I was interviewed, earlier today, by Michelle Boorstein, a religion writer for the Washington Post. We chatted about the challenge many people were having with Pope Francis style and my own journey from confusion and mild frustration to greater understanding and appreciation for what he is trying to do and say. I appreciated her thoughtful and considerate approach and I hope we have other chances to speak in the future.
My comments centered on two themes (and since I’m not sure how much will make it in to the article I figured I’d blog it here); (1) The need to understand the Hierarchy of Truths and, (2) the need to appreciate the two conversations that are currently ongoing in the Church.
Hierarchy of Truths
When Francis speaks of the importance of having conversations about abortion, contraception, and gay marriage “in a context,” I believe he is making reference to the hierarchy of truths. In the Church, as in math and the sciences, there are certain things you need to be able to understand before you can effectively learn other things. For instance, algebra makes no sense before you can do basic math (of course, for math-impaired arts and letters types like me, basic math didn’t help my algebra much). Similarly, it is hard to expect someone to appreciate the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death until someone can accept the personal significance of the Jesus’ love for humankind (and for them, personally).
That’s not to say that the truth regarding life issues is less important. It is to say that the ability to see those truths tends to depend upon the acceptance of other, more basic, truths (e.g., the love and Lordship of Jesus Christ). Pope Francis is not so much saying that we shouldn’t be talking about the important moral issues of the day as he is saying that we have to be careful not to let Catholicism be reduced to a group of ethical rules that must be obeyed. At it’s heart, and I shared this with Ms. Boorstein, Catholicism is a love story not a rule book. Through the Eucharist, especially, God seeks to be united with his beloved in a profound and personal way.
We cannot let the fact that our Catholic faith is the love story between the Bridegroom and His bride be obscured by the truth of–for instance–canon laws on marriage. Both are important, but one is more primary.
As for questions about Pope Francis’ style, Let’s extend the marriage analogy further. Which is a more compelling message? “Marriage means saying ‘no’ to the million other people you could be sleeping with instead” or “Marriage means you have found the one person whom God has chosen to be your helpmate; the person who will devote his or her life to you, help you become everything God created you to be, and get you ready to spend Eternity with Him”? Again, both messages are true, and if there is some confusion about the nature of marital fidelity the former is an important conversation to have. But the latter message is more compelling insofar as it is a more accurate portrayal of what Catholics actually believe about marriage.
The Two Conversations
The second point I hope I was able to make in my interview had to do with the two conversations the Church has been, and still is, having.
In the years after Vatican II, there was a great deal of confusion regarding what it meant to respond to God’s call to love in the 20th century. Pope Paul VI, JPII, and B16 focused the conversation on “What does our ‘yes’ to God’s question, ‘will you let me love you?’ look like today?” They established that our response has to do with the way we express our love for others, the way we work to promote the dignity of every person from birth to natural death, and the right of every person to have everything necessary to live a full and godly life. The parameters of that conversation have been established, perhaps not as securely as some of us might like, but nevertheless, the parameters are set.
In light of those parameters having been established by his predecessors, Pope Francis seems (to me) to be saying that there is another message that needs to be proclaimed; specifically, that “Jesus Christ is Lord and he loves you.” Both conversations are important, but it does little good to talk about the proper response to God’s love with people who haven’t yet experienced his love for themselves. Pope Francis, I think, is asking us to focus on this other, more primary conversation. I do not believe he is saying that the moral conversation is no longer relevant, but rather that we need to keep these two conversations going in our heads–and in the world–at the same time. We must proclaim that “Jesus Christ is Lord and He loves you” at the same time we teach what it means to say, “yes” to that invitation to respond to his love. If Pope Francis appears to be favoring one conversation over the other–and I’m not convinced he is–then he is only doing so because the world has become so fixated on the moral conversation it has lost the thread of the love story and he intends to remind people of that greatest story every told.
I hope I was able to communicate that effectively in the interview, and I hope my observations might bring some clarity to the frustration, confusion, and (in some cases) misplaced proclamations of the death of orthodoxy, that so many are speaking about in the pew.