Six months in to his job as the Vicar of Christ and Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is causing a ruckus, leaving many people, both secular and religious, asking, “What’s he doing, and why is he doing it?”
Only the new pontiff knows exactly what he has in mind, but, based on recent events, a pattern is emerging.
All analogies are imperfect, but here goes.
Say you have a huge, beautiful, ancient mansion full of food, wine, books, music, laughter, great conversation, and glorious works of art, and you would like people to come by to visit and perhaps choose to stay in one of its many rooms.
But, while you’ve been busy working on the inside of the house–which is ever in need of cleaning and repair–you’ve sadly neglected the front yard. The rosebushes have more thorns than blooms; the scraggly grass badly needs mowing; the stone footpath is overgrown with moss and weeds; and everybody thinks the neighbors’ barking dogs are yours.
Say you’ve just been given the keys to that house and the responsibility of maintaining it and someday filling all its rooms. What do you do? You could throw yourself into a thorough spring cleaning, rearrange some furniture to improve traffic flow, all while continuing to lay out meals for the current residents.
That’s great and absolutely necessary, but maybe it’s time to also restore the yard and perhaps even put a new, big welcome sign on the unlocked front gate.
Even there, you could just do some cosmetic work, trim the roses, clear the path, or you could get out the rototiller and attempt a complete transformation. It’ll be a messy, dirty process, as any gardener or landscaper knows, but the final result could not only attract people nearby but even those who have to come a long way to visit.
For the Roman Catholic Church, Sept. 19, 2013, was the day the rototiller hit the dirt.
Anyone who follows news about the Church knows that the Jesuit magazine America last week published the English translation of a lengthy interview–called “A Big Heart Open to God”–that Pope Francis (himself a Jesuit) gave in Italian over the course of three meetings in Rome in August (click here for the full text, which is also downloadable as a PDF). The interviewer was Jesuit priest Father Antonio Spadaro, the editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal.
The mainstream media erupted with headlines like “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion” (The New York Times); “Pope Francis: Church can’t ‘interfere’ with gays” (CNN); “Pope Francis: The Church needs to mellow out on abortion” (San Francisco Chronicle).
From these proclamations, one might assume the Roman Catholic Church had kicked over the traces to join in an ecumenical free-for-all (and it ignores the salient point that the Church often talks about homosexuality and abortion because the media is obsessed with asking about homosexuality and abortion, along with contraception, same-sex marriage, etc).
One would assume wrongly.
In the lengthy, lyrical conversation–which is especially resistant to dissection into soundbites, owing to Francis’ careful phrasing and reasoning–the pope changes not one iota of existing Church doctrine. Not one.
Father Spadaro noted, “I don’t have to interpret the pope. The words are there. It’s absolutely clear. He said, ‘I am a son of the Church.'”
In other words, Francis is not remodeling the mansion. You might say that, instead of pointing visitors straight to the library to do some heavy catechetical reading or to the basement gym for a spiritual workout, he’d rather they begin in the kitchen with tea, hot soup, crusty bread, and convivial conversation. But first, he has to get them through the front door.
He said, “We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
In Pope Francis’ view, shared by his predecessors, the Catholic Church’s primary mission is not to just teach doctrine, build edifices, or, as he has often said, function in the world as a charitable NGO. It is to save souls, by the work of flawed and fragile human hands, inspired by the Holy Spirit and the “good news” of the Gospels.
All that the Church does, teaches, builds, writes, or sings exists to serve Christ’s exhortation to his apostles in the Gospel of Matthew to “go therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (the theme of last July’s tumultuous World Youth Day gathering in Rio de Janeiro, which Francis describes in the interview as a “mystery” and a true grace).
Pope Francis is not revising articles of the Faith, but he has called for a change in emphasis. He wants to put mercy first, letting people know that they are welcome to enter the mansion, no matter their inclinations or situations. Once they’ve had a look around, experienced the amenities therein, and learned the house rules, they may or may not decide to stay permanently. But even if they leave, he wants them to know the door remains open.
And he always emphasizes that the energy that binds together the very molecules of the mansion’s walls and floors comes from the Gospels.
“We have to find a new balance,” Francis said, “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.”
But the mainstream media, which often seems to have gleaned much of its knowledge about the Church by rummaging through its trash and dirty laundry (and everyone knows there’s plenty of both), saw what it wanted to see in Francis’ words. As usual, that had to do with its favorite, sex-related subjects (which make good linkbait, if nothing else).
Also, many in the MSM seem to proceed from the underlying assumption that the Church and its pope revile anyone who disagrees with its teachings, particularly those connected to sex, and have consigned them automatically to perdition.
So, when Francis, or any member of the Catholic hierarchy, says something kind, welcoming, and charitable (and firmly grounded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church)–such as not condemning a person with same-sex attraction who seeks Christ with a contrite heart–much of the media reacts with shock and proclaims that a new day has dawned in Rome.
This happens despite the fact that all the Church’s teachings and documents are available in print and online, in multiple languages, along with videos and translations of the pope’s addresses and homilies.
The interview also touched off a conflagration in the Catholic media and blogosphere, partly caused by the misleading headlines.
Self-professed Catholic liberals claimed Francis had seen the light and would now toss away irksome Church laws and dogmas and replace them with friendly suggestions and poverty programs (which he hadn’t, and this should be stark proof of that); and self-professed conservatives feared Francis had abandoned the faithful and Catholic moral standards in favor of simply opening up a universal soup kitchen and being nice to everyone (which he hadn’t, no more than the father in the parable of the prodigal son rejected his loyal elder son by welcoming his wayward younger son home).
Francis even got some new celebrity fans, with Chris Rock tweeting that he might be “the greatest man alive.” We’ll see how long that lasts.
Ultimately, “A Big Heart Open to God” proved to be a Rorschach test, revealing as much about the chroniclers and commentators as it does about Francis himself.
One particular sticking point was his assertion that the Church cannot only talk about such controversial topics as, for example, abortion, since Catholic stands on these issues don’t exist in isolation from the teachings that surround and support them. In Francis’ view, for those that understand and accept those teachings, the Church’s anti-abortion stance, as with many others, becomes self-evident.
But just when the mainstream media–and many Church faithful–had concluded Francis had gone soft on abortion, he stood up on Sept. 20 in front of an audience of Catholic gynecologists in Rome and delivered a barn-burner of a speech that strongly condemned abortion as part of a “throw-away culture” that supports disposing of human lives.
He said, “Every child that isn’t born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord.”
A story from CBS News/AP characterized this “an olive branch to the doctrine-minded, conservative wing of the Catholic Church.” How the reporter divined Francis’ motives is a mystery, but the pontiff was speaking orthodox doctrine that’s been around for about as long as the Church itself.
For many media types, though, even if it’s not new, it’s new to them.