Last week a satirical website posted a photo of Pope Francis on the plane speaking to reporters, and “quoted” the Holy Father as saying: “Since my friends in the media twist everything I say, I decided to give a 12,000-word interview….”
And lo and behold, by artfully recombining sound-bites, major newspapers and cable networks made it sound like the Holy Father, in his recent interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., was calling for an end to the Church’s “obsession” about abortion, etc., downplaying dogma and recommending a new approach to the world of the twenty-first century.
The simplest way to deal with the misleading impressions gleefully created by the mainstream media is to quote Catholic leaders who have spoken personally with the Pope since he gave the interview in August.
Sanctity of Life
Fr. Frank Pavone was dining with the Holy Father in his residence a few days ago when he first received text messages from alarmed Catholics asking, “Is the Pope saying we should talk less about abortion?” Fr. Pavone headlined his response, posted at the Priests For Life website, “No, the Pope is not diluting the anti-abortion focus of the Church.”
Pope Francis preaches on pro-life in a very integral way. He gives strong and clear messages that derive from the very substance of the Faith and a very broad vision of the demands that Faith places upon us. The conclusions and applications for the pro-life movement are undeniable, even if he does not use the specific words “pro-life movement” and “unborn.”
This was very clear in his homily at his installation on March 19, when he spoke of the need to protect every person, especially children, from the “Herods” of our day who plot death….
In his recent interview, he made it clear that the Church should put opposition to abortion “in context”…. The Pope wants to see the renunciation of abortion put in the context of mercy toward the mother, and this is consistent with the pro-life movement’s emphasis on “loving them both.” In fact, in my personal conversations with the Pope, he particularly urged me to go forward with the work of Rachel’s Vineyard, the largest ministry in the world for healing after abortion. He called it an “excellent work.”
Coincidentally, two days after the papal interview was published in Jesuit magazines worldwide, the Pope made several new appointments in the Roman Curia and confirmed that Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller will remain at his post as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Abp. Müller granted an interview to the German news agency KNA that same day, in which he said:
It is not true that other bishops or Pope Benedict XVI in their proclamation of the faith spoke constantly about abortion, sexual morality or euthanasia. And pastoral ministry is not just a therapeutic game. It intends to serve mankind with the Word of God. Therefore it makes no sense to pit teaching about Christian faith and morals against a pastoral approach.
In other words, the Church’s perennial dogmatic and moral theology is the foundation of her pastoral ministry. The interviewer went on to remark, “If I understand Francis correctly, he would like the national bishops’ conferences to take more responsibility themselves, particularly in disputed questions,” suggesting that the Catholic Church in certain countries might make its own rules about divorce and remarriage, intercommunion with Protestants, etc. The CDF Prefect clarified:
Locally the Bishop of the Church teaches and governs. The papacy and the episcopal ministry are of divine right, while the bishops’ conferences are not. They are working groups, but without any doctrinal competence of their own beyond the authority of the individual bishop. They are therefore not a third court of appeal between the pope and the bishops. And so I do not think that central competencies will now be relinquished to the individual states as in the reform of a federalist system of government. The Church is just not constituted in that way, according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
Put another way, there will not and cannot be any “decentralization” in the Church that would give episcopal conferences authority to change Catholic faith and morals.
Confronting the Culture
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, in his weekly column dated September 25, notes that he too was in Rome when the papal interview was released and therefore was unavailable for comment on news and talk shows. (He wryly calls this “an unusual blessing”.) The Archbishop of Philadelphia described two sorts of responses to the interview that he observed in the messages that he had received from the faithful: “Some people grasped at the interview like a lifeline—or a vindication…. More common though were emails from catechists, parents and everyday Catholics confused by the headlines suggesting that the Church had somehow changed her teaching….”
We can draw some useful lessons from these reactions. First, we need to be very careful in taking mass media coverage of the Catholic Church at face value. Second, we need to actually read the Holy Father’s interview for ourselves, and pray over it, and then read it again, especially in light of the Year of Faith. A priest here in Philadelphia asked for a show of hands at a Mass last Sunday, and nearly everyone in the church, which was full, had heard about the Pope’s interview. But only five persons had actually read it. Third and finally, we need to open our hearts — all of us — and let God lead us where he needs us to go through the words of the Holy Father.
After these remarks about Catholics, Archbishop Chaput makes a second point, about the culture and the need for a Catholic response to it.
Among the many vital things the Pope reminds us of in his interview is the new and drastically different condition of the modern world that God seeks to save. It’s one thing to argue about abortion and sexuality when both disputants in the debate share the same basic moral framework and language, the same meaning to words like “justice”, the same set of beliefs about the nature of the human person. But it’s quite another thing when we no longer have that common vocabulary. The modern world is mission territory. It’s morally fractured…. The modern heart can only be won back by a radical witness of Christian discipleship – a renewed kind of shared community life obedient to God’s Commandments, but also on fire with the Beatitudes lived more personally and joyfully by all of us.