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.

  • Mary Ann Strunc

    I believe that as a result of the words of our Pope he has just sent many more Catholics out of the church. People leave the church not because they are not liberal enough but because one never hears the truth from their homilies. The priests are afraid to stand for the obvious moral issues of the time. They miss the boat. It was the liberal issues of the 70’s that brought us homosexual priests and molestation of our innocent youth.

    • eric

      Mary Ann Strunc, the compassion and empathy of Jesus attracted multitudes and drove away many who were rule bound, leaving them angry and confused, for they wanted rules to follow and rules to enforce rather than following their own consciences. Jesus led by example and not by rules. I suspect that Pope Francis will do the same and that his results will mirror those of Jesus.

  • Antonio A. Badilla

    Leeta, one thing is for sure, our job as pro-lifers has just been more difficult, not but the enemies of the Church, but by Christ’s own Vicar.

    • eric

      The way of Jesus is much more difficult but the fruit is much more plentiful.

  • Antonio A. Badilla

    Eric, “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.” So, Venerable Pius XII, Blessed John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI were moving the Church in the directions of the mean Old Testament? News to me,

    • eric

      Antonio, Pope Francis epitomizes the evolution of the Catholic Church just as Jesus epitomized the evolution of what it meant to be human. Jesus met many people who refused to follow. I suspect that Pope Francis will as well.

  • John

    My comment is short and sweet if it Please’s the Lord may He grant us a new Pope soon.A Pope who is a Man Of Courage.A Pope who is not fearful of the world’s media like Pope Francis.A Pope who is willing to stand alone if asked by God to do so. All a Pope has to in this World is to stand with Courage by Our Savior Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross.He who was deserted by all.Lord Jesus Christ grant us a Man Full of Divine Courage.A Man Full of Divine Wisdom.A Man Full of Divine Love.Blessed be the Lord Jesus.The Hope of Ages Past.The Fulfillment of Creation.The Joy of Eternity


      John ~ It’s a basic of Catholicism that the Holy Spirit sends us the pope we need at the time we need him. I hope and expect you are not praying for the Holy Father’s demise.

      • Joshua Mercer

        Greg, when asked on Bavarian television in 1997 whether or not the Holy Spirit chooses the pope, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger answered:

        “I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope…. I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined…. There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!”

  • http://www.itemissaest,org Fr. Satish Joseph

    News media both secular and Catholic have been abuzz with news about Pope Francis’s recent interview. The Jesuit editor of the America magazine published this interview and Father Matt Malone suggests that Pope Francis personally reviewed the article and approved its publication. To say the least, both the Catholic and secular world are still trying to comprehend implications of his statements. The statements that got most attention was this” “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” “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.”

    As we can guess, there are people who have been waiting to hear these words for a very long time and there are others who have termed the Pope a “flaming liberal.” How should we understand these and other statements from Pope Francis? First, I think it is important to say that Pope Francis is not changing church teaching. There is a broader consultative process (a Council) for that to happen. What Pope Francis surely is changing is the emphasis and the meaning of ‘being church.’ Second, I think we need to avoid both triumphalism and irrational criticism. Rather, perhaps we can try to discern where God is leading us as a people. May be we should evaluate the Pope’s words in light of today gospel reading about stewardship and, prudence. May be there is a connection between the readings and the statement from Pope Francis. Let me highlight just three areas.

    a) Prudence. The parable of the prudent steward in today’s gospel reading is certainly not an easy parable to understand. It seems strange that the steward or manager who underwrote the amount owed by debtors was praised by his master. What we would term cheating, the master called prudence. Jesus does not contradict the master’s evaluation of his steward. Rather, Jesus says, “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” In other words, Jesus praised the manager for having the qualities of a manager. Just as the manager was good at what he did (even though it was wrong), Jesus’ disciples (children of the light) should be good at doing what they are meant to do. And this, in my opinion, is the point the Pope Francis is trying to make. The church must be good in what it is called to be! The Pope is called the church to first and foremost be good in being followers of Jesus Christ. So In the six months he has been in office he has constituted three commissions to clean up the Vatican and its administration. He is also focusing on what the church should be focused on – the person, the life and the message of Jesus Christ. I think he is saying that there needs to be a “new balance” between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrines that have evolved over the centuries. If our doctrines become more important that Jesus Christ and his simple, fresh, and compassionate gospel, then the moral edifice of the church will fall like a pack of cards. And even among the doctrines we cannot take a few moral doctrines (abortion, gay marriage and contraception) and make them the defining characteristics of the Church. God, the Kingdom of God, Jesus and the gospel are bigger than a few hand-picked moral demands. The gospel first and foremost is about love, compassion and mercy. When we meet a sinner we do not first throw doctrines, discipline and judgment on them. We first embrace them with the mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ. This is the new balance he is talking about. He is asking us to be good like the prudent servant – we need to be good at what Jesus was good at.

    b) There is another kind of balance that the Pope is looking at – balance in the kind of Church that we are. He is juxtaposing two models of the church. One is the institutional model. In this model of the church doctrines are of paramount importance. The church’s identity is well defined and there are there are clearer boundaries of who can be in and who is out. In the institutional model the bishop and clergy play a paramount role and decisions are made top down. I think the Pope sees that in the past decades this institutional model has been over emphasized. And so he is drawing the church’s attention to another way of being church – of being a missionary church and a pilgrim church. His statements like, “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently” is meant to emphasize the missionary church. “Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things.” What are the necessary things, according to Pope Francis? He says, “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful. It needs nearness, proximity.” He says, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” The Pope defines the church not primarily as an institution but rather as the “people of God,” on a journey. The church is not a static body with static doctrine. Rather it is a pilgrim church in which he sees himself not as an authoritarian leader but as a consultative leader who walks with the people. As the Pope, he is trying to be the best steward of the gospel and of the church to which the gospel has been entrusted.

    c) Christ at the Center. The third area where the Pope is striking a balance is drawing out the difference between religion as something simple, profound and radiant, and religion as an ideology. So he says, “Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists — they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.” In other words, faith becomes an ideology when we offer cookie-cutter solutions to complex human problems like abortion, homosexuality and contraception. But there is another way of looking at religion – where Christ rather than “doctrinal security” is at the center. That is why the Pope says, “The most important thing is the proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” The Pope understands religion first and foremost to be about Christ and the human person. Only then is it about doctrines. Does not Jesus say that all other commandments come under two commandments – love of God and love of neighbor? Pope Francis is saying something similar.

    We should remember that as Pope Francis says, Christ is at the center and not his successor. Let us remember that Christ has promised his Holy Spirit to us. To acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is with us now and will continue to do so till the end of the world is a matter of faith. Let us trust in Christ’s promise. Amen.

    – Fr. Satish Joseph

  • Thumper

    Thank you. As a 65 y/o Catholic my whole life has been set up to hear what people like Pope Francis have to say…but then always wait for the parish priest and the Catholic press to explain what he really means. Being relieved of the responsibility for having pray about, meditate on, grapple with understanding it for myself makes the whole process so much easier–and quicker. Thank you for helping to cut out the middle man.



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