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 Slate.com, 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.
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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.”
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.
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.
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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!”
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.