Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thoughts on the Pope's Latest Comments

Prepare yourself for another round. There will be a wave a news stories about how Pope Francis is backing away from Catholic teaching on homosexuality, abortion, and the like, and how he is working to reverse the course of his predecessors. You will hear this 10,000 times over the next week. In fact, I was just called by a large media company (make that two) to address the subject, and I don't think they much liked what I had to say. Here is what I had to say.

Nothing in the Pope's words undo any Catholic teaching. What's more, he intends no change whatsoever. What he is bringing to these hot-button issues is a humane clarity that reflects an aspect of Catholicism that is frequently overlooked in the world at large. It is the most common perception in the world today that Catholicism is nothing more than a strict set of life rules and the Church herself operates as the more judge and inquisitor not only over its members but over the society at large. This is the perception of the whole import of Catholic teaching. And because of the perception, the scandals of the last ten years have been particularly damaging to the reputation of Catholicism, simply because it permits the accusation of hypocrisy to stick.

But the truth is that this view of Catholicism is just wrong. Yes, there are rules and these rules are going nowhere. They are a fixed part of Catholic belief. But alongside those rules, there is also unfathomable mercy, love, and forgiveness. The view that Catholicism is nothing more than rules is a wildly imbalanced view and it does indeed cry out for correction. What's more, all Catholics know it to be untrue. We know it mainly from the confessional. We've all been there and unearthed our sins and told them. What do we hear in response? We hear mercy. We hear forgiveness and compassion. We are given a path to enter back into personal healing from sin. We are given the grace of forgiveness. We leave with a new sense that things can begin again, and feeling a profound sense of a lifted burden. This is what the confessional offers. Yes, it is a juridical chamber of sorts but that's not its only import. The Church also offers profound mercy and compassion and love and forgiveness for us. That is its stunning power in a world of intolerance and cruelty.

Why does this Pope believe that now is the time for this message? Part of it is his personality. It's his way. He is a pastor and an evangelist. His experiences tell him that this is something he can bring to his ministry. He clearly has a remarkable gift, and he is going with his strongest asset as a personality and a priest. What's more, there is a case to be made this this is exactly what we need right now.

Why? After the Second Vatican Council, so many aspects of the faith came to be completely shattered. The wide perception was that there was no more doctrine. Nothing that was true before is true now. There are no more teachings. Everything old is gone and the new is yet to be created. In response to this nonsense, John Paul II worked for so many years just to clarify and restore. He gave us the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a brilliant document that help put things back together again and provide some clarity. Benedict XVI came next to add theological depth and take on the profoundly important subject of the liturgy of the faith. He too worked to restore and bring dignity and clarity back to these practices.

Pope Francis is next in line. With renewed clarity about doctrine, morals, and liturgy having taken place, and having inherited this template, he is interested in adding a crucial and critical pastoral and evangelistic element that he perceives to be lacking. His contribution is additive, not corrective. And what he has said is clearly true and introduces an element that has always been present but has too often been ignored by the press and the world. Further -- and this should not be forgotten -- he is speaking not as an infallible guide to all things but only as the pastor.

Of course he injects his own way into the discussion. But speaking for myself here, I'm seriously warming to his way. He speaks to the whole world the way we are used to our own parish priests as speaking. He is casual. He is charming. He is a colleague in the faith. This is disarming and it takes some getting used to, to be sure. But for my part, I'm now experiencing joy when I read his comments, not just because what he is saying needs to be said but also because he is saying what is true.

This blog is about liturgy. That subject is very much associated with the last papacy. But that subject is not going away in the new. The new papacy is about additional and equally important things.

We must never forget that the message of the faith to the world is not a static thing but a progressive unfolding of truth that takes on new shapes and colorations depending on the time and place. Why? Because the faith is that big, that gigantic, that momentous. It can never be fully expressed in one age or under one papacy. There is always more to say and more to do. And truly, Pope Francis is doing the Lord's work, just as his predecessors have done.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: