Why I Love Pope Francis’s Radical (Not Really) Take on the Gospel

I am enamored of Pope Francis. Every time he clarifies what he believes about the Catholic Church, its priorities, and its purpose, I am grateful that God gave this wise, smiling cleric a worldwide audience. Francis’s thoughtful, humble way of speaking about God and the church is good for all Christians, not only those who are Roman Catholic.

In an extensive New York Times article published Friday, Pope Francis is quoted thus:

It is not necessary to talk about these issues [abortion, gay marriage, and contraception] 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. We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.

6301481627A significant portion of my writing career revolves around Christian reproductive ethics. So I have a pretty passionate interest in abortion and contraception, along with assisted reproduction and genetic screening. But I also get frustrated when Christians make issues of reproduction and sexuality some sort of litmus test for whether you are a “real” Christian, implying that one’s position on the morality of abortion or contraception or homosexuality must be a central concern in one’s life of faith. Such a focus doesn’t model Jesus, who said far more concerning poverty, money, and social exclusion than sexuality and reproduction. A robust faith is more about receiving and sharing God’s love than toeing a party line on particular issues.

So Pope Francis’s insistence that the “freshness and fragrance of the Gospel” (what a phrase!) ought not be sacrificed to our limited notions of what issues are most important is a needed corrective. It is a corrective not only to the Catholic Church, but to some evangelical churches that also focus on sexuality and reproduction to the exclusion of other issues and the detriment of Jesus’s overarching message about God’s love and grace.

Francis’s message is likewise a corrective to Northeastern Protestants like me. Although those in my Episcopal milieu hold a diversity of political views, we, unlike many traditional Catholics and evangelicals, tend not to make activism around certain controversial issues central to either our individual faith journeys or our corporate identity and congregational work. At my church, we are far more likely to hear a sermon about economic inequalities than about sexual or reproductive ethics. Our bulletins and newsletters are full of invitations to feed the hungry and help house the homeless, not so much to join busloads of people going to D.C. to march for or against abortion policies.

But we can find it too easy to write off our brothers and sisters, whether Roman Catholic or evangelical, for whom reproductive and sexual ethics are very important. We (and I purposely include myself here) can indulge in eye-rolling, dismissal, and comments like, “Oh, those Catholic priests are against contraception just because they are men. They just want more Catholic babies to be born.” (For the record, the official Catholic position against contraception arises from a theology of marriage that, while I don’t agree with it for many practical reasons, is nevertheless quite lovely.) Or “Those evangelicals care a lot about fetuses but not so much children.”

In any denomination or church, there are people with extreme opinions, who hold positions on sociopolitical issues that utterly lack reason, nuance, or compassion. But those people are a minority. Most Catholics and evangelicals (and Episcopalians!) who hold strong opinions on sexuality and reproduction do so thoughtfully. We would go a long way toward realizing Jesus’s vision of unity among his followers if we emphasized the similarities between more liberal and conservative denominations and individuals, rather than the differences.

It took meeting my friend Karen to teach me the value of unity in spite of big differences of opinion. Karen is a professor of English literature at Liberty University—Jerry Falwell’s conservative evangelical university in the mountains of Virginia. Karen is brilliant. Karen is also vehemently pro-life, as in “I will go to jail for protesting against legal abortion if that’s what it takes” pro-life. I am firmly if moderately pro-choice. Karen and I held an online conversation about abortion on a friends’ blog a couple of years ago, which I consider one of the most important things I have ever written. (My post is here, Karen’s is here, and there are also several follow-up posts in the days that followed our initial posts, in which Karen and I answered readers’ questions.) The response we got from readers on either side of the abortion issue was overwhelmingly positive. Karen is one of my most treasured colleagues, as well as a friend. She and the other articulate, thoughtful, faithful evangelical and Roman Catholic writers with whom I work remind me daily that we Christians can have very different opinions on sociopolitical issues, and still come together in our allegiance to Jesus Christ and the gospel of grace.

This latest interview and his earlier statements on homosexuality do not mean that Pope Francis is a liberal, or even a moderate. There’s quite a bit on which Pope Francis and I would disagree. But Pope Francis has clearly articulated that the core Christian message of love, grace, and humility—the “freshness and fragrance of the gospel”—is far more important than our position on particular social and ethical issues. We can follow his lead by embracing that vision of God’s kingdom and God’s people, even when we have serious differences of opinion with other believers.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Best line in the part you excerpted, Ellen? “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
    Pastoral ministry should never take a disjointed approach because pastoral ministry is always about Jesus, who is never disjointed, and his people, who are incapable of being reduced to disjointed parts themselves. The role of the church in shepherding the people of God is about the whole person and ministering in pursuit of helping them realize the fullness of Christ that has been delivered to us by the Spirit.
    Cheers,
    Tim

    • Jeannie

      Your last sentence is awesome, Tim, and it speaks so well, too, to the post on Anne Bogel’s blog today (http://modernmrsdarcy.com/2013/09/in-which-i-testify-with-my-absence-from-church/) about parents struggling with bringing small children to church. We’re all in this together. We’re a BODY. Pope Francis seems to get that.
      I’m so glad you posted on this, Ellen.

      • Mike Sullivan

        And because “we’re a BODY”, is yet another theological basis for condemning abortion, as it harms the thread of the Holy Spirit which binds as all together as a Divine Beings.

    • Mike Sullivan

      I hope this is an unintentional pun Tim:

      “his people, who are incapable of being reduced to disjointed parts themselves.”

      Because being reduced to disjointed parts, is well, an outcome of “reproductive choice”.

  • pastordt

    I loved that article and others I’ve read about that interview he did with a Jesuit magazine here in the States. I’m hoping to squeeze out the time to read the interview itself. Every single thing I’ve read about and from this man gives me a sense of hope for the future – pretty powerful presence, I’d say.

  • Mike Sullivan

    “A significant portion of my writing career revolves around Christian reproductive ethics. ”

    Francis said:

    “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

    So, in terms of reproductive ethics around screening and disability selective abortion, Francis later condemned eugenic selection of human beings as a “widespread mentality of the useful”. He warned, “The ‘throw away culture’ which today enslaves the hearts and intelligences of so many, has a very high cost: it requires eliminating human beings, especially if physically or socially weaker.”

    Francis asked all medical personnel to remember that human life is “always, in all
    its phases and at every age, sacred and is always of quality…There is no human
    life that is more sacred than another, as there is no human life that is
    qualitatively more significant than another.”

    “But I also get frustrated when Christians make issues of reproduction and sexuality some sort of litmus test for whether you are a “real” Christian, implying that one’s position on the morality of abortion or contraception or homosexuality must be a central concern in one’s life of faith.”

    Well, yes, in terms of abortion, if one is a Christian, then the morality of that position has to be justified in sound theological terms. As Francis reminds us, no human life is more sacred than another. The principle co-creative joining of a male, female and God in the co-creation of a new unique and sacred human being, something not to be manipulated at will by man (though shall only have one God before me). The principle of doing no harm to others (treat ones neighbour as one wishes to be treated themselves), is entirely incompatible with the conscious act of taking the life of another human being

    So, a Christians position on the “morality of abortion” is indeed a thing that is central to one’s faith because it is an act that harms another sacred life, that is a reflection of God. The reality is that there is no Christian basis for taking the life of another sacred human being. To support abortion as “reproductive choice” would be incompatible with Christian theology.


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