I can hardly recall a papal visit which has touched upon so many hot topics and ignited so much controversy as Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines.
You would almost think the Pope had just issued an encyclical, when actually most of what he did was talk to reporters on a plane.
The reactions have been visceral at times. For instance, what the Pope said in support of Humanae Vitae caused one feminist commentator at Crux News to declare she was “devastated“.
My first reaction to reading the Pope’s comments on free speech and Islam was to throw my hands up in the air and declare them a “mess.” I didn’t feel devastated, but I sure felt frustrated.
On top of this, the Pope roundly warned against the threats posed by gay marriage and skipped numerous opportunities to bring up climate change, against what major newspapers had predicted. You can bet lots of reporters and liberal Catholics felt frustrated, even devastated by this.
And as if this wasn’t all enough, the Pope’s comments on rabbits have prompted about every person I know to register a strong opinion. Some of the most faithful and ardent Catholics I know, who have sacrificed heroically to be open to welcoming a large family, feel devastated when the pope compared them to rabbits.
Almost everyone it seems has some reason to feel devastated.
But I think there is an upside to all of this emotion and debate.
When you’re trying to understand something complicated, the more information you have, the better. Pope Francis has just given us a great deal of information to digest — enough that I would like to propose three keys to understanding Francis — three keys to help everyone avoid feeling devastated:
1. If you are expecting Pope Francis to change church teaching, you will be devastated. Liberal Catholics and the mainstream media have set themselves up for huge disappointment.
2. St. John Paul II spoke as a Polish philosopher. Pope Benedict speaks as a German theologian. Both popes made frequent use of analogies. Pope Francis prefers to speak in idioms, like Spaniards do. If you expect Pope Francis to speak as the previous two popes did, you will be devastated.
3. When Francis speaks to the mainstream media, like it or not, he is choosing to speak to non-Catholics. Faithful, practicing Catholics are not his primary audience. If you are expecting Pope Francis to be speaking to you as a practicing Catholic when he addresses the media, you will be devastated.
The first key explains a lot of the whiplash we see in media reports about Pope Francis when he upholds church teaching and they act shocked. Liberals are so good at believing their own spin that many convince themselves it is reality, setting themselves up for a rude surprise.
The second key explains a lot of frustration Catholics feel when they read what Pope Francis said, for instance, about free speech, Islam and punching someone who insults your mother. Many of us are expecting an analogy which illuminates instead of an idiom which appears at first to confuse things further. Moral theologians and bloggers cringe while someone sitting in the pew catches on quickly to the simple points Pope Francis is making about respect and offense.
The third key explains some of the times when the pope appears tone deaf or offends the sensibilities of the faithful, for instance, his comment about rabbits. Without ignoring the real pain this comment has caused some, the Pope’s words make more sense when you take into account that he is trying to disabuse the secular world of its unfair stereotype about how Catholics view procreation. Remember that when the Pope addressed the Italian Association of Large Families, he heaped praise on them! Again, like it or not, Pope Francis adopts a different tone when he is talking to the media. The wisdom or efficacy of this approach is up for debate, but the key distinction is still illuminating whether you agree with it or not.
Now obviously these three keys are not a magic code to unlock the pope’s meaning. Nor am I recommending we use them to explain away what the Pope says. We always have to take the Pope seriously. And sometimes, we can disagree with the Pope’s choice of words or expression. But taking what the Pope says seriously includes educating ourselves about his particular manner of speaking — and that is where I believe these three keys are helpful.
Finally, before we ever take issue with something he says we had better be sure we’ve read what he said (NOT the media report!), tried to understand the context and make sure the translation is accurate and reliable.
And, in the midst of all this heat and noise, let’s never forget the powerful work of the Holy Spirit that is ongoing in and through the ministry of the successor of Peter.
You know, little things like the largest Mass in history.
And powerful moments like these:
What do you think — are these three keys helpful? How have you come to understand Pope Francis?