Judging by some of the reactions to the September 19th America interview with Pope Francis, which was originally conducted over three days in August, you might be tempted to think a pontiff had never given an interview before. How quickly some forget, if they ever knew at all.
The first papal text I ever read, as a young Evangelical Protestant with a growing curiosity about the Catholic Church, was John Paul II’s 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (available online in PDF format), which was an interview conducted by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. And, of course, Pope Benedict XVI was interviewed in 2010 by German journalist Peter Seewald, resulting in Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times (Ignatius Press, 2010). That book certainly garnered widespread attention, especially for comments that Benedict made about contraception.
In fact, if you read only accounts from many mainstream news sources, you may have concluded that the entire book was about condoms. The obsession with the “condom comments” became so ridiculous that the president of Ignatius Press, Mark Brumley, penned an interview with himself which satirized the nonsense:
Mainstream Media: So the Pope has written a book about condoms!
Mark Brumley: Well, actually, it’s an interview book. And journalist Peter Seewald interviewed Benedict about a wide-range of topics, not just about condoms.
MM: Yes, but condoms must be a major theme of the book. Look at all the coverage that has focused on condoms!
Mark: Actually, the Pope’s comments about condoms cover only about two pages out of about 200 pages of Q & As.
MM: Well, what did the Pope say about condoms?
Mark: You can go here and read for yourself what he said.
What does this have to do with the interview with Pope Francis? Quite a bit. Consider some of the headlines that a Google search turns up for “Pope Francis” and “interview” (all from the first page ):
• Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion (New York Times)
• Pope Francis: Church cannot be ‘obsessed’ with gays, other bans (Chicago Tribune)
• Pope Francis says church cannot focus only on abortion and gay (NBCNews.com)
• Pope Francis: Church can’t ‘interfere’ with gays (CNN)
• Pope Francis Tells Church to Stop ‘Obsessing’ Over Gay Marriage (Mediaite)
• Pope Francis takes issue with church focus on gays, abortion (Los Angeles Times)
• Pope Francis says church cannot focus only on abortion and gay marriage (NBCNews.com)
• Pope Francis: Gays, Abortion Too Much Of Catholic Church’s Obsession (Huffington Post)
• Pope Francis: The Church needs to mellow out on abortion and gay issues (San Francisco Chronicle)
Yes, indeed—Catholics surely must not obsess over “gay marriage” and abortion, otherwise they might start looking and sounding like the reporters and editors of The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, NBC News, CNN, and all the rest! Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d think that the only reason many reporters skim through papal writings and interviews is to find mention of “sex”, “abortion”, “condoms”, and the like.
What did the Holy Father actually say? First, keep in mind that you really must read the entire interview. Twice. Or even three times. Carefully. That said, here is the section inspiring all of the knee-jerk, group-think reaction among many American journalists:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
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.
Everything said here is not just accurate, but very much in keeping with both commonsense and a perspective shaped by a desire to share the gospel, save souls, and transform lives, by God’s grace.
First, you cannot win souls by simply telling people, “No, no, no!” As Al Kresta stated, when he interviewed me earlier today about this papal interview, “Before there is any ‘no’, there is a resounding ‘Yes!’” This does not mean, of course, that saying “No!” is wrong, but that it must be introduced with a “Yes!” And that is the “Yes!” of God’s love, mercy, grace, and gift of salvation. Francis does not say Catholics should not discuss abortion, marriage, and other “hot button” issues, but that our conversations, arguments, and discussions about them must be within a proper context—and that context is the gospel. After all, as he notes, “the teaching of the church” on these issues “is clear” (even if many Catholics remain conveniently confused about them).
The Cynical Misreading of Pope Francis
Hours after the interview was released, the dissenting group Catholics United (see the August 2012 CWR article, “The Catholic Con Continues”) released a press statement penned by the CU communications director, Chris Pumpelly. The statement opens by claiming that “Francis articulates his vision of moving the priorities of the Catholic faith away from divisive social issues, like what he calls an ‘obsession’ with gay marriage, abortion and contraception, while refocusing on core Gospel teachings relating to poverty.” That statement is misleading at best, as “the priorities of the Catholic faith” have always been focused on proclaiming the gospel, even if many individual Catholics—laity, clergy, and religious alike—fail to do so. Pumpelly, like so many “progressives”, seeks to create a faulty “either/or” approach that seeks the silencing of those who uphold the clear and consistent teaching of the Church about sexuality, morality, and marriage.
The fact is, it is the secularists, the technocratic elitists, and the self-appointed gatekeepers of society who have for decades relentlessly pushed their anti-human and anti-family priorities upon the Church and on all those who believe that marriage is indeed the union of a man and a woman, that sexual union is for the marriage bed alone, and that life deserves protection from the moment of conception. It brings to mind the story of an archbishop who, upon learning that lawmakers were seeking to legislate “same sex marriage” into existence, began writing letters and helping organize responses against the impending legislation. In one of his letters, he wrote the following of the growing push for “same sex marriage”:
It is not a simple political fight; but rather an attempt to destroy the plan of God. It is not about a mere legislative project—that is only the instrument—but, rather, it is a “move” by the father of lies, who intends to confuse and trick the children of God. …
To the senators: cry out to the Lord for his Spirit to be sent to the senators who must vote. That they not be moved by error or by changing situations but, rather, according to what natural law and the law of God show us. This battle is not ours but God’s. That they may assist, defend, and accompany us in God’s will.
That archbishop, of course, was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, writing in 2010. Was he, then, falling prey to an “obsession”? Was he, in his words and actions, “abdicating” his “moral authority” by obsessing “over divisive, often politically-driven, social issues like gay marriage and access to birth control”—a charge leveled by Catholics United executive director, James Salt, against the American bishops? Conversely, is it really possible to openly dismiss moral truth and undermine the perennial teaching of the Church, and then claim to somehow be more perfectly attuned to the priorities of the Church? I hope the answer is obvious.
Focus on the Ultimate Goal
Sadly, those who are most “obsessive” about these issues are those who cannot (or will not) appreciate that the mosaic of the Church’s teachings, which beautifully expresses the gospel and provides a map to right living, must be received and viewed in full, without removing those tiles which offend our passions or transgress the wisdom of the current age. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church plainly states, “There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith” (par 89). What Francis has emphasized in this interview is a need for prudence and discernment in recognizing the best way to convey the gospel:
The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.
This builds upon what the Church calls the “hierarchy of truths” (CCC 90), the recognition that there is an organic relationship of priority within Church teaching. Truth is truth, but certain doctrines—the Trinity, the Incarnation, the saving work of Jesus Christ—are more foundational and central, and without them, other truths cannot be seen as easily and understood with proper clarity.
Finally, about the Pope’s statement, “…I have never been a right-winger.” Anyone who presents this as an open shot at Catholics who opposed “same sex marriage” and “abortion” is being either cynical or foolish. The comment is made within the context of the young Bergoglio being a Jesuit superior; he laments the “authoritarian” methods of governance he used when first appointed to that position within the Order. What is most ridiculous and offensive about James Salt’s misuse of the term is that Catholics United is supposedly against the alleged misuse of politics in the name of the Church, yet misuses the very words of the Pope in order to further a political agenda squarely at odds with the Church. As is so often the case, distinguishing between dissenting Catholics and fixated secular journalists can be difficult, although the latter probably have more excuses for their failures.
Near the conclusion of his interview, the Holy Father says, “The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.” When I first read John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope almost twenty years ago, I recognized both genius and a incisive understanding of what is means to be human. The same is true for the writings and teaching of Benedict XVI, especially (but not limited to) his profound encyclicals on charity and hope.
Pope Francis has his own style, which reflects his unique personality and background, but it is also evident that he has the same central goal as his predecessors: to “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).