Francis and Benedict, Peter and John

I’m fortunate to have read Pope Francis’ interview before reading any of the fooforaw. Reading him cold, I saw not a single thing out of line with the papacy of Benedict XVI, which is why I was surprised at all the gnashing of teeth going on about a few words taken out of context by the media.

I’m just coming off semester spent on Benedict, whose writings have informed my faith more than anyone else. Everyone sees the pope they want to see, I guess, and that includes me, a catechist who sees Benedict primarily as a teacher. But people have a tendency to cast Benedict in a very narrow mold as the stickler for rules, the narrow-minded reactionary, the inaccessible academic.

I have no idea how anyone who has read anything by Benedict can come to this conclusion. This is the pope that wrote Deus Caritas Est, Spe Salvi, and Caritas in Veritate: warm, accessible, humane works that sought to bring the teachings of the Church down to their essence and begin rebuilding on the simple core of faith, hope, and charity.

The strange part is that Francis is being praised for his simplicity and humility in contrast to Benedict, who was already striking in his simplicity and humility! Just because he taught that the beauty of the liturgy deserved restoration for those who desired it doesn’t mean he was a strutting peacock. When did beauty become an act of hubris?

What we see when comparing Benedict and Francis is a matter of pastoral style. To each thing its season. Benedict the patient catechist took us back to basics with teachings on virtues, saints and church fathers, and how to worship. Now Francis has a fresh chance to take the message of our faith to the world.

Francis himself finds the perfect analogy in the interview:

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. 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. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

For Benedict, the professor, the church was the classroom. His papacy emphasized catechesis.

For Francis, the missionary, the church is a hospital. His papacy emphasizes healing.

One doesn’t come without the other. Jesus was all things: shepherd, rabbi (teacher), healer, priest, victim, Lord.

In a sense, we have the split sometimes understood by the image of “John versus Peter”: John the mystic, and Peter the man of action; one esoteric, representing the head (John), the other exoteric, representing the heart (Peter). Together, they built up the Church as the most important of the apostles.

John and Peter

It’s overly simplistic to call Benedict the head and Francis the heart, since each had qualities of the other, as did John and Peter. (Indeed, in the interview Francis lays claim to a mystical sensibility in his understanding of the Ignatian exercises, while Benedict rejected the idea that he was a mystic.) However unsatisfying the analogy, it’s useful when trying to understand the pastoral emphasis of each man.

Reading Francis as evidence of some new day dawning in the Church is misguided. There is not a hairsbreadth of difference between the theology of Francis and Benedict.

This is exactly what the affirmative orthodoxy of Benedict is all about: the “yes” of Christ. The Church is a “yes” to life, and life in abundance, while the world is the “no.” All of his writing and preaching centered on this idea of the yes of faith in the risen Christ.

What we have is a shift in perception, which is a potent thing in the age of mass media. Francis was a new beginning. The die was cast with Benedict, who had gotten an undeserved reputation as a grim inquisitioner, before he even became pope. Francis was a new page, totally blank as far as the world, and indeed much of the Church, is concerned.

That he articulates the message of the Church of love, concern, and hope–the same message of Benedict, John Paul II, Paul VI, and every other Peter back to Peter–with good humor, clarity, and simplicity is a blessing.

And he is completely correct to say–in a single, passing sentence–that the message of the Church cannot be reduced to modern sexual obsessions. Those who react angrily to this are just proving his point: human sexuality is our obsession, not God’s.

I saw one headline, from the criminally incompetent Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times, that read “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control,” and knew I needed to read no further. I have a 12-year-old who can speak and write more intelligently about Church matters than Laurie Goodstein.

I know from long history–as should any Catholic with a pulse–that reporters search material about the Church for key words: homosexual, contraception, abortion, and abuse. They’re obsessed with sex, and then project that obsession back onto an institution they hate. Anyone trusting the mainstream media for information about the Catholic church is a fool, and any Catholic who thinks we can ever gain control of “messaging” among those feral–but selectively toothless–”watchdogs” is an even bigger fool.

The New York Times hates you. Ignore them. Pray for them. But don’t act like their misinterpretation of our faith has any relation to our faith at all, or that their determination to misread the very clear words of Francis has any effect on us whatsoever.

The crime of abortion and the diseased sexuality of modern culture are indeed major concerns for any Christian or person with a flicker of conscience, and they need to be fought.

They are not the totality of our message, however, despite the media’s attempt to make them so.

Our message is this: Christ is raised, and in Him is our hope. Everything else flows from that. The person with hope–the person who is healed–the person who loves and is loved–can then turn away from the culture of death and embrace the life eternal.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Dale

    What we see when comparing Benedict and Francis is a matter of pastoral style.

    Yes, exactly. I have been puzzled by claims that there is some kind of space between the teachings of the two popes.

  • Stefanie

    Omigosh, I had a nerd-out moment when I saw the Burnand painting of Peter & John that you used to illustrate this. It’s my favorite Easter image…use it all the time when teaching about Jesus and Peter (RCIA lessons 3&4).
    BTW, I agree with you — I was up past 1 a.m., reading first the article of the interview in its entirety, then going on all the usual go-to Catholic blogs for the usual comments. I found nothing sensational about the interview; enjoyed getting to know Papa Francisco better…his taste in the arts which so well define the freedom of Catholic-fueled imagination. It was yummy.
    All the !!!!! and ??!….
    as for me, I am so amazed that we have a pope who keeps stirring the pot and throwing in more seasonings. Come home, everyone — I loved what he said about what we can learn from our Orthodox siblings…”the meaning of episcopal collegiality & tradition of synodality. The joint effort of reflection, looking a how the Church was governed in the early centuries, before the breakup of East & West, will bear fruit in due time….”. Again, this evokes the Burnand painting — John is the East and Peter is the West. What a gift to live in these times!

  • FW Ken

    Completely agree. I get a chuckle sometimes when people fail to understand that a German theologian is not like a South American bishop (and a Jesuit, to boot).

  • Manny

    I think there was only one line in the interview that caused the controversy, the one about abortion, gays, and contraception. And given that the Holy Father came right out the next day for his position on abortion tells me he did miss speak. But it was a wonderful interview and other than that one line there was much to admire. I’m no theological scholar, but there does seem like there’s a difference between BXVI and Francis beyond style. There’s only so much the magisterium will allow a Pope to theologically veer, so the distinction is going to be very subtle. But intuitively it does seem like Francis is in a break of the last thirty-so years of JPII and BXVI. But it’s only been less than a year.

  • Frank

    “The New York Times hates you. Ignore them. Pray for them.”

    Sorry, but how is that possible? How can you ignore someone while praying for them?

    Yet you dare to call Laurie Goodstein incompetent?

    You seem to have misunderstood Pope Francis’ plain words in the interview: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods … 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.”

    And you think the critique implied in this passage is directed at the secular world? That is absurd. In these words, and elsewhere in the interview, Francis is very plainly rejecting a way of being Catholic that treats the Church’s moral teachings on these and other issues as the primary “point of contact” with non-Catholics. He is rejecting an attitude that dares to say arrogantly, “The New York Times hates you.” He is affirming that even people who disagree profoundly with the Church on any number of matters still have spiritual longings, spiritual wounds, living consciences, and it is only by being at home, as Christians, among those people that we can ever have a hope of inviting them to see Jesus.

    But instead of this, you filter the interview and the media reaction to it through the tired old “culture wars” narrative.

    Is Pope Francis teaching the same faith as Pope Benedict? Of course. But is there anything new in what he’s offering? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

    The secular world may not understand what’s really going on, but they know something is going on with this Pope, and they’re reacting to it in the only ways they know how — hating Catholics has nothing to do with it. You, on the other hand, are letting that something new pass you by, and demanding that us true Catholics remain ensconced in our safe little nests of mediocrity.

    You’d be doing yourself and your readers a big favor if you tried seriously to figure out what that new thing might really be. But first you’ll have to drop the stance of paranoia.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    You’re all over the map there, being insulting while criticizing me for being insulting; misreading, while accusing me of misreading; and generally just firing wild.

    So let’s slow you down and try to focus on one question at a time. Read this post:

    … and then explain to me how the New York Times is anything other than 1) ignorant about religion and 2) hostile to Catholicism.

    Then maybe we can get to the rest of your rant.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Oh, and you can ignore the CONTENT of someone’s comments and reportage while still PRAYING FOR THEM to correct their ways.

    See how easy it is?

    This is the proper order of things: Read, pause, think, pause, THEN write, PAUSE AGAIN, then hit “post reply.”

  • Gordis85

    He did not misspeak. He has always supported the pro-life message. He joined and affirmed the many pro-life marchers in Rome, back in the spring of 2013. Look for the youtube video or go to Rebecca Hamilton’s blog as she has the videos there.

    He encouraged the Knights of Columbus, in their recent meeting, to support and defend marriage and family life and life in all its stages. Carl Anderson has an excellent article on just what the Holy Father said.
    Try reading it if you doubt what I am saying.

  • Gordis85

    Another great article that makes sense of what Papa Francis is really saying! Thank you for your clarity! God bless!

  • Manny