Okay, so not actually. But you could certainly be excused for thinking so, given the glee with which major news organs are reporting on Francis’s first extended interview since acceding to the papacy.
“Pope says Church is ‘Obsessed’ with Gays, Abortion and Birth Control,” crows the New York Times:
Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.
His surprising comments came in a lengthy interview in which he criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized. He articulated his vision of an inclusive church, a “home for all” — which is a striking contrast with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the doctrinal defender who envisioned a smaller, purer church.
Certainly the pope is poised on a knife-edge here. If you put love before dogma and serving the poor ahead of doctrine, can you end up perverting both dogma and doctrine (and, ultimately, love as well)? Can a home in which everyone feels welcome become indistinguishable from the culture around it?
Of course. It happens all the time.
The knife-edge he’s poised on is the same one the New Testament is poised on.
The same one Jesus has always walked.
Remember? The man who partied with prostitutes, tax collectors and other notorious sinners? And the man who never minced words about sin and the judgment to come?
That knife-edge is where Christians have to live. We have no other choice if we are to walk the Jesus Way.
Part of what Francis said, in essence, is that Christians have to do a better job of explaining to our culture the bases for our opposition to some popular parts of our culture. We have to preach the whole Good News (the etymological meaning of the word Gospel), in other words.
Which requires talking about–and taking seriously ourselves–God’s love for the world.
Which requires loving sinners.
Which turns out to be really, really good news for me, since I am one.
And that, in fact, is just how the interview opens:
I ask Pope Francis point-blank: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” He stares at me in silence. I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: “I do not know what might be the most fitting description. . . . I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
The pope continues to reflect and concentrate, as if he did not expect this question, as if he were forced to reflect further.
“Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
And that’s the deep center of the Christian faith right there. Not an argument. Not a set of doctrines or rules. But a person. A person who looked upon us and loved us and invited us into a relationship with himself.
That’s where the interview begins, and that’s where every Christian has to begin every day. In her own private life. In his shared life with his brothers and sisters. In her daily interactions with friends, coworkers and neighbors.
Asked what the greatest need of the Church is, Francis responds:
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. And the ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, “This is not a sin,” or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
Notice the knife-edge. Falling off either side–either only pointing out how someone has failed to live up to the commandment or saying “this is not a sin”–is failing to take responsibility for our fellow man and woman.
Failing, in other words, to love them.
Pretty much everyone knows that orthodox Christian teaching says that abortion and homosexual acts are sinful. The Church has, for better and worse, successfully gotten those ideas across.
But have we gotten across equally well the idea that God so loved the world? That we are sinners whom Christ has looked upon?
That’s the context in which Francis goes on to say:
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 dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.
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 [basic teaching]. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. . . . 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.
Notice: We can’t only talk about these issues. We do have to talk about them. The teaching of the Church on them is clear, and Francis is a son of the church. That ought to lay to rest any idea that he’s getting ready to say, as he accused the “loose minister” of saying, “This is not a sin.” What he’s talking about here, is, as St. Paul said, speaking the truth in the context of love.
And it’s a message every Christian needs to take deeply to heart. Because falling off either side of the knife-edge is failing to love the world that God so loved.
♦ ♦ ♦
Predictably, but sadly, in their eagerness to find something seditious in the new pope, the mainstream media have ignored most of the wide-ranging interview. It’s long (over 10,000 words) but well worth your time. (You can read it here.)
Here’s one more bit to (I hope) whet your interest:
Yes, in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good.
For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions–that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation. . . .
Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing. . . . We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.
Again, you can read the whole thing here.