Old, Good News

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.

Pope Benedict

“That’s what I told ’em.”

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.

  • al

    I read the comments much the way you do–as reiterations of a principle which is pretty elementary to Catholicism, one that St. Paul emphasized again and again.

    Nevertheless, Pope Francis has invoked a canard that the “spirit of Vatican II” deformers had as their go-to reason for being. That there are these huge groups of Orthodox Catholics out there that just rail against abortion and don’t do anything else. This doesn’t square with reality, which is why the Spirit of Vatican II-ers are dying out.

    But even more than that, the notion that the presentation solely of the “rules” of Catholicism is a tactic that has been found wanting is simply not the case. These truths have not and are not being presented. Cardinal Burke just said as much. And we know why they haven’t been presented–many in the Church Hierarchy didn’t believe in them, and the ones that did were afraid of alienating the people in the pews.

    So though I agree that these comments don’t really present any new theological doctrines, I would counter that they don’t really present something new at all. Perhaps he said them because he knew the media would pick them up and run with them. But if its the same old Spirit of Vatican II, we’ve seen where that leads–to increasingly empty Churches, fast-food Catholic laity (they don’t even deserve the moniker Cafeteria-Catholics, because their “selection” of “nourishment” is now merely a feel-good cultural identification with things like St. Patrick’s Day excesses), and a theological mode of expression which consists in erecting straw men and brickbatting them.

    • Bill

      Mike, His explaation was not printed. The Pope: “I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with 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. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognise the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

    • David

      Matthew 5 says : “Say Yes, Yes or No, No.” Anything else comes from a Jesuit.

  • Mike

    He is misunderstood because he doesn’t explain himself fully.

  • http://Facebook Ann Keindl

    I love Pope Francis and Benedict X.V. I like that it was pointed out that we do not have to speak about the issues all the time. I might have talked to much about the issues on social media. I thank them for their love and guidance. I like the pictures of the Holy Fathers in this article especially Pope Benedict looks wonderful!

  • Diane

    This is the best, most reasoned commentary on the pope’s interview that I have seen yet. Thanks for writing it.

  • http://Facebook Paulette Bourgon

    We have been given a gift, a humble man who is pure of heart, a simple man of God. Pope Francis spoke words which are sincere. That is all that matters. Nothing more.

  • Ray

    “the problem is that they don’t understand why the Church teaches what it does.”

    You’ve totally missed the Holy Father’s point. The problem is, bishops and priests make these issues the most important issues in the church when they’re not. Pope Francis couldn’t be any clearer.

    • http://doverbeach.blogspot.com Bob

      Ray, the problem is that most bishops and priests say little or nothing about these issues, not that they say too much. The Holy Father’s words come as a crushing blow to those of us who have struggled for years to get our Progressive, spirit-of-Vatican-II parishes to take *any* stand on abortion. Now they will wave their newspaper clippings at us and say “See? We were right all the time! The Pope says so!”



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