That Interview

The Pope gave an interview to his brother Jesuits, you may have heard.

Though what you've heard has likely been specious.  American Catholics of all stripes have been freaking out because they think the Pope said --or at least implied-- it is small-minded to be worried about abortion and gay marriage.

The Pope said:
Faith is above all faith in God. In Christianity it is not a matter of an enormous bundle of different things; all that the Creed says and the development of faith has achieved exists only to make our perception of the Face of God clearer. He exists and he is alive; we believe in him; we live before him, in his sight, in being with him and from him. And in Jesus Christ, he is, as it were, with us bodily.
To my mind, this centrality of God must appear in a completely new light in all our thoughts and actions. …this is what enlivens activities which… can easily lapse into activism and become empty.
Oh, whoops. Actually that was Benedict XVI, in 2006.

Well, maybe it was this that ticked everyone off?
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.
Whoops. Also Benedict -- one of my favorite quotations from him.
 Compare those comments word for word now with the offending passages from 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.
Or this, from a much earlier passage of the interview:
The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
 Against the Grain has an excellent round-up of the various responses. (Say what you will, Francis did get everyone talking and thinking -- making exactly the kind of little messes he's been asking for).

To my mind the most lucid criticisms -- and simultaneous defenses-- come from Janet Smith and Chaput the Great. They demonstrate why many good people are upset -- but also why they shouldn't be.

My favorite reflections on what Francis is up to are from Eddie Mulholland of Benedictine College and this CNA column.

A couple of further reflections.
  • Just as a factual matter, please note that it is simply untrue that Francis said it was small-minded to think about abortion and gay marriage. The quotations above are from two different portions of the interview. He does not say in this text exactly what he's speaking about, but he has told us almost every day since he was elected  (and it's in his book with the Rabbi and in the two biographies of Francis I'm reading now) what he means. The example he uses most frequently is that of a priest who won't baptize the child of a single mom, but he's also spoken about pastors who hide behind administrative tasks instead of getting the smell of their sheep on them, and about officious parish secretaries who make people who approach asking for sacraments feel like they're a burden who have some nerve --he cites all these things in this homily, for example -- which was much-talked about at the time.  
  • If you need further evidence that the Pope doesn't think it's small-minded to focus on marriage and life, read this speech to OB-Gyns he gave the day after the interview was released -- which was also the day he ex-communicated a priest for endorsing gay marriage and women priests. Money quote: 
A widespread mentality of the useful, the “culture of waste” that today enslaves the hearts and minds of so many, comes at a very high cost: it asks for the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker. Our response to this mentality is a decisive and unreserved “yes” to life. “The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental — the condition of all the others” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on procured abortion, 18 November 1974, n. 11). Things have a price and can be sold, but people have a dignity; they are worth more than things and are above price. So often we find ourselves in situations where we see that what is valued the least is life. That is why concern for human life in its totality has become in recent years a real priority for the Church's Magisterium, especially for the most defenseless; i.e., the disabled, the sick, the newborn, children, the elderly, those whose lives are most defenseless. 
  • It's one of the un-loveliest aspects of Catholic pop-culture that we allow ourselves to be hooked and dragged along by a hostile press, unable to recall in the face of spurious headlines the totality of the Pope's teaching and witness. We have a terrible "what have you done for me lately?" attitude. People can think what they like about whether Francis expressed himself prudently in this instance. I'm distressed by the number of faithful Catholics who seem almost eager to think the Pope has betrayed them --often on the basis of ignorance. 
I had a woman in a blog discussion tell me Francis would have more credit with her if he quoted Benedict and his predecessors more. What is one to say to that? The Pope --dare I say obsessively?-- quotes and praises Benedict in almost all his speeches. We are allowing the agenda to be set by others in precisely the way Benedict begged us not to for 8 years. His defense of Reason was above all a defense of charity as a habit of mind. If Christians can't pause, take a deep breath, understand reality more deeply than Laurie Goodstein of the NYT, and shed light rather than heat, who is going to?
  • The most disheartening thing for me in all the great hue and cry is the realization that few Catholics were listening to Benedict in the sense of taking to heart what he said and few are listening -- really listening, as opposed to evaluating-- Francis either. Otherwise they couldn't fail to understand -- they couldn't fail to recognize-- that Francis is doing in a more folksy style what Benedict did for 8 years: promote a culture of Reason: genuine dialogue and listening because we in the West no longer share the same moral universe, and if we are to live in peace, we have to really listen to each other and be willing to learn and grow together -- the Church always has to learn anew how to transmit the Faith to a new generation and a truly open-minded culture would be open to the beauty of truth. Compare for example two speeches to "the world of culture": Benedict in Fatima (which I reflect on towards the end here) and Francis in Sardinia.
  • The reaction demonstrates to me the truth of what the Holy Father is saying -- and what Benedict said perpetually for the entire 8 years of his papacy. Benedict repeatedly told us -- did no one actually read and meditate on his encyclicals God is Love and Saved in Hope?-- that because the world has lost its faith and no longer shares our basic moral premises, it's vital for Christians to be active in the public square --in politics, but also in communities-- as witnesses of truth. Note: witnesses, not always lecturers:
Benedict To the bishops of Fatima:
The courageous and integral appeal to principles is essential and indispensable; yet simply proclaiming the message does not penetrate to the depths of people’s hearts, it does not touch their freedom, it does not change their lives. What attracts is, above all, the encounter with believing persons who, through their faith, draw others to the grace of Christ by bearing witness to him
Francis in a homily yesterday:
you have to come to know Jesus in the Catechism – but it is not enough to know Him with the mind: it is a step. However, it is necessary to get to know Jesus in dialogue with Him, talking with Him in prayer, kneeling. If you do not pray, if you do not talk with Jesus, you do not know Him. You know things about Jesus, but you do not go with that knowledge, which He gives your heart in prayer. Know Jesus with the mind - the study of the Catechism: know Jesus with the heart - in prayer, in dialogue with Him. This helps us a good bit, but it is not enough. There is a third way to know Jesus: it is by following Him. Go with Him, walk with Him.”

Benedict In Deus Caritas Est:
Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. Those who practise charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others. They realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak. He knows that God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and that God’s presence is felt at the very time when the only thing we do is to love.
 Francis: "the Church isn't an NGO."

I am concerned that Catholics (I am not speaking of the Novaks, Weigels, Arkes' Georges or even John Allens, who are notable exceptions. I have bloggers, facebook, parish conversations and the like in mind) have become people with whom one cannot have the kind of conversation Benedict & Francis (and for that matter JP the Great who said "the Church doesn't impose, she proposes) are begging us to have if we want to re-Christianize the world. We're people with whom one can't have a conversation at all, because if you raise an issue you get shouted down. Either by the Catholic Left calling you a bigot or a hater or a rejecter of Vatican II and drowning you in snark, or by the Catholic Right hammering you hard with a proof-text from some obscure Magisterial document or with snark about your politics -- a lot of orthodox Catholic bloggers are more merciful and understanding of the Church's actual enemies than of anyone with a variant of their personal take on the social teaching or liturgy. (Show me anyone who can speak with love and understanding of BOTH gays & radical traditionalists, though the hair-trigger rage and woundedness and need for kindness is similar in both.)

In actual apostolic settings -- the sidewalk counseling, the crisis pregancy centers, the soup kitchens, the hospitals, the RCIA classes, the accompanying people through birth and death-- Catholics are at their best, being kind and merciful to all comers and doing just what the Pope is asking for -- and they win people winsomely all the time. (Do you know about And Then There Were None -- pro-lifers helping abortion clinic workers leave the industry?) There is so much good to praise and feel proud of.

But in pop culture, I find our public presence very off-putting. When there's a school shooting or other national tragedy, it takes all of 5 seconds for people to take to Facebook with some remark like, "While we're mourning these children, we're ignoring the unborn." Is that not "obsessive?" -- and worse, inhumane?

When I posted Eric Metaxas' excellent National Prayer Breakfast speech about living faith versus dead religion and loving those on the opposite side of the culture wars because they haven't yet received the grace of faith, you know what people posted in response? "Stick it to Obama!"  Not exaggerating -- that took 4 seconds, and when I deleted the remark to try to engender a better conversation, 3 other people chimed in with the same sentiments.

If you try to talk about Common Core or anything happening in public schools, the response is, "Another reason to homeschool!" Hehehehe.  As if homeschoolers don't care what happens to the rest of society.

And now we're treating the Pope the same way -- always evaluating everything by its surface appearance, its relevance to the American political scene, by snark and slogans and being thin-skinned and eager to believe the worst-- instead of trying to dig a little deeper and maybe learn something and be corrected where we need to be. What has happened to, "Love is patient, love is kind, love is not quick to take offense...?"

Update: in case after all this it's not clear, my argument is not that what Francis said isn't radical and that he isn't challenging us. What I'm saying is that if the Church had been listening, we would have been challenged in exactly this way 8 years ago, when Benedict started preaching.

First fruits?

Fr. Jonathan Morris' sister gets it
Pope Francis did what I didn't
Francis Beckworth: Am I the Prodigal Son's Brother?