Does the following sound like one of the more hotly discussed sections in the America interview with Pope Francis?
We 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.
In 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:
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.
Was Benedict downplaying the importance—morally, spiritually, culturally, politically—of 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:
I think 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:
If the 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. Francis said,
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 the liturgy.
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.
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