It is an ambitious ‘reframe’, one allows a culture that thought it knew what Catholic Christianity was and didn’t like about it, to look again.
The evidence is everywhere that the Pope continues to captivate in his words, gestures, and actions. As Cristina Odone puts it: “The overall effect has been to restore the Church as an admirable and loveable presence on the world stage.”
Yet some Catholics are suspicious, believing that the ‘media honeymoon’ is based on a dewy-eyed misunderstanding of who Francis is — one that will come to an end when they find the Pope is Catholic. There is some truth to that; but it is too pessimistic. The media are good at sniffing the wind, and they sense both that something has changed, and that it is appealing. They see that Francis exhorts and challenges but is not seen as a curmudgeonly scold but as a wise prophet inviting us to live better and be better for our own good.
In other words, Pope Francis has succeeded so far in the strategy which he shared in his stupendous 12,000-word Jesuit magazine interview last week, the third of its unprecedented kind (the first two were in July: the half-hour TV interview with the Brazilian channel O Globo, and the 80-minute no-holds-barred Q & A with journalists on the papal plane back from Rio).
The line that captures his ‘reset’ strategy, in which the Pope imagines the Church as a “field hospital after battle”, has been widely quoted; but it is worth citing the passage in which it appears and the two following as well.
“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.
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.
How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organisational reforms are secondary – that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.”
As the Pope himself says, this is “pure Gospel”: the proclamation of the Word goes along with healing (Luke 9:2). The Church must be, firstly, a merciful, loving, balming presence — Pope Francis has often used the metaphor of ‘mother’ — before it can invite people to change.
Pope Francis expands:
“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.
In fact, what Pope Francis said on the return flight from Rio was that gay people should never be marginalised and must be integrated; the ‘social wound’ that many gay people experience — rejection, prejudice, exclusion — must first be tended. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”
Put another way, gay people will not be receptive to hearing the truth about sexuality which the Church proclaims until they first believe themselves loved and accepted as God-created persons.
Restoring the first paragraph
But Pope Francis goes further. He says, later in the interview, that the Church cannot “insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods”. In a passage that provoked the most headlines, he adds:
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.
In short, as he puts it elsewhere in the interview in what may be one of its most lasting quotes:
The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.
This is about what comes first, what is prioritised. As editors tell reporters: “don’t bury the lede” — make sure the essential part of the news is in the first paragraph (a metaphor which occurred to Fr Tom Reese).
Pope Francis has set out to deal with the Church’s besetting communications problem, namely that because its teaching on sexuality, life and other issues scandalises a society permeated with an ethic of autonomy, those issues generate news stories. The coverage is disproportionate, which in turn produces the impression that the Church is ‘obsessed’ with questions of sexuality, abortion, and euthanasia.
The other distortion it creates is the impression is that Catholicism is a set of beliefs; yet what Catholics mostly do is live those beliefs, in a set of relationships, liturgies, and actions in service of others. Yet that side of faith – doing, being, belonging — goes mostly unreported.
So Francis is choosing to dial down the volume on those ‘scandalous’ issues to allow the world to see the other parts of the building. In Lampedusa, it was the treatment of migrants; in Sardinia, it was joblessness; in Rome, it was a four-hour silent vigil for peace that some saw as a breakthrough over the Syria crisis.
And the Wednesday audiences are less about words than what the Pope does in the Square, where he hugs and holds and puts first the weak, the disabled and the vulnerable.
Because of the (relative) silence on the other issues, these prophetic gestures have received (relatively) close attention from a media still looking to see what the Pope will do next.
The point of being good
The reset is also about distinguishing means and ends. The purpose of morality is not the arbitrary curtailment of human freedom but the liberation of living a life of love, in relationship with God, in Jesus Christ. If the two become detached, Christian morality will appear — as it does to so many contemporaries — as a series of arbitrary dogmas designed to buttress an authoritarian worldview. As Cardinal Ratzinger put it shortly before being elected pope in 2005, “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a packet of dogmas, a moralism. Christianity is rather an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”
Unless that love is shown, the moral messages will appear disjointed, distant, and pharasaical.
Is this a strategy? Yes. “He’s asking us to focus on the message in the centre of the bull’s-eye”, as Dan Burke puts it. In a practically godless culture, “a public proclamation and discourse focused on a morality that people cannot and will not understand, is the height of insanity.”
The point about missionary proclamation — the Pope’s phrase — is that its purpose is to be heard and to be received (and to change hearts). Once people realise that God is a God of radical compassion, and that Christianity is about a relationship with an ultimate love who seeks their freedom and flourishing, they are far more inclined to hear about selling their possessions, accepting suffering or resisting desires that lead to dead ends.
Inevitably, this passage was misinterpreted: as a corporate bid to reverse a declining share of the market – the Times and Telegraph saw it as a ‘change or die’ message aimed at reviving the Church — or as a coded way of signalling that the Church will abandon or soften its moral doctrines. A Vanity Fair piece headlined ‘Blissed Out Hipster Pope Has Favorite Fellini Movie’, to take one lurid example, claimed the Pope’s message was “let’s stop worrying what other people do with their genitals and uteri, and start spreading God’s love”. A USA Today columnist warned that the Pope sought a “reinterpretation” of “moral precepts that it has, for centuries, insisted are unchanging”, and “to bring the lost sheep back into the fold by obliging modern lifestyles”.
The truth is wildly different. The Pope could not be less ambiguous. He is a “son of the Church” and says the Church’s teaching on these matters is “clear”. (Should anyone doubt his views on, say, abortion, they need only look at his recent spirited, emotional and deeply challenging defence of unborn life and the rights of conscience.)
Francis is not seeking to change the teaching of the Church, but what the Church teaches as most important. The Los Angeles Times headline was closest of all: “Pope seeks to shift Catholic Church’s priority from dogma to mercy”.
Change, but not as some want it
But what of Francis’s reforms? To what extent will they change the mechanisms by which such matters are decided? The ‘G-8’ — the Group of eight cardinals appointed by Pope Francis to advise him on reforming church governance — will meet next week in Rome; and reforms are likely to follow, towards greater collegiality and synodality (see CV Comment briefing here; John Allen here).
Changes will be far-reaching. But it is a category error to see them as an attempt to move the Church in the direction advocated by liberal groups. One of them, which briefly appeared in 2010 in reaction to Catholic Voices, and calling itself ‘Catholic Voices for Reform’ (CVR), yesterday reappeared on the scene with a call to Pope Francis to allow lay people “a voice of influence in the decision-making of our Church”.
Even though they represent numerically tiny lobbies of disaffected Catholics calling for women’s ordination, married priesthood and a relaxation of church teaching on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, the signatories equate greater ‘lay influence’ with moving the Church in the direction of these minority agendas. They want elected bishops and an end to the disciplining of theologians, priests and religious who teach doctrines at variance with the Church’s settled positions.
The problem with this agenda is not what it identifies as the sins of the Church — “clericalism”, after all, is regularly lambasted by Pope Francis in his homilies as symptomatic of a “self-referential” Church — but its view that the Church would be better off it it adopted the paraphernalia of modern democracies and contemporary mores on sexuality.
Francis has little time for this point of view, which he described to the CELAM delegates in Rio de Janeiro as “gnostic” — that of avant-garde or “enlightened” (because rooted in the culture of the Enlightenment) Catholics whose focus is on making the Church take on the trappings of secular modernity. It is an agenda which, along with “restorationism” and other “ideologies”, he sees as a “temptation against missionary discipleship”. In the Francis era, that is not a compliment.
As if to underline the point, Pope Francis this week excommunicated an Australian priest who advocated women’s ordination — a hardly encouraging sign to the liberal reformists. When that priest and CVR claim they want the same thing as the Pope — renewal and reform – it is obvious they mean very different things by the terms.
The Church as the ‘People’
Yet Pope Francis is far from having a hierarchical or monarchical conception of decision-making in the Church.
“The image of the church I like,” Pope Francis told Fr Spadaro,
is that of the holy, faithful people of God …. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.
For Francis, the Church is not an institution or an office but “a community, a web of relations.” But this isn’t just a sentimental idea. He identifies the idea of “infallibility” — which the First Vatican Council attributed to the papacy — as inhering in the whole church: “a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together.”
But he adds: “we must be very careful not to think that this infallibilitas of all the faithful I am talking about in the light of Vatican II is a form of populism. No; it is the experience of ‘holy mother the hierarchical church,’ as St. Ignatius called it, the church as the people of God – pastors and people together. The church is the totality of God’s people.”
The mechanism of development the Pope offers is discernment through dialogue: “When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit,” he says.
It is change — but not as either liberals seek nor conservatives fear. It is new, but not the repudiation of previous popes which Andrew Brown claims.
It is an ambitious attempt to hit ‘reset’, not by making the Church more like secular modernity, but to make the Church more able to proclaim the Gospel to it — by restoring what is essential.