There are lines in Pope Francis’ latest interview, with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, that could be construed in alarming ways.
For example: “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them.” For half a second, a casual reader might think he is endorsing the same type of relativism that Cardinal Ratzinger denounced just before he became Pope Benedict XVI.
In fact, it turned out the next day that this confusing sentence was badly translated. More careful readers, who know Italian, have explained that a better translation would have conveyed the sense of a person who “detects” or “perceives” the Good. This sense of following the Good is more like discovering the natural law at work within one’s conscience, which is completely opposite to the relativistic sense of inventing an arbitrary good accountable only to one’s whims.
Similarly, some of the pope’s remarks against proselytizing (“I don’t have any such intention” [of converting the journalist]) might have made some folks fret that the New Evangelization is now over. Not so! Again, thanks to careful readers, using the context of Pope Francis’ own homilies and recent church documents, we can be confident that there is a difference between “proselytizing” and “evangelization.” The Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20) still holds. Francis is simply disavowing any evangelical method which would insult or manipulate.
Reading the interview in its entirety, you can see how Pope Francis is profoundly evangelical. “I do not believe in the soul,” says the atheist, but Francis replies, “You do not believe in it, but you have one.”
Contrary to what careless, alarmist or ideological readings might suggest, this interview is actually a master class in evangelical strategy.
Also note the pope’s insistence on eschatological transcendence toward the end (just before they discuss films). He is charming this journalist, conceding what troubles his own conscience and almost flirtatiously sharing what he can (wooing him by sharing their mutual allergy to clericalism; “the court is the leprosy of the papacy”), but respectfully insisting on essentials.
In other words, and contrary to what careless, alarmist or ideological readings might suggest, this interview is actually a master class in evangelical strategy. Repent the church’s obvious flaws, and thereby make it impossible to use the standard pagan excuses against us, and thereby clear space in order that attention can be paid to essentials.
For those who are reached by this interview, once you’ve been charmed into conceding Francis’ essentials, then you’re on the Gospel train, with momentum toward conversion.
The risk that Francis will be misunderstood by the popular media is real. Popular media will seize on certain phrases out of context and make a meal out of them. Consider how, in the pope’s previous interview with the Jesuits, he said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.” But insisting on those issues, as if they were the main point of a 12,000-word interview, was pretty much the mainstream media’s focus for the next two weeks (for starters, consider this headline in the New York Times).
NARAL, the abortion advocacy organization, demonstrated in an offensive but clear way how an ideological perspective on Pope Francis misses the point. After the Jesuit interview, they published a graphic on their Facebook page, “thanking” Pope Francis on behalf of “pro-choice women everywhere.”
But on closer inspection, the joke’s on them (as this blogger humorously depicted; warning, the language is coarser than what we normally use at CatholicPhilly.com). Yes, the pope said that we need to talk about other topics, in addition to the culture war hot buttons. But in the very next paragraph, he also insisted that “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
Here again is a profoundly evangelical mind at work. His methodology is to concede that the “culture war” has taken the Church sometimes into a moralistic place, to concede that our righteous anger is not the same thing as the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But then to insist on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to dust off the diamond, and trust that a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ has moral consequences. In short, to win a new hearing for the Gospel and its moral consequences (which will include abortion, gay marriage and contraception – these things have their moment).
Pope Francis’ intent is to soften hardened hearts. The lesson for Catholics who want to follow him is to convert our own hearts as we adjust to a more patient and perhaps more gracious way of doing things, confident that the bedrock teaching isn’t going anywhere.
Pope Francis does not always make it easy for me. Sometimes, while thinking about what he teaches and how the world misunderstands it, I get impatient or confused. But he is Peter. He is our pope. The Holy Spirit has given him to us.
Catholics speak of “docility” as a virtue, and in a moment like this, I think “docility” calls us to make a choice of will in the heart and to receive a Holy Father’s teaching with patience and charity. He is a wise and holy man. He comes from a different part of the world, and his experiences will not map neatly onto American political categories. It helps to get over your fears and anxieties in order to learn from him.
In April 2005, one month before I was received into the Church (but after I had publicly made the decision and was on track to reception), Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI. At the time, I knew almost nothing about him except his public and popular media reputation. When I heard his name proclaimed from the Vatican balcony, inwardly I gulped and fretted: was “God’s Rottweiler” really the man we needed? Did I really want to sign up to follow this alleged authoritarian?
But I made an interior decision to trust and go with it. I started reading Ratzinger/Benedict’s books, homilies and other documents. As I learned more about him from the source, my faith grew and my heart swelled with affection for him. And I learned to start taking mainstream media coverage of Catholicism with hefty doses of salt.
A couple of years ago in a meeting at the parish, knowing that I was a convert, a priest referred to me as a “JP2 Catholic,” and I corrected him, and was proud to say that I was a “B16 Catholic.” But Pope Francis is helping me to get to a more mature stage.
The goal is to resist the temptation to be ideological, to stop being for Cephas, Apollos, or Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 1:12), and to learn from these great popes how to simply be for Jesus.
The Holy Father is not the Church, and there are seasons in Church history when fidelity to the faith means holding a pope at arm’s length (for example, to put it mildly, some of those Renaissance popes were shifty characters). But we are not in such a season of history.
I am taking these challenging interviews as an invitation to follow Francis for the adventure, in trust and with affection. I want to become a Catholic Christian – not a liberal or a conservative Catholic, not a progressive or a traditional Catholic – but simply a Catholic, without modifier. Praise God for sending us Pope Francis.
Christopher C. Roberts is the author of Creation and Covenant, a book about why male-female differences matter in the history of the theology of marriage. He is a second-year candidate for the permanent diaconate at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, and a parishioner at Our Mother of Consolation in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia.
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