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.

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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.


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