After last month’s interviews with Pope Francis were released—the long one conducted by Jesuit Antonio Spadaro and the shorter one by atheist Eugenio Scalfari—the New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein opined that they leave “no doubt that he is in a hurry to further the stalled work of the Second Vatican Council: to open the church to modern culture, and to have a dialogue with other religions and nonbelievers.” Finally, after the conservative, backward-looking pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church is getting up to speed!Then, of course, there are agitprop scamfests like this.
It’s not a persuasive reading of Pope Francis. The pope calls himself “a son of the Church,” whose teachings are “clear.” But Goodstein’s is not an implausible reading.
In the first place, in Francis we’re not dealing with a modern politician or corporate titan who surrounds himself with speechwriters and handlers who keep him “on message.” The spontaneity is refreshing, a nice counter-witness to our manipulative and increasingly untruthful public culture of carefully orchestrated sound bites. But spontaneity naturally leads to messages that can be misrepresented. The most prominent have been his statements about gays and lesbians, which the secular press has presented as indicating a rejection or at least moderation of Catholic teaching. That’s not surprising. Our secular culture is obsessed with sexual identity and can’t stop talking about it.
There are substantive reasons behind progressive enthusiasm, however, that are less blatantly self-serving. John Paul II was an immensely cultured man with expansive interests who spoke with doubters and atheists and worked to infuse the spirit of Christian humanism into the best of modern secular philosophy. But he also had a determined and courageous spirit of opposition to evil, one doubtless formed and hardened by his youthful experiences of Nazi brutalities and his long adult struggle with communism. His image of what we’re up against, the culture of death, was powerful.
Benedict’s papacy reflected an equally encompassing mind and spirit. His dialogue with Jürgen Habermas fulfilled the hopes of Gaudium et Spes: a man of faith finding common ground with a man of goodwill. But he also emphasized a firm Christian resistance to the dangers and perversions of the post-Christian West, most memorably to the “dictatorship of relativism.”
Here there is a real difference. Pope Francis shies away from opposition. The most famous example is the “Who am I to judge?” response to a question about gay people. Less noted but more important are his measured statements about the challenges we face, which reflect a context only well-catechized Christians are likely to recognize.
In one interview he was asked about social changes and “the way human beings are reinterpreting themselves.” The question evokes thoughts of many destructive tendencies in secular society: doctor-assisted suicide, which reinterprets the individual as master of life and death; fluid sexual identities that treat human nature as raw material for self-expression; a consumerist mentality unable to recognize the common good. But Francis focuses on the successes of modern society, not its failures: the abolition of slavery and, in places, the death penalty.
Instead of reflecting on the modern ambivalence about objective moral truths—a tendency that so concerned John Paul II and Benedict—Francis observes that “in every age of history, humans try to understand and express themselves better.” Our age makes mistakes, to be sure, but he consistently turns to the Church, not the world, for examples of failure. “The Church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think,” he observes in one instance. He then singles out “decadent Thomist commentaries” for censure.
There’s quite a bit of the Sermon on the Mount in this reflection: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” The secular press does not recognize this pattern of Christ-guided self-scrutiny—nor that Jesus says these things in the context of a long discourse filled with firm and highly specific teachings about how we are to behave. This scriptural background should give pause to those who imagine that Pope Francis is preparing to make vague and ineffectual any of the Church’s moral teachings that he himself pronounces “clear.”
Nevertheless, this is a stance different from those of the last two popes. They tended to emphasize the spirit of St. Paul’s words “Be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort.” Where John Paul II and Benedict were inclined to see the Church as a sign of contradiction, Francis tends to see the Church as a companion who encourages, or as an attentive, sympathetic doctor. Secular readers intuit this difference, and they read Pope Francis as poised to affirm them and the moral culture of our time.
Another dimension of his interviews encourages this view. The pope observes that we’re not to allow ourselves to get locked up “in small things, in small-minded rules.” The Church needs to find “new roads” and “new paths” and “to step outside itself.” This will require “audacity and courage.” In many other places, he condemns a mentality that is juridical and “small-minded,” that creates an “environment of closed and rigid thought.” This approach fears change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins, on the frontier.” A Christian is not to be “a restorationist, a legalist” or to long for “an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security’” but instead must embrace “open-ended thinking.”
I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets by observing that these stock phrases and images come from the standard playbook of progressive reform, both religious and secular. This way of talking does not challenge but instead tacitly reinforces the dominant way of thinking in America. It is a dogma of our time that anyone who dissents from progressive views is narrow, bigoted, close-minded. Meanwhile, “audacity and courage” characterizes anyone who takes up the progressive agenda. Is it then surprising that the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and the National Catholic Reporter are delighted? By their reckoning, the pope is singing from their hymnal.
A single pope can’t speak with equal concern and effectiveness to every Catholic’s circumstances. Francis’ rhetoric of transformation, however fitting on its own terms, isn’t always helpful here. I look around today and don’t see much in the way of “closed and rigid thought,” at least not in the Church in America. On the contrary, a typical Catholic parish in New York almost certainly contains a far wider range of political and moral views than the faculty of Columbia University—or, for that matter, of Fordham University—and certainly more than the staff of the New York Times.
Of himself, Francis says, “I am a bit astute . . . but it is also true that I am a bit naive.” By my reading of the signs of the times in America, he’s been a bit naïve. His words have given unhelpful encouragement to those who would like the Catholic Church to surrender and accept the dominance of our secular elite. But he’s also been a bit astute. We need to take risks to bear witness to Christ, perhaps most frighteningly the risk of admitting to the beam in our own eyes.
[Hat tip to JM]