Does the following sound like one of the more hotly discussed sections in the America interview with Pope Francis?
should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of
multiple, minor details, but rather, should always keep our eyes in the
first place on the greatness of Christianity.
I remember, when I
used go to Germany in the 1980s and '90s, that I was asked to give
interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned
the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such
constantly recurring problems.
If we let ourselves be drawn into
these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain
commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are
moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a
hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it
essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith - a commitment
from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.
this perspective I would now like to continue by completing last
Tuesday's reflections and to stress once again: what matters above all
is to tend one's personal relationship with God, with that God who
revealed himself to us in Christ.
That was part of an address given Pope Benedict XVI in November 2006 to the bishops of Switzerland. It bears a rather remarkable similarity to this remark by Pope Francis:
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.
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.
Was Benedict downplaying the importancemorally, spiritually,
culturally, politicallyof abortion, contraception, and the like? No, of
course not. He was, like Pope Francis after him, locating and pointing to
the center of the Faith, from which all else flows, including what is
means to be human, the value and dignity of human life, the nature of
marriage, and so forth. Benedict discussed those issues further in that
2006 address, then concluded with this remark:
that this is the great task we have before us: on the one hand, not to
make Christianity seem merely morality, but rather a gift in which we
are given the love that sustains us and provides us with the strength we
need to be able to "lose our own life". On the other hand, in this
context of freely given love, we need to move forward towards ways of
putting it into practice, whose foundation is always offered to us by
the Decalogue, which we must interpret today with Christ and with the
Church in a progressive and new way.
This same perspective was articulated as well by Pope Francis:
Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear
and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past
must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. ...
Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the
doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that
is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass,
to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes
do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to
a return. But that takes audacity and courage.
As I explained in my CWR editorial yesterday,
I don't think the current Holy Father's comments on these particular
matters are nearly as earthshaking, astounding, or disturbing as some
people (from across the spectrum, as it were) think they are.
That said, I do think people of good will can fairly point out things
they wish the Pope would have said differently, or things he would have
added. I think he could have helped matters a bit if he had provided
some context to certain statements. Some remarks lacked precision (a
complaint I've heard from many people). Some of his answers seemed to
float about without enough grounding in either historical or theological
context. For example, Francis said,
We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We
have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only
by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their
function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we
make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about
the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of
the church is exercised for various areas of the church.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this statement, but I am
puzzled, frankly, as to why Francis makes no reference to the most
significant work of Bl. John Paul II, especially in "Mulieris Dignitatem", his 1988 apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women and his 1995 letter to women. It would have been a simple but important way to point out his pontificate's continuity with that of John Paul II. The impression given, unfortunately, is that the Church has been ignoring the role of women, when that is not at the case.
Also, his comments about Vatican II were somewhat puzzling to me as
well, in part because they don't seem to take into account the ongoing
tensions and frustrations of many Catholics regarding the proper
implementation of the Council, especially when it comes to the liturgy.
Vatican II was a re-reading of the Gospel in light of contemporary
culture. Vatican II produced a renewal movement that
simply comes from the same Gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall
At that point, I know some readers thought, "What is
he talking about?" After all, many Catholics in the West have suffered
for decades through banal liturgies and liturgical abuses foisted on
them in the name of Vatican II. Benedict obviously spent a good amount
of time and effort addressing some of these liturgical questions and
problems. There is no doubt in my mind that Francis has a different view
of the liturgical reform following the Council than does Benedict. Is that cause for
discussion and even debate? Sure. It is cause for alarm or worse? I
really don't think so.
No pontiff, no matter how articulate and
brilliant, is going to satisfy everyone in a lengthy interview. It
simply cannot be done. Which is why interviews should be read as, well,
interviews, not as encyclicals or papal bulls. But, again, it is one
thing to misrepresent what the Pope actually said and quite another to
say, "I really wish he had been more precise here, or had explained
further what he meant by that", and so forth. It is a distinction with a
real difference, and it makes a big difference in how we go about gaining a better
understanding of the heart and mind of Pope Francis.
UPDATE: A reader just pointed me to this quote from Benedict, from his 2006 address to the Irish bishops:
"So often the Church’s counter-cultural witness is misunderstood as something
backward and negative in today’s society. That is why it is important to
emphasize the Good News, the life-giving and life-enhancing message of the
Gospel (cf. Jn 10:10). Even though it is necessary to speak out strongly
against the evils that threaten us, we must correct the idea that Catholicism is
merely “a collection of prohibitions”. Sound catechesis and careful “formation
of the heart” are needed here, and in this regard you are blessed in Ireland
with solid resources in your network of Catholic schools, and in so many
dedicated religious and lay teachers who are seriously committed to the
education of the young. Continue to encourage them in their task and ensure
that their catechetical programmes are based on
The Catechism of the Catholic
Church, as well as the new
Compendium. Superficial presentations of
Catholic teaching must be avoided, because only the fullness of the faith can
communicate the liberating power of the Gospel. By exercising vigilance over
the quality of the syllabuses and the course-books used and by proclaiming the
Church’s doctrine in its entirety, you are carrying out your responsibility to 'preach the word … in season and out of season … unfailing in patience and in
teaching' (2 Tim 4:2)."
Read more on the Vatican site.