Usually, when Huffington Post, The New York Times, and The Daily Beast are giddy with excitement over something the Pope said about abortion, gay-marriage, or contraception, there’s either been a serious misunderstanding or the eschaton is near.
For those who haven’t yet heard, America Magazine (and several other Jesuit publications worldwide) has just published a lengthy interview of Pope Francis in which the Holy Father says some things that are making lots of faithful Catholics deeply uneasy.
They shouldn’t be.
Before we get into some of the things Pope Francis said in his interview, it is worth recalling something Pope Benedict XVI wrote Deus Caritas Est, “Being Christian 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.”
Being a Christian is not, first and foremost, about ideas and rules. That is not to say our faith does not engage our minds or demand obedience (it obviously does both); it is simply to observe—and this is fundamental—that faith does not begin there. Everything Pope Francis says in his interview should be understood in this light. As you read Pope Francis’ words (and please do read the interview) it won’t be hard to keep this in mind because Pope Francis makes this same point, repeatedly.
The Church’s moral teachings flow from the Gospel. The Church’s moral teachings are a consequence, not the cause, of Christian faith. They are rooted in Him and lead us back to Him. The moral teachings of the Church are important precisely because (and ONLY because!) they are rooted in the Truth about man, revealed in Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, who sends His Holy Spirit upon His bride the Church.
“We have to find a new balance,” Pope Francis says in the interview, “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.”
Outside of this “context,” Christian morality makes little sense and all our evangelical efforts hit a dead end. Thus, as Pope Francis says, “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 challenge for the Church, as the Pope seems to see it, is not that people are unaware that the Church considers, for example, abortion, contraception, and homosexual acts to be sinful (everyone knows this); the problem is that they don’t understand why the Church teaches what it does. The Church’s moral teachings are known, but because they are taken out of context, (or presented without context) they are seen as arbitrary, ad hoc, and unreasonable—as Pope Francis put it, as “a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
Can anyone deny that this is a fair description of how the world (and many Catholics, for that matter) perceives the Church’s moral doctrines?
There must be “balance,” as the Pope puts it, in how the Church addresses the world. In the proper context, it’s clear that Pope Francis isn’t “playing down” the Church’s moral teachings. He isn’t undermining the sanctity of life or the intrinsic meaning of human sexuality. He’s calling upon the Church to reinforce the foundations upon which those moral doctrines rest and upon which their coherence depends.
One final point. There are real risks that come with the way Pope Francis is talking about these things. He will be misunderstood—sometime through ignorance, sometimes through malice—and those who want to use his words to undermine the Church’s long-standing teaching will be given the opportunity to do so. One might ask, Is it worth risking all these confusions and pitfalls to say something (“Jesus, not the moral law, is the heart of the Faith”) that is not really news? Perhaps the simple answer is: Old news it may be, but it is very Good News, too.