Conservative Catholic commentators have gone out of their way to assure us that the Holy Father hasn’t contradicted Church teaching or changed Church doctrine. That much is true. When popes give interviews they typically say “nothing new” — that is, if we’re talking about defining Church doctrine on matters of faith and morals. Interviews, nevertheless, can cause a host of problems (recall Pope Benedict XVI’s famous condoms comment; see our New Oxford Note “Condom-mania, the Rerun,” Jan.-Feb. 2011), especially when the Church is not prepared for the fallout. This time around, although secular media outlets received advance copies of the text under embargo, bishops and their spokesmen did not.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, for example, said that it was a “blessing” to have been “away from the United States on September 19 when Jesuit magazines around the world released the Pope’s remarks.” He returned home to a deluge of e-mails. “Some people grasped at the interview like a lifeline — or a vindication,” he wrote in Catholic Philadelphia (Sept. 25). “One person praised the Holy Father for stressing that the ‘Church must focus on compassion and mercy, not on enforcing small-minded rules.’ She added that ‘we’re at last free from the chains of hatred that have ruled the Catholic Church for so many years and led to my unease in bringing my own children into that Church.’” But most of the e-mails the archbishop received were from catechists, priests, and laymen who felt confused or disillusioned by the interview: “A priest said the Pope ‘has implicitly accused brother priests who are serious about moral issues of being small minded,’ and that ‘[if you’re a priest,] being morally serious is now likely to get you publicly cast as a problem.’ Another priest wrote that ‘the problem is that [the Holy Father] makes all of the wrong people happy, people who will never believe in the Gospel and who will continue to persecute the Church.’”
Consider that the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) jumped on the effusive-praise bandwagon and posted a “Thank you” to Francis from “Pro-choice women everywhere” on Facebook, while the Human Rights Campaign, a “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” advocacy group, tweeted an image with the words, “Dear Pope Francis, thank you. — LGBT people everywhere.”
Archbishop Chaput believes that most of these concerns were the result of narrowly focused media headlines (“Pope: Church too focused on gays and abortion: ‘We have to find a new balance instead of being obsessed with those issues,’” USA Today; “Pope faults ‘small-minded rules,’” Chicago Tribune), and he is probably correct. But a careful reading of the interview does little to allay concerns. In fact, taken in context, the Pope’s words create more confusion and raise additional concerns.
What conservative Catholic pundits have been saying is true: The Pope has not changed Church teaching. But while Francis doesn’t deny the truth or the faith, he implicitly calls some of it into question, not only by his call for a re-ordering of priorities, but through his uncertain and inexact language. One hopes his is not a purposeful use of ambiguity, but most of his now-famous interview remains ambiguous nonetheless.
Poets often rely on ambiguity in order to tap into a multiplicity of meanings and connotations, to add a richness that is often lacking in the prosaic and practical communication of everyday life. But for scientists, theologians, and popes, ambiguity is obstructive, a potential source of confusion. Take for example Francis’s response to the question, What does it mean to “think with the [C]hurch?” (Ed. Note: In the interview, the universal Church is referred to as “church” without the capital “C.”) The Holy Father first asserts that it doesn’t mean “only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.” He explains that “all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo.” Since the concept of infallibility in Catholic context nearly always refers to the papacy, is it any surprise that many readers would interpret this to mean that the whims of the majority of Catholics in the pews in “matters of belief” enjoy a certain level of infallibility? Is the content of the faith now to be determined democratically? That would be music to the ears of liberal Catholics. But wait a minute, Francis insists that he is not speaking of “a form of populism.” If he’s not speaking of a form of populism, what is he speaking about? The Pope’s response is ambiguous, his terms insufficiently defined. And this is ironic since he formulates this response, as he says, “in order to avoid misunderstandings.”
The most ambiguous — and controversial — statements of the interview come in response to Fr. Spadaro’s question, “What kind of church do you dream of?” The Holy Father responds at length, comparing the Church to a “field hospital after battle” whose primary function is to heal the wounded. “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol, and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” What a metaphor! The problem is that the Pope’s vague language invites interpreters to fill his words with their own meaning. We’d like to think that the “battle” represents spiritual warfare and the “wounded” those caught in the snares of evil. Then again, the wounded could represent those who have been alienated from the Church, which would throw into doubt what the battle might represent. Either way, it seems clear — we think — that those who insist on talking to the war-wounded about their cholesterol levels are the Church’s own ministers, priests, evangelists, and apologists.
Let’s be honest: Francis is no poet. His ambiguity lends no richness. It creates confusion, especially when he follows this up by saying, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” This line about “small-minded rules” opens up treacherous territory: He doesn’t define which rules are small-minded. Perhaps he means the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. Who knows? The problem is that he goes on in the same response to assert that “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraception methods.” Can we fault The New York Times and The Huffington Post for their provocative headlines when the Pope’s delivery lends credence to the claim that these “small-minded rules” are the Church’s teachings on abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception? It seems disingenuous to blame the Pope’s blunder — or is this his true meaning? — on the media.
Most Catholics who’ve been paying attention for the past four decades will know there has been too little focus on the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. The message of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae hasn’t often reached the pews. Perhaps Francis is suggesting that the message issuing from Rome hasn’t been effective and a new approach is needed. But this interpretation too is more speculation. To say that the Church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion…” is not helpful — not to pro-life Catholics working in crisis pregnancy centers or as sidewalk counselors at abortion clinics, not to women who are suffering after an abortion, and not to outfits like NARAL, which have been given a false sense of affirmation in their efforts to spread abortion throughout the world.
Does the Holy Father really believe the Church today focuses only on issues of abortion and sexual morality? If so, he embraces the old canard that has been fed to the secular media by heterodox Catholics in favor of a morally lax Church. The only reason anyone would believe that the Church is “obsessed” with abortion and issues of sexual morality is because the media focuses on these issues. Sex-and-the-Church sells. Surely the Holy Father must know that innumerable Catholics are working at various charitable pursuits, in proximity to the poor and otherwise, not as the Pharisees he makes them out to be, but as selfless servants “healing the wounded” on the front lines.
Beyond the “obsessed” faithful, Francis has more fish to fry: This time he specifically targets priests. The Holy Father remarks that “the confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.” He gives no context to his comment. Is he addressing disenfranchised Catholics, encouraging them not to fear the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or is he excoriating mean old priests — or are they young ones, fresh out of Benedict-inspired seminaries? — who supposedly view their priesthood as a license to conduct an Inquisition? Well, we can’t know. Again, the words are the problem. We begin to wonder if he in fact believes that many Catholic priests in the twenty-first century are focused on enforcing “small-minded rules.” The Pope’s words also allow for this simple inference: Don’t worry about specific sins such as abortion and homosexual behavior; just focus on “doing better.”
But wait, there’s more. The Holy Father also sees a problem with the Church’s “pastoral ministry,” and that begins with priests who are “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” Again, we can only presume that the doctrines he refers to relate to sexual morality since these are the only issues he has mentioned specifically. Where, one wonders, are these priests who are so insistent? In response to the interview, Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, California, gives voice to the experience of many when he says the “vast majority” of priests “never talk about [these issues]” (The Press Democrat, Sept. 21). Raymond Cardinal Burke, head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Signatura (but perhaps not for much longer), echoed Bishop Vasa’s sentiment when he told The Catholic Servant (Sept.) that the Church hasn’t been outspoken enough on controversial issues like homosexuality. He said there’s been “a failure of catechesis both of children and young people that has been going on for fifty years…. There is far too much silence — people do not want to talk about it because the topic is not politically correct.”
Francis clearly has a different conception of what’s happening in the Church. He sees a problem with Catholic preaching — rails against it — but it’s not the same problem that Bishop Vasa, Cardinal Burke, and most Mass-going Catholics have noticed in recent decades. While Catholics in the U.S. continue to lament warm, fuzzy homilies characterized by a lack of catechesis and preaching on moral issues, Pope Francis takes his hatchet to the unseen thousands of Savonarolas who spend their Sundays thundering against vice and lashing out against the immoral, vainglorious, pleasure-seeking life. These overzealous, fire-breathing preachers have it all backwards, the Holy Father says: Priests in the pulpit must first proclaim “the saving love of God” (stage one), then “do catechesis” (stage two), and then draw a “moral consequence” (stage three). In the typical American parish, however, the priest never gets past stage one: After he cracks a joke, relates an innocuous anecdote, and lauds the local football team (to demonstrate his “proximity and ability to meet his people”), he wades into the shallow waters of “God-loves-you” platitudes that often risk being interpreted as Do whatever you please because the small-minded rules of the moral life are of little concern to God. Obviously, there are priests who are welcome exceptions to this norm, but most of these tend more or less to follow the Pope’s three-step homiletic formulation rather than preach fire and brimstone before returning to their confessional torture chambers.
And then there’s the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The Holy Father uses the same level of ambiguity here, again muddying moral waters. “During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge,” he explains in the interview. “By saying this, I said what the catechism says…. It is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.” As if his initial comments on the plane from Rio didn’t cause enough confusion, the Pope tries to explain himself by appealing to the authority of the Catechism. Well, the Pope may mean what the Catechism says, but he comes nowhere close to saying what the Catechism teaches. (See nos. 2357-2359 if you’d like to know what it does say on this topic.) Many will interpret the Pope’s remarks not as a reiteration of the Catechism but as an implicit endorsement of a homosexual lifestyle. Francis does not speak specifically of the man struggling with same-sex attraction. He speaks of the “gay person” and the “homosexual person,” leaving it to the reader to speculate about what he might mean. Furthermore, what does the Pope mean when he says, “it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person”? Does preaching the truth in charity count as “interference”? Would it be “interference” to oppose laws that promote intrinsic evils?
Dwelling on the issue of homosexuality, which the Pope exhorts the faithful to spend much less time doing, he goes on to say:
A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.So, although Cardinal Bergoglio was trying to be cleverly Socratic, perhaps even intending to reiterate the teaching of the Catechism, his response risks leaving the questioner with the feeling that, yes, maybe this guy does approve of “homosexuality” — whatever he means by that term. Again, we don’t know because he doesn’t say. But we do know that he doesn’t use the carefully considered terminology of the Catechism, which clearly defines homosexuality as “relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex” (no. 2357). It is important to note here that Pope Francis does not approve of homosexual sex or same-sex marriage but, judging from his choice of words in the interview alone, the reader cannot know this. Here again, his words are the problem, not their interpretation.
On one issue the Holy Father is clear, and this is arguably his main point in the interview: We won’t win many converts by stressing the rules of the Church over the mercy of Jesus. (See “Authentic Dialogue Is Possible” by Melinda Selmys and “Five Common Misconceptions About Islam” by Andrew Bieszad in the May 2011 NOR on the irreplaceable role of the Christian community of love in conversion.) That is a fundamental aspect of faith. But once the heart is converted, the body, so to speak, must follow. And here is where the Church’s teachings on sexual morality come to bear. Otherwise all we could offer converts is, following a Protestant template, a chance to make a one-time profession of faith and then get on with their worldly lives. A Catholic life, on the other hand, offers so much more, if we are willing to delve into its details — details this Pope puts aside as if they do not matter.
Judging from the interview and other indications, the Pope is trying to get the Church to speak less to herself and more to outsiders. He wants to “dialogue” with the world, to convert the world. The audience he is addressing, it appears, isn’t his flock but non-Catholics. The intent is admirable but the method is imprudent. It’s not enough to say, as the Pope does, “I am a son of the Church and the teaching is clear.” It’s clear to those who know and accept it, which is a minority of believers today. Baptized Catholics aren’t of one mind on these things anymore. Instead of creating unity in matters of faith and morals, the Pope is leaving Catholics in disarray, confused about what it means to live a life consistent with the demands of the Gospel. People need distinctions; they need the Pope to unite mercy and truth. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI did this well.
So, has Pope Francis been misunderstood? In order to answer this question, we have to be able to answer a more fundamental question: What is the Pope saying? The answer to which is: We don’t know. Even worse, at this point: We can’t know. But it is significant that Pope Francis is saying many ambiguous things with a lot of heartfelt emotion. This Pope evidently does not see it as his role to be clear, to teach the truth in a way that all can understand by a simple appraisal of his message. The irony is that he uses many words to say very little. Because his words are consistently unclear, they are by that fact empty rhetoric. The Pope seems to think that he ought to be a rhetorician more than a teacher. How sad! One could argue that a teacher may employ rhetoric, but only in service of the truth. When the truth itself becomes obscured, then the teacher is no longer doing his duty well. If a teacher purposely obscures the truth, he is abandoning his duty.
Francis’s words tell us that he is no Benedict XVI, no John Paul II. There have often been popes who changed the direction or emphasis of their predecessors: Leo XIII did not issue any “syllabus of errors,” in contrast to Pius IX before him and Pius X after him, and he was generally more “open” to the world in a positive way. But there were no morally or doctrinally ambiguous statements coming from the mouth of Leo XIII. He did not implicitly “correct” the example and teachings of the holy Pope he succeeded. He emphasized different truths than his immediate predecessor — but, like him, he taught the truth clearly.
Pope Francis must keep close track of his “change of emphasis.” He risks acting the part of the parish priest who uses vacuous platitudes and grand gestures in an attempt to win over disgruntled, immoral, heretical parishioners. The recent history of the post-Vatican II Church shows that this strategy never works. Time and again we have witnessed that churches do not fill up when doctrine is watered down; eventually the church empties, perhaps to be abandoned entirely. If Pope Francis does not perceive this, then there will be many more sorrows that the Church will have to endure. But if he does know this, and he persists in his ambiguity nonetheless, the sorrows will be even greater.
“Eventually people get tired of authoritarianism. My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions [as a Jesuit superior] led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative…. But I have never been a right-winger.”
— Pope Francis on his experience in Church government (America, Sept. 30)
The foregoing review article, "The Poor Misunderstood Pope?" was originally published under "New Oxford Notes" in the New Oxford Review (November, 2013), and is reproduce here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.