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.

  • Sue

    He said we don’t need to keep talking about it. Period. Move on to Jesus’ true message of love and acceptance of all men. This is the basis of Jesus teaching not abortion or gay rights issues. Judge and correct your own sins. God loves and forgives everyone. How would you feel if Jesus’ walked in on your discussions of division and intolerance for others in whose shoes you don’t walk and therefore don’t understand. He loved and understood the ones that society made outcasts. Which today would be the gays and abortion seekers you want to keep in the limelight. Pray for tolerance and unity. Pray for Pope Francis. He understands Jesus’ teachings and he has the courage to speak up.

  • Robert Williams

    Our dear Pope knows clearly that his words will be taken out of contest. IMHO, he should always end his conversations that the church teachings and doctrines are forever cast in the Gospel of our Lord. As St. Francis said: “Preach often and if necessary use words” or something close to this quote.

  • Renee Perry

    As a practicing Catholic, I want to give the Pope all due respect but on this I cannot! If anything we should be talking more about the evil of abortion, To me this is Jesuit talk! This attitude of “who am I to judge” business shows the results of society today! There is right and wrong and no amount of obfuscation is going to change that! Call me ridged but darn if I understand this man at all! He as a leader should watch his words carefully! I am confused and perplexed!

  • Lisette Carmichael

    Paulette, I think you are correct. I believe we are witnessing a Papacy, that will leave a great and lasting legacy to the Church.

    • eric


  • Judith Ferguson

    I agree with both Diane and Paulette. It seems that so many people are looking to criticize, find fault, disagree with anything they read/hear without really paying attention to what is being said that they entirely miss the point.

  • Jeff

    I’m mostly astonished by the way some Catholic responders have “buried the lead” about this interview.

    First, let’s note that whenever a commentator says, “This is what the pope really meant . . .” we are about to hear some “spin.” We seem to be reading such spin on a weekly basis now. Is this going to go on for decades? Are people going to continue to re-interpret his words to fit their notions of what he said, on a weekly basis, for years and years? Or is there going to be a tipping point after which people start to say: “No more re-interpretation. Just take the Holy Father at his word.”

    Second, so many Catholic commentators like to minimize the Pope’s words by claiming that he is nieve about Vatican procedures, and that he doesn’t understand how self-serving the vicious media is, and that he doesn’t cautiously fall back on his “handlers.” This interview puts that nonsense to rest.

    The Holy Father knows exactly what he is doing, what he is saying, how it’s being read, and the effect it is having. And his statements in this interview show that he understands all those things profoundly.

    In addition to his determination that too many of the faithful “obsess” over “small-minded rules” about abortion, homosexuality and contraceptives, and that he de-enphasizes those issues in his teaching role because we need to find “a new balance” and that such obsessing will cause the moral authority of the Church to fall like a house of cards, the real news of his interview is this:

    The pope acknowledged that he knows the kind of press he is getting, and it is fine with him. He said that he knows that many conversation Catholics try to spin his statements differently than he means them. He said that many conservative try to parse his words, and strive to look at the more hardline authoritive and conservative he displayed as the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina. But he cautions those spin-doctors: he said that when he was appointed the head of the Argentine Jesuits, he was too young, too inexperienced, and out of his element, and that he made authoritarian decision because the conversative line was the path of least resistance. But, he assures us, he has found his governing bearings now, and he knows what he says and the effect it has, and he assures us, “I am not a right-winger.” The liberal things he says are exactly what he means.

    Nevertheless, some people seem to be striving to minimize his words and his intentions. I think in doing so, they fail to comprehend the largest effect of his papacy. Within 6 to 8 years, he will, as all popes do, appoint, elevate and install a generation of “left wing” bishops and cardinals, and will forever change the governmental and teaching force and focus of the Church.

    Remember, he was elected by the Holy Spirit.

    • eric

      Jeff, you are so on the mark. Conservative Catholics are reacting rather than listening. Pope Francis is remarkable. He is exactly what the Catholic Church has needed. He is moving the Church toward the teachings of Jesus and away from the Old Testament concepts of a God who is angry and who will destroy us if we are not perfect. Thanks for your on the money summary.

    • Carol

      First of all, if the Holy Father is looking to simplify the teachings of the Church for the masses, then why does he speak in such a way that it is requiring so many people to interpret for us? Christ made his followers THINK but he was not confusing or perplexing. His message was clear.

      Also, with all due respect to the Holy Father, I do not understand what he means that the clergy should not be obsessed with these doctrinal topics such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality. In my entire life, I can probably count on one hand how many times I have heard a priest speak from the pulpit on one of these topics. I think he missed the mark. The people need the Truth and part of understanding the “why” is having Faith, a virtue that many of us lack and should strive and pray for more often.

      Finally, I hardly think there is a need for the type of “balance” Pope Francis describes. If anything, we have heard enough of the fluffy, feel-good stuff for too long. I apologize if I sound too old-school for some people, but there is a reason Pope Benedict the XVI lifted the indult for the Mass in the Extraordinary Form. The roots and foundation of Holy Mother Church are in the respect and reverence of the Tridentine Mass. The movement of bringing back this reverence and respect will strengthen our Church. We all know what happens to a tree when its roots are dead. The Roman Catholics today need to understand where we came from so that they know where we are going. If they do not understand and desire a reverence for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the moral teachings of the Church, then as harsh as it may sound, go elsewhere. “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them.” (Mark 6:11)

      • GREG SMITH

        Carol ~ Keep in mind that the Tridentine Mass only dates from 1570. It is an important part, but only a part, of our history and tradition as a faith community.

    • Chuck Hasso

      He was elected by men who were supposed to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Whether or not they were is debatable.

      • GREG SMITH

        Chuck ~ Both our theology and tradition teach that they were guided by the Holy Spirit as their predecessors were in Vatican II. It seems to me that to deny either is to buy into the Sedvacandist error.

    • Nick

      It seems to me the reason he says “I am not a right-winger” is because he can’t be boxed into either of the “wings” that we so love to use to fit people into our schemas that allow us to hear what we want to hear. The plain truth is that no Catholic can sit comfortably on either of these wings, and Pope Francis is calling us to realize that time and time again. Christ’s body has no wings.



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