Pope Francis: The Good, the Baffling, and the Unclear

Recent comments by the Holy Father, especially in interviews, are lacking in three important things

Nonetheless, Lombardi stopped short of saying that every line was literally as pronounced by the pope, suggesting instead that it represents a new genre of papal speech that’s deliberately informal and not concerned with precision.” — John Allen, Jr., reporting today that journalist Eugenio Scalfari’s Oct. 2nd interview with Pope Francis was not recorded, but was the product of “an after-the-fact reconstruction”.

The 19th-century controversialist William G. Ward, a convert from Anglicanism and a vigorous defender of all things Catholic, once exclaimed, “I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast.” Since weekly papal interviews were not yet a common occurrence in the 1860s, it’s not clear if Ward, were he among us today, would accept papal interviews in lieu of the somewhat more authoritative papal bulls. 

A sense of humor and a sense of perspective are both helpful when pondering the recent interviews given by Pope Francis. For those who might be ready to jump off the edge of their Catechism of the Catholic Church into the cold darkness of either cynicism or despair, just consider how turbulent things would have been if the internet had been around during the Avignon papacy. Even worse, imagine if Twitter, Facebook, and Andrew Sullivan had been around during that infamous (but little discussed) period sometimes called “the Pornocracy”—a stretch of six decades or so in the tenth century that witnessed about as much mortal sin, nepotism, and abuse of power as the papacy could handle. 

If that seems like an overly extreme historical reference, you may have missed how some are saying, with obvious glee, that Francis is unlike any previous pontiff and is set to remake the papacy and the Catholic Church in ways that eyes have not seen and ears have not heard before. You may have also missed how others are saying, with obvious distress, that Francis is unlike any previous pontiff and is set to remake the papacy and the Catholic Church in ways—well, you get the picture. There are also those who are, with the best of intentions, insisting that nearly all of the hysteria, furor, and meta-narratives are completely missing that Francis is both a surprising breath of fresh air and an often misunderstood man who desires nothing more than a Church radically committed to Jesus Christ and living the Gospel with a profound spirit of evangelical fervor. The oft-expressed hope that the Pope can unite and bring all men of good will together is apparently being realized, albeit in a unity based in countless arguments over what Francis really says, means, and intends.

For my part (and I’m hardly alone here, I’m certain), I reject the first two options and agree in part with the third, with some important qualifiers. Let’s begin with the Good: when Francis is clear and on point, he is fabulous. He has certain undeniable strengths, some of them easier to describe or pinpoint than others: his energy, his obvious warmth, his demonstrated love for the vulnerable and downtrodden, the direct talk about basic spiritual truths, and an intense and palpable love for Jesus Christ. A particular quality that keeps coming to the fore as I read more of his pre-papal writings is his vivid sense of the spiritual battle that rages both outside and within. Just yesterday I received a review copy of the collection, Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus (Herder & Herder, 2013), which consists of 48 conferences from retreats led by then Cardinal Bergoglio. As I’ve leafed through and read passages, I am struck by how deeply immersed Bergolgio is in the narratives of Scripture—not so much as a believing scholar or theologian (i.e., Benedict XVI), but as a restless believer, constantly gazing upon the living Lord. As for the spiritual battle:

The core of temptation is in the tension between fidelity and infidelity. God our Lord seeks a fidelity that is renewed with every test. But that is where the devil, the seducer, enters in. Satan provokes infidelity in love by leading people to spiritual adultery (cf. Ezekiel 16): he provokes infidelity in hope of goading people to grumble constantly as they stubbornly demand idols to worship and proofs and guarantees in the form of onions and garlic. All of these infidelities pronounce a ‘No’ to love, to hope, and to the leadership of Yahweh. The world is the broad stage of temptation.

Also notable, in light of the pope’s comment that, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense”, are the book’s numerous references to mission and evangelization. Proselytism, strictly speaking, is coercive in nature; true evangelization is missional and vocational in nature—to given witness to Christ and the gospel is the vocation of every Catholic. “Jesus,” says Bergoglio, “establishes a community that is both evangelized and evangelizing.” And in his homily on October 4th at Assisi, Francis clearly and beautifully reflected on the crucified Lord and his gift of divine life for us and to us:

The cross does not speak to us about defeat and failure; paradoxically, it speaks to us about a death which is life, a death which gives life, for it speaks to us of love, the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us, we are re-created, we become “a new creation”. Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners. That is why Saint Francis could say with Saint Paul: “Far be it for me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).

So, there is much obvious good. And I am convinced that anyone who thinks Francis is going to try to change Church doctrine (as many media types and change-mongering progressives are obviously hoping) are simply wrong, even delusional. However, there is also bafflement and frustration among many Catholics, and it simply won’t do to say that all of is caused by those who “don’t get” the Pontiff’s deeper meaning or who don’t really understand all the nuances of his various public statements. 

At times, especially in his interviews and more impromptu remarks, Francis has shown a tendency to use language that is muddled and unclear, even undisciplined. There are also those moments when he seems to have a particular audience or group of people in mind, and yet never makes it evident who they might be, creating an ambiguity that, far from being “challenging”, is simply confusing. One of the more obvious examples was this comment from his first interview, published in English in America:

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.

When I wrote my CWR editorial about that interview, I focused on the widespread media misrepresentation, mostly because it was so blatant and overwhelming, and therefore begging for a strong corrective. Since that interview came out, I’ve talked with quite a few serious, thoughtful Catholics who all are asking the same basic question: “Who in the world was the pope talking about?” Indeed, who are these zealous, fixated Catholics talking only about abortion, “gay marriage”, and so forth? Answer: I have no idea. And who “reprimanded” Francis? Answer: I have no idea. In some ways, it simply smacks of a straw man—sincerely constructed, no doubt, but still a straw man. Janet Smith, in an excellent First Things essay, “Are We Obsessed?”, politely but pointedly said the same, writing:

Pope Francis finds the homily a proper place to teach moral truths but thinks priests have gotten the order wrong. Where is he hearing these homilies that hammer on moral truths at the expense of preaching the gospel? For some time now I have been trying to help seminarians and priests preach on the difficult moral truths. One reason it is we struggle is that virtually none of us have heard it done! We have heard homilies on abortion—perhaps at most once a year—while homilies on contraception and homosexual acts are so rare as to cause astonishment and generally earn the pastor an influx of hate mail.

In other words, not only is it unclear who Francis is referring to, the logic of his approach is suspect as well. And what has become even more bothersome to me is the reactionary quality of these sort of statements from the pontiff. As I wrote to one friend as we discussed the two papal interviews, there seems to be a passive-aggressive quality at play which belies the image of the energetic, broad-minded pope who is above the fray of personality clashes and “office politics.” On the contrary, my impression is that he lets his annoyance with certain people or groups—from Argentina? in the Vatican? elsewhere?—dictate comments that are uttered without reasonable clarity or proper context. 

To state what should be obvious, a pope in 2013 simply needs to be as precise and clear as possible. Fuzzy language, half-formed concepts, and failure to make important distinctions will eventually result in confusion and frustration. Do they also “give ammunition to the enemy,” as at least three readers have insisted in e-mails? I think so, mindful that there are some folks who will misrepresent what the pope says, no matter how clearly, simply, and slowly he speaks. And Francis, it should be noted, has admitted (in the first interview), “I am a really, really undisciplined person.” There comes point when the off-the-cuff remarks go from being “fresh” and “explosive” to problematic and puzzling, and that line was probably crossed, in my estimation, in the second interview. 

This concern only increases with the breaking news that the pope’s interview with 89-year-old journalist Scalfari was apparently carried out without a recording or even hand-written notes. As John Allen reports today, this led Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi to lamely refer to (in Allen’s words) “a new genre of papal speech that’s deliberately informal and not concerned with precision.” Does anyone in their right mind think that papal statements unconcerned with precision should be served up to readers who are, or at least should be, looking for reasonable precision and clarity from the Vicar of Christ—even in remarks made in informal settings?

Of course, in all of this we need to be mindful that papal interviews are not magisterial in nature. At best, they offer insights into the heart and mind of the man, yet they cannot “change the Church,” regardless of the desperate wishes of those who would, say, dismiss John Paul II’s 1994 Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, but will act as if Francis has somehow endorsed a wholesale, official rewriting of Catholic moral doctrine because of (apparently unrecorded and imprecise) comments made in an informal interview.

So: clarity and context. Those have been lacking at times, especially in the interviews. The third and final “c” that I suggest is needed is reference to continuity. In the writings and addresses of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (especially the latter), there was often a bigger context provided—theological, cultural, historical, or otherwise—and often a reference to continuity with Church teaching and previous papal statements and documents. There was, in other words, a rootedness, and the importance of that cannot be overstated, especially in an age when rootlessness—spiritually, intellectually, culturally—is a serious problem. Francis, on occasion, makes comments that are free-floating, appearing out of nowhere and without much sense of where they come from or where they are headed. A prime example of this, for me, is this remark from the second interview:

Vatican II, inspired by Pope Paul VI and John, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.

Questions crop up immediately: What is “a modern spirit”? And what is “modern culture”, exactly? Can it be assumed that the meanings of those daunting terms are obvious to all, or even a few? Why the apparent assumption that “modern culture” is all good, an assumption that is not, contrary to rumor, exactly in keeping with Vatican II? (For example: the “modern world shows itself at once powerful and weak, capable of the noblest deeds or the foulest; before it lies the path to freedom or to slavery, to progress or retreat, to brotherhood or hatred.” — Gaudium et spes, 9). What does it mean to be “open” to it, especially when it’s not obvious what it is? How are ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers evidence of openness to modern culture, especially when so much of modernity seems closed to honest, open dialogue with Catholicism? 

(There is also the reasonable assumption that these informal interviews might be undermining ecumenical rapprochement with some non-Catholic Christians, but that’s a worthy topic for another day.)

But, to my point about continuity: how can Francis say that after the Council there was “very little done” in regards to ecumenism and such? I dare say that is almost an insult to Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, who led the Church through remarkable dialogues and contacts with Lutherans, Anglicans, other Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even secularists. Could more be done? Sure. Have there been problems and missteps? Absolutely. But, “very little”? And then to say, “I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.” To be honest, this is the most troubling comment of all, because it displays either a remarkable lack of knowledge or a stunning bit of hubris that is, well, quite un-papal and un-Francis-like in character

Then again, do we really know what the Holy Father actually said?

Some, in explaining the pope’s interview with Scalfari, an atheist intellectual, have appealed to St. Paul’s famous visit to the Areopagus, where the Apostle talked with Greek philosophers about the nature of God, meeting them where they were, as the saying goes. That’s perfectly fine, at least in theory; what bothers me is that the conclusion of that ancient discussion is not usually discussed, wherein Paul stated, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). You’ll find none of that strong language in the pope’s interview—which is fine, I suppose, but undermines the well-meaning explanation offered by some. In fact, Paul was mocked by some of the Greeks for his remarks, while others wished to hear more. I know that many readers, like myself, were baffled that Francis did not pursue the central points of the identity and mission of Christ in his exchange with Scalfari. Was his approach wrong? I’m not willing to say that it was. However, I am willing to say that it was confusing and that it was not, in my estimation, a shining example of substantive, truly challenging dialogue with a non-believer.

The bottom line, in many ways, is that the Church is not the pope’s to remake or revise or change. The role of the pope is more modest (which is not to say it is not divinely ordained or unimportant), as one pope explained not long ago: “The Successor of Peter, yesterday, today and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of that faith which God has given as a light for humanity’s path.” Yes, that pope was Francis, in Lumen fidei, his encyclical on faith. If you’ve not read it, you should try some for breakfast.

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About Carl E. Olson 1201 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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