarks are going to maintain the impact they already have––as a general swipe at socially conservative and morally committed traditional Catholics.

Which is perhaps exactly what Pope Francis intended.

+ + +

So I’ve reached this point: tending to my part of the trench, looking for flares in the darkness that provide enough light worth risking an advance, and shrugging off anything ambiguous or ‘jesuitical’ decoys.

In other words, I’ve reached the point, on the one hand, that if the Holy Father is reported to have said something heterodox, I neither believe it as inflated newspeak nor accept it even if it were accurately reported. On the other hand, if he’s reported as speaking orthodoxically, I simply nod and say, “Yeah? Good for him!”

Francis hiAll of which is to say, I’m in a funk: I’ve got papal motion sickness.

For the first time in my life as a Catholic, I can genuinely ask, “Who cares what the Pope says?” Keeping up with the many Francises, and tracking the consistent voice among them, is exhausting and irritating. If he says something novel and wrong, I don’t care, and shrug, while if he says something deep and true, I care, but simply shrug. He’s the most anti-climactic pope in recent history, so perhaps I can be pardoned for having the least interest in following his every move.

I’m weary of having to scramble every few weeks to parse and couch and illuminate and contextualize and nuance, etc. Pope Francis’ obiter dicta. I suppose I haven’t been Catholic long enough to know if it’s literally been just as bad since mass media spread, but I used to be much much more active in the blogosphere and I don’t recall so… many… easy… targets for liberal spin from prior popes in my lifetime.

Seeing the media jump on B16’s alleged Nazism, sure, that’s par for the course, precisely in order to discredit him as an articulate and consistent voice of orthodoxy. I know that they tried to do the same hatchet job on Francis in light of his alleged role in Argentina’s junta, but since then it seems like the media are happier to keep Francis unsullied precisely because he consistently, almost glibly, emits obscure and all too easily scandalous remarks.

On a broader scale, I think I’m basically sick of the populist trend to stand behind “The Pope” as some kind of clerical celebrity, just as I’m sick of the presidential obsession that has pervaded American politics for some time now. I realize that Francis is supposed to be the simple, humble, post-curial, People’s Pope, a simple pastor unconcerned with all those outdated ideological obsessions––but I can’t help but detect a strong whiff of major curial politicking in everything from his election until now. The irony is that, in “the interview”, for example, the more Francis downplays the Vatican’s managerial sway and the more he emphasizes the Roman See’s relatively collegial equality, the more attention is fixated on him and his role.

People used to complain that JP2 was too poetical and philosophical, while B16 was too academic and reactionary, but it seems to me that Francis is too subtle and too poetical and too reactionary-in-the-other-direction by half, given the exigencies of mass media and of being a responsible pastor of such a diverse Church. My gut reaction many times lately is, to be honest, “All right, Bergoglio, just bless the pilgrims and stick to the script, thank you.”

Since I still believe that Francis passionately holds to Catholic orthodoxy and morality, I take his musings in the recent interview to be ironic proof of the fact that he most definitely does not “get” the culture. If he did get this culture, he’d know, and certainly not trifle with, how easily careless words are twisted and spread and cemented in the collective consciousness. Instead, his regular willingness to utter ambiguous comments to the press at large bespeaks a profound, and profoundly unsettling, naivete about social media.

[I have since retracted the above opinion, pretty much entirely––by replacing it with a gloomier one. Considering the fact that he is aware of how wildly papal comments are spun and abused by the Church’s enemies, it is even more irresponsible or Francis to make so many off-the-cuff comments that do not at all befit the gravity of being the world’s pastor. He said he wants a mess in the churches. Well, his erratic formulations keep making messes: too bad the faithful are left to clean them up each time.]

Abp. Sheen famously noted that most people hate not the Church but what they mistakenly think She teaches. Francis seems to view it in reverse: because people hate what they know the Church teaches, we should change the subject (Jody Bottum, anyone?). In effect, Pope Francis is saying that the Church is better off (for now?) being simply Christian, and that the Gospel is more authentic and attractive (for now?) without all those peculiar Catholic extras. This is scandal, plain and simple.

Thus, my takeaway from “the interview” on the matter of the Church’s mission is that the Church should avoid talking about some of her own key teachings, lest non-believers understand, and retreat. In reality, though, it behooves the Church to keep articulating with maximal clarity what her actual teachings are, lest we imply that the Gospel of life can be had without those awkward moral rules. To the rebellious unChristian mind “Come be with Jesus, who loves you” and “Repent of your sins and seek God’s pardon” sound equally like odious “rules”, so the idea of picking one side of the coin to attract sinners better is an exercise in futility, if not compromise.

And so, for every Protestant who needs to see a Pope who loves Jesus like a street corner preacher, there is at least one Protestant who needs to see that Catholics don’t automatically fall all over themselves trying to valorize the ill advised obiter dicta of the Pope.

About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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16 Responses to Papa Frankie and “the interview”…

  1. Crude says:

    I fully grant that liberal backers of a supposedly post-orthodox Francis are misreading him, but the point is that he gave them ample light by which to do so.

    This is the central claim, and it’s one I question.

    I don’t think NARAL, for example, had anything close to ‘ample light’ to interpret Francis’ views as pro-abortion in any way whatsoever. Yet there NARAL is, presenting him as saying exactly that. When the Pope (or any other Christian) mentions that abortion is murder, NARAL makes it sound as if the Pope wants to throw 9 years old raped by their stepfathers into prison for procuring an abortion of a fetus that will literally kill them if it comes to term. It’s no surprise that when the Pope shows a more merciful and forgiving view, or has anything critical to say of social conservatives, NARAL and company report this as ‘The pope thinks abortion is A-OK and also pro-lifers and the like are horrible people.’

    I think it’s a bad idea to task the Pope, or anyone else, with only saying things that cannot possibly be taken out of context in an either positive or negative light, when the people who will be doing the interpreting are quite literally hostile to him and willing to lie to advance their aims. It’s a recipe for disaster, and basically makes NARAL the unofficial speech editor for the Pope and any social conservative.

  2. You are right about NARAL, but my point is that papal pronouncements, even in an informal setting, should not even be geared towards their effect on such things as, say, NARAL. If Francis really is “the honey badger pope”, then he shouldn’t even be concerned with fostering good will with the likes of NARAL, and yet his intervview smacks precisely of such “good will” offerings. Why has NARAL not high-fived another pope until now? What do they see in him that was hard to see in his predecessors? That’s not hard. That’s the easy part being made hard. Ultramontanism comes in many flavors.

  3. Maura says:

    This question you raised really stood out to me:

    “Whom, precisely, did Francis have in mind that is constantly so obsessed with “those issues” that they displace the primacy of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection? That’s what I have been trying to figure out. Was he implying that his predecessors were imbalanced in their teaching leadership? Or that the laity are? Or some set of bishops? Unless he clarifies exactly where the imbalance is, and who really embodies the unhealthy obsession, his remarks are going to maintain the impact they already have––as a general swipe at socially conservative and morally committed traditional Catholics.”

    For a few moments I really did not know the answer, until I reread your paragraph and realize you had answered the question.

    Yes, he IS targeting “socially conservative and morally committed traditional Catholics.” It’s not that it just seems like that for the time being. It’s not that this is the unfortunate perception he is unintentionally conveying. It IS his message. The “swipe” is there. We’ve felt it, there’s no denying that.

    I think he is targeting us, precisely because we ARE doing and believing and saying the right thing most of the time. It’s not that he disapproves of our good works and our love and our faith in that regard per se, but that we, just as much as the “socially liberal and morally uncommitted non-traditional Catholics,” need the grace of Jesus Christ.

    Bear with me, but what is really coming to mind right now is “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

    Don’t you see? We are the “righteous” ones, in a sense – like some of the most faithful Jews of Jesus’ time were – because we keep the commandments and we seek to resist the culture of death in our time. And that’s good. But it’s not enough.

    So many good Jews – and I’m not talking the Pharisees here – I’m talking ordinary, faithful Jews of Jesus time probably had a REALLY hard time with his message. Despite the fact He said He came to “fulfill the Law,” I’m sure it didn’t really feel like it to most people of His time.

    Similarly, I don’t think Pope Francis’ message is really all that complicated. He IS speaking to the “faithful” Catholics. WE are the ones he is evangelizing at the moment. And maybe that seems strange, because, hello Pope Francis, what about the culture of relativism and the collapse of western civilization? Why are you wagging your finger at us – we who are on your side, as it were? We, who are trying to proclaim the Gospel with our lives?

    Yes, but – if “salt loses it’s taste,” what are we good for?

    And perhaps we need to think about whether or not we may, in fact, have lost our taste? Not all of us “traditional” Catholics, perhaps, but many of us?

    “This is how they will know that you are My disciples – that you have love for one another.”

    And we only retain our saltiness insofar as we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ. Even the most important causes of our time- the pro-life movement, the upholding of marriage and family – all of those things STILL need to be rightly ordered according to the person of Christ.

    I think Pope Francis is right on the mark here. I think the scrambling in the Catholic blogosphere has a lot more to do with being human, and… maybe feeling insulted? by the Pope’s frankness.

    Thanks for your wonderful post. It’s given me a lot to think about. Yes, I do disagree with many of your points, but your honest questions have really helped me.

  4. Crude says:

    You are right about NARAL, but my point is that papal pronouncements, even in an informal setting, should not even be geared towards their effect on such things as, say, NARAL.

    I don’t think he’s concerned with fostering good will towards NARAL. I think he’s more concerned with the far, far larger spread of people who find NARAL’s extremes inane, but who nevertheless are not onboard with the full Catholic view of life and abortion, among other things.

    Why has NARAL not high-fived another pope until now?

    NARAL was established in 1969. How many popes have they even been around for? And in Francis’ case, he – way before this announcement – was turning out to be an incredibly popular Pope who couldn’t be bashed quite the same way Francis was.

    What do they see in him that was hard to see in his predecessors?

    A pope who was not, within a day of his being appointed, being compared to Emperor Palpatine in popular media. They also see a pope who is, at least in a media sense, putting out that whole ‘compassionate, caring’ image that makes it impossible to fight them. So, they’re going to the other extreme – if this is not a Pope they can easily slander in the press, then he’ll have to be a Pope they try desperately to co-opt.

    Not to mention… I understand, really, why social conservatives and traditionalists may feel stung here. The Pope basically criticized them, if indirectly, but in public. Their orthodoxy was not questioned, but their approach and focus definitely was. And I think there’s actually a good amount to criticize there – not in terms of commitment, but definitely approach. I saw some of this back in the 2012 campaign, where a lot of pro-lifers out and out circled the wagons around guys like Mourdock and Akin. Not ‘fine, they made a mistake – but we still should support them’, but ‘They didn’t even make a mistake, they said nothing wrong, the problem is everyone else in the world who doesn’t agree with (at least) Mourdock on this’.

    What I meant in the article I wrote is that liberals are panicking about this particular pope, precisely because he threatens to combine orthodox Catholic teaching with legitimate compassion. They’ve invested an incredible amount of time and effort into portraying people against gay marriage as ‘people who hate gays’, or people who are against abortion as ‘people who hate women who have sex’, and all kinds of other insanity. This Pope doesn’t make that move simple – so they are trying hard to misrepresent him as ‘the liberal pope’. And I think some social conservatives have at this point been conditioned to think, ‘If the Pope isn’t causing anger and outrage when he talks about these issues, he must be doing something wrong.’

  5. Well, I’m glad that my curmudgeonly floundering is helpful in some respect. Thanks for your perspective! I’m willing to admit that it may just be in my head, but I think there are still some things in the interview that were recklessly imprecise and off-kilter. I’ll keep praying.

  6. I appreciate you talking me through this all (talking me down, even, as it were). You’re much sharper on the image and rhetoric game than I am, especially in the blogosphere. I grant that I shouldn’t expect the Pope to make only spin-proof comments (as if), and so that idea is more a result of my frustration than very sound thinking. I never want to come across as a blowhard or mere polemicist, but I admit there is some real emotional agitation behind my words. Apologies.

    Having said that, I still believe there are some key elements in the interview that are disastrous in their implications, and those are the things that I’m trying to focus on.

    Fine, so he said things that could be co-opted by the world. It is what it is. Not his fault. You’re spot-on that such co-opting is crucial to how the world is trying to engage this wily Pope. But the use of such terms as “obsession” and “small-minded rules” and “collapse like a house of cards” and the castigation of tradition, doctrinal security and Rome’s “censorship” authority in ground-level dissent plainly reinforces the Protestant dichotomy that I rail against in this post.

    So, to be clear, I’m leaving aside the whole “but he let himself get misinterpreted!” complaint, and I’m actually saying that some things Francis said are profoundly wrong-headed and should be retracted. For the Left, the cat is out of the bag. Even if the next day Pope Francis denounced abortion, as far as the Church’s critics go, that’s just pro forma. For now the Pope is always at risk of being hoist by his own petard. “The occasional denunciation of ‘those issues’ is all right, Papa Frankie,” say progressives, “but we know that you agree with us that anything beyond that is a small-minded obsession.” I mean, read the following piece and tell me that the author is daftly or disingenuously twisting what’s not there in the interview:

    Hence, I think Dale Price’s warning about “The Nuke” is correct — — and so his question here is my own until further notice: “Can you find any soundbites to fling back at the retrograde, unChristian behavior of progressives? Let me know.”

  7. I think you’re being unfair to the Holy Father in the sense that you’re acting as if he made a mistake – as in, he didn’t know the implications of what he was saying. But I’ve read the interview; there’s even a point where he addresses his critics, critics like you, for example. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and you don’t like it.

    I hope I’m not sounding insulting right now, because I honestly am not trying to be. I just want to get that out there. It’s not that the Pope isn’t aware of how people is taking his words; it’s that he knows that his words will be twisted and is saying this stuff anyway. So let’s be clear – I think, right now, you’re saying more than, “I don’t think Pope Francis gets the culture”. You’re saying, “I think Pope Francis gets it and is still handling things incorrectly.” The man isn’t an idiot, and I think he at least deserves the credit to be disagreed with outright.

    Anyway, yes, I think that article is an example of somebody having an advance agenda and reading what they want into it. And? If Pope Francis had condemned, say, abortion then he would have twisted things to make it look as if he was an evil woman-hating bigot. Why do we need “counter sound-bites”? We have them, really, as you yourself pointed out (he spoke out against abortion). The guy in the article you mentioned even expressed disappointment over the Pope’s affirmation of the Church’s teachings regarding women.

    We need to man up and accept the Pope’s challenge. Worried that he’s encouraging the liberals with his emphasis on compassion and conversion? Prove otherwise. I coined a phrase I like that I think is really the key of Pope Francis’s message – “Evangelism Without Compromise”. Let’s make the focus evangelization, let’s bring hearts back to Christ before we condemn, but let’s do it without softening on Church teaching. Prove the world wrong. Take the challenge. Let’s rally behind Pope Francis.

    (I gave your article a more in-depth response on my blog.)

  8. Nice to hear from you! Thank you for your substantive replies and ideas. (As for being afraid of sounding hostile, don’t even worry about it. Even if you had come across as mean, my skin is pretty thick, even if this post of mine sounds overwrought and whiny in places. If anything, I’m the one always worried that I come across as a snide blowhard. Straight shooters are much better than silent assassins.)

    M: I think you’re being unfair to the Holy Father in the sense that you’re acting as if he made a mistake…

    C: No, as I tried to clarify in my latest reply to Crude, I no longer believe the Pope simply blundered by being careless with his words. This is why he has not offered, and will not offer, any apologies or retractions for things he said in the interview. He intentionally sent the message that most people are picking up on. It was a gambit, but very flawed, in my opinion. I think he intentionally made a very bad tactical decision by saying what he said.

    I thought you got that from the majority of my criticisms, which is why I thought you wrote this: I think, right now, you’re saying more than, “I don’t think Pope Francis gets the culture”. You’re saying, “I think Pope Francis gets it and is still handling things incorrectly.” The man isn’t an idiot, and I think he at least deserves the credit to be disagreed with outright. Exactly. I’m outright disagreeing with him on some points, just as I thought the Assisi event in 1986 (?) was a very poor pastoral choice.

    M: Why do we need “counter sound-bites”?

    C: We don’t, which is exactly my point. Francis basically said that the Catholics who ‘go on’ about serious moral issues are trapped in their own sound bytes. As such, his most controversial words are counter-conservative sound bytes in their own way. (Even more ironically, his strong pronouncements on abortion the day after the interview was released are for all intents and purposes just counter-progressive sound bytes, so who’s really playing the sound byte game here?) The happy-clappy emphasis on warmer, more humane rhetoric from the Church–predicated on the destructive idea that the Church, ya know, like, totally lost sight of the Good News, and stuff, until, like, Francis finally woke us all up now that those insufferable finger-waggers are gone–is just the flip side of an abstractly moralistic call for a sterner, harsher voice on moral matters just so the world knows who’s boss. Both sides of that worthless coin are driven by cheap political calculations. The Church has maintained a consistent, balanced voice since Her origin from the side of Christ; hence, the claim that the Church Herself is imbalanced and in danger a moral collapse is utterly repugnant. Only when concrete patches of the Church (for example, the USCCB in the past generation) backpedal on simply enunciating the Church’s teaching across the board, do we find a legitimate rhetorical and ideological imbalance.

    Now, I understand that the orthodox backers of Francis’s call for a “missionary style” see in it a wise, strategic retreat from the obviously failed conservative style of the past generation. This endorsement, however, is seriously confused.

    For, while the popes and certain major prelates may have been lightning rods for moral controversies, in the ranks of most dioceses we’ve suffered widespread corrosive heterodoxy and latitudinarianism (and I’m not only speaking about the USA). The irony is that, shameful as it is to admit, precisely because the majority of the Catholic laity is as lax about the big moral issues as its secular peers, there’s that much less evidence of this supposed “obsession” with “small-minded rules” among normal Catholics. If anything we’ve witnessed a sustained obsession with downplaying and bargaining out of small-minded rules. If there’s as much divorce, contraception, abortion, and other vices among Catholics, then by what standard can we say, with Pope Francis, that there’s an “obsession” with the moral strictures against such sins? Poppycock. It is precisely because the ardently orthodox and pro-life bishops are a minority that they stick out as such noisy god-botherers. Their minority status only further undermines the Pope’s claim that “the Church” (full stop!) is obsessed with imposing disjointed moral axioms.

    So, as I keep asking, whom exactly does the Pope have in mind? Not himself: he’s happy to remind the world that he’s not obsessed with talking about those issues all the time. Nor is it the majority of clerics: just look at how poorly catechized and morally coddled so much of the faithful are. Nor is he talking about the majority of the laity: the widespread immorality and hypocrisy of Catholics themselves is proof that they’re not obsessed with upholding the Church’s moral teaching. So whom does he have in mind?

    Clearly he’s chastising faithful Catholics who are passionately vocal about major sins as obstacles to the boundless love of God. (Indeed, Maura gladly admits this and wants to find some deeper gnomic wisdom in Francis’s “tough love” for conservatives, but I’m unmoved by that interpretation of his words.) John Paul II embodies exactly why Francis is wrong to imply that a zealous commitment to moral truth undermines an effective draw for wounded sinners. John Paul II was the not only one of the most ideologically vocal Popes of all time but also one of the most mobile and compelling missionaries in history–where’s the imbalance? Likewise, the only cause that John Paul II promoted more than moral truth was the Divine Mercy–where, again, is the imbalance?

    Used to be, conservative Catholics in the trenches had a simple if somewhat ungainly algorithm: 1) establish trust with a person or persons; 2) introduce the Church’s teaching when an opportunity presents itself; 3) field the obvious retort that the Church is all about rules and guilt by saying 3a) that God wills our ultimate happiness and that “the rules” are how to get us there safely and 3b) that the same Christ who calls us to repentance died for us to give us God’s forgiveness; 4) invite to Mass and repeat the above, as needed.

    Now, however, the rubric is expected to be 1), 2), 3) and then 4*) apologize for obsessing over those issues–including the reality of Hell–if the first attempt to witness was met with rejection. Pope Francis has effectively given non-believers a cudgel with which to repel Catholics as “obsessive” or “small-minded” or “morally imposing” any time the latter try to stand up for the Church in more than a nominal way. God’s love is important precisely because it saves us from the woes and doom of sin; God’s holiness is so important precisely because it destroys the sins that keep us from His love. This is Catholicism 101, and yet Pope Francis is being applauded for expressing that idea in a verbally imprecise and needlessly crass way.

    I am extremely thankful that we have such a passionate and orthodox pastor in Francis. Nonetheless, I am not alone in being scandalized and agonized by how terribly he communicates some things. I keep hearing that the interview was a watershed, an evangelistic master stroke, a brilliant theo-cultural psych out, but in so far as it really just warms over the “pastoral” accommodationism that flourished after Vatican II, I’m certain it’s going to promote the same swampy results that we’ve been trying to escape for two decades now: moral laxity among the laity, liturgical sloppiness (NB: Francis is appointing Marini to head the CDW!?), catechetical paralysis and even more shame-faced cultural marginalization of Christ the King. The world hates God and thus hates His Church; pretending that the Gospel hasn’t sounded welcoming enough all these centuries is not only absurd but also dangerously naïve. Whatever Francis thinks his proposed shift of emphasis will accomplish, I am glumly confident that it will not lead to more conversions and greater holiness.

  9. Maura says:

    Well, Christ’s sobering admonition seems very appropriate here:

    “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.
    Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
    So by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:15-20)

    I really believe Pope Francis’ words and work will bear good fruit. But I guess we will have to wait and see.

    All I can say is, in my own life, I have found that reading his daily homilies from the Doma Sanctae Mariae have really challenged me in difficult but fruitful ways.

    And I think the renewed interest on the part of lapsed Catholics in the Church is a good thing – even if their interest is plagued by misunderstandings and poor doctrine.

    I imagine that many of the people who followed Jesus to be healed or just to listen to Him were also plagued by misunderstandings and poor doctrine… but it was BY following Him that they got to know Him better.

    Even some of the Pharisees, who followed Him around for the WRONG reasons, changed their minds. At least Nicodemus was convinced.

  10. Crude says:


    I’m going to read and then post a reply up on my blog, since I think you raise points – and I’m in need of some clarifying myself.

  11. Mr. X says:

    I can see why people might think that the “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines” is meant to suggest that we should tone down the moral arguments, but I don’t think it should be interpreted that way. Maybe I’m putting more emphasis on the “disjointed multitude” bit than on the “obsessed” and “doctrines” bit, but it seems to me that Pope Francis’ point is that we should seek to explain the grounding and justification for the individual doctrines more, since, if we convince people of that, the individual doctrines will fall into place by themselves.

    To give a specific example: when talking about Catholic opposition to gay marriage, I’ve seen a lot of people turn round and say “Oh yeah, well how come the Church didn’t try and outlaw divorce then? Why ignore divorcees and go after gay people, if not because of homophobia?” And, quite frankly, I had difficulty replying. I mean, sure, I know why this is the case, but my explanations always seemed to come across as post-hoc rationalisations for bigotry. Maybe this reflects on my own persuasive ability rather than anything else, but I suspect that a large part of the reason was that the Church as a whole hasn’t been very good over the past few decades or so with explaining its core underlying beliefs about marriage. So whilst people know a few disjointed bits of doctrine — divorce bad, same-sex marriage bad, etc. — they are generally unaware of the “big picture” stuff about the actual fundamental nature of marriage. If the Church had been better at explaining this, then it would most likely be easier to convince people of specific doctrines, since it would be obvious that they emerge naturally from Catholic teaching on the matter, and it would be less easy to caricature (e.g.) arguments against gay marriage as some kind of rationalisation for bigotry.

    I’d also like to raise a couple of further questions, since, although I don’t know the answer to them, I think it would be useful to bear in mind when thinking about this issue.

    The first is, was the interview given in English, or is the English version a translation of the original? If the latter, it might be that the stuff about “obsession” and so on is an unfortunate translator’s decision. (I remember a couple of years ago, a French minister described the British government as “autiste”. The term apparently means something like “stubborn”, but it was translated into English as “autistic”, and caused quite a stir this side of the Channel.)

    The second is, how was the interview received in the rest of the world? I think there’s a tendency in some of these discussions to forget that Francis is Pope for the whole Church, not just the Church in the secular West. Whilst I think Codgitator has a point that Francis’ words are open to misinterpretation by Western journalists and campaigners who are ignorant about/hostile towards Catholic teaching, I also think that Francis has to bear in mind those in Latin America, Africa and Asia, or else he runs the risk of (to channel Crude for a moment) making a small group of liberal journalists into the whole world’s unofficial arbitrators of Papal pronouncements, and that’s not at all a desirable situation to be in.

  12. Well, this Spiegel article includes the following claims (my translation):

    “It goes with saying that Francis’ comments are historic: A Pope with a human countenance, one who knows people, who strives on behalf of the people, who admits his own flaws, who makes changes in life, one who will no longer accept the exclusion of gays, women and alternative thinkers from the Church. It is the great cinema in Rome for which believers waited years, nay, decades.

    “Has Francis finally shown his hand as a revolutionary in the Vatican? As someone who can turn relations on their heads? Yes and no. Yes, because he’s trying; and no, for a reason that many Catholics fail to see for the joy they’re feeling: a single pope a Catholic spring does not make. By no means is Francis pleading for women priests or gay life-unions. He is changing the climate, not the facts. …

    “In this situation Francis’ actions are above all distinctly sly. He publishes no encyclical, no doctrinal statement––he gives ‘just’ an interview. By doing so he alters no dogma, alters no element of Catholic teaching. But he gives people courage to change their Church, in so far as he himself has no fear to speak.”

    In other words, the fallout is as bad, or worse, in Europe.

    I think this Reuters article gives a good enough picture of the global reactions.

  13. Oh, and I just read the “obsession” portion of the interview in German, and the meaning is the same. It was originally in Italian, was personally revised and approved by the Pope, and was vetted by five independent translators for the English edition.

  14. «Non possiamo insistere solo sulle questioni legate ad aborto, matrimonio omosessuale e uso dei metodi contraccettivi. Questo non è possibile. Io non ho parlato molto di queste cose, e questo mi è stato rimproverato. Ma quando se ne parla, bisogna parlarne in un contesto. Il parere della Chiesa, del resto, lo si conosce, e io sono figlio della Chiesa, ma non è necessario parlarne in continuazione». «Gli insegnamenti, tanto dogmatici quanto morali, non sono tutti equivalenti. Una pastorale missionaria non è ossessionata dalla trasmissione disarticolata di una moltitudine di dottrine da imporre con insistenza. L’annuncio di tipo missionario si concentra sull’essenziale, sul necessario, che è anche ciò che appassiona e attira di più, ciò che fa ardere il cuore, come ai discepoli di Emmaus. Dobbiamo quindi trovare un nuovo equilibrio, altrimenti anche l’edificio morale della Chiesa rischia di cadere come un castello di carte, di perdere la freschezza e il profumo del Vangelo. La proposta evangelica deve essere più semplice, profonda, irradiante. È da questa proposta che poi vengono le conseguenze morali».

  15. Dale Price says:

    This is very well said. I’ll link to it later with some additional thoughts.

  16. Pingback: The F1 F/X Files… | FideCogitActio : omnis per gratiam

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