Due to my usual inattentiveness and travel I missed most of the flapdoodle surrounding the recent interview with Pope Francis. But as I am back in the saddle now, I thought I might weigh in with the benefit of some distance from the controversy initiated by the chattering classes who have, it appears, cornered the “Pope Francis media market.”
So what did the pope actually say? Here is the warhead as it was launched midway through the interview: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis told Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal. “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.”
There are, as I see it, two points that need to be made here. One, the Church is not about to (or able to) repeal the moral law on the matter of abortion, contraception, or efforts to redefine marriage, never mind the impression His Holiness may have left in urging us, in his words, “to talk about them in a context.” In other words, contextualize them all you please, the point survives that both he and the Church remain perfectly plainspoken in their continuing and resolute disapproval and rejection of them. So, again, there is simply no room for maneuver as regards the iniquity of these practices. They are abhorrent to both the Pope and the Church for whom he speaks.
However, and this is the second point, what the Pope did most emphatically say, and it is no surprise that the secular media missed the bus on this, is that while these are immoral and thus unacceptable practices in every way, and the Church must never cease to condemn them, they are nevertheless not the center of the faith we profess. Jesus Christ is. Jesus Christ and the salvation he brings to the world are the root and crown of the faith we profess. “A beautiful homily,” the pope explained, “a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”
The moral law, from whose strictures none of us is exempt, is always the fruit, never the root, of the decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ. It is to be understood, then, as a consequence, not a cause, of one’s cleaving to Christ. And, really, isn’t this what fixes the attention in the first place? What else have we got to stir the soul with? Is mere exhortation ever really enough to stoke the fire in the belly? “Proclamation in a missionary style,” declares Francis, “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.”
When doing comes before being, when the primacy of Logos is lost, then the grace in the crankcase inevitably runs dry and all you are left with is moralism, a thing so dry and sickened that it animates no one. In an age of spiritual anorexia, the Church is saying, people need first to be fed. Only then are they likely to witness to the moral life.
The distinction is an absolutely vital one, moreover, and it was given precise and beautiful expression in Deus Caritas Est, the first encyclical issued by Pope Benedict “Being Christian,” he wrote back in 2005, “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Could he have made the point any more clearly? And yet so far as I can surmise, very few in the secular media cottoned on to its importance. Indeed, its absolute centrality to an understanding of the faith on which the Church of Jesus Christ and his Vicar depend.
There is one final point, however, that cries out to be made. “Who,” the interviewer wanted to know at the very start of the conversation, “is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Notice that he wasn’t asking about the identity of the Pope he had become, but rather the man he had been. Who, for all the trappings of the office he has since assumed, still is. So who is he? The question, we are told, at first elicits only silence. But then, both endearingly and without hesitation, he answers: “I am a sinner.” Not, he hastens to add, in any loose or figurative way. But that he is, quite simply, a sinner, and so no different from any one of the countless children of Adam conceived in a fallen and broken world. “I am a sinner,” he repeats, “whom the Lord has looked upon.”
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And why is this so endearing? Because it shows the kinship we share, which consists of a profound and inescapable solidarity that enables us equally to turn to God in that nakedness and night we all share. “And it was night,” the Gospel of John reports, concluding the passage where Judas Iscariot runs off to betray Jesus. Have we not all done as much to Jesus? Are we not all tarred with the same brush strokes of sin and denial? And thus we are free to turn to Jesus, entreating him to look upon us all, brothers and sisters alike, as no better than beggars before the banquet hall we’ve no right to enter. Yet our cry for help awakens the compassionate heart of the only one who can throw open that door. It was to say that, it seems to me, simply that, that Pope Francis permitted himself to be interviewed in the first place. Nothing new was said, save only the Good News which is always new.