Ok, I’ll be honest, I came away from the first reading of the pope’s interview on Thursday with some mixed emotions. I was a bit worried that he was promoting the kind of “mercy” in the church which is no more than being a nice guy and letting people off the hook. Certainly that is what the secular press took from the interview: “Oh great, the Pope is all about acceptance and tolerance just like the rest of us….”
On the second reading I took more time to soak up the context. When Pope Francis is talking about “accompanying people” on their journey and “paying attention to the person” he is advocating a deep compassion for the person which neither excuses their sin nor treats it harshly or coldly as just “breaking the rules.” So he says,
The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.”
I was also a bit worried about the “don’t be obsessed with gay marriage, abortion and contraception” line. First of all he doesn’t say that. Here’s the passage:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible… when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
In other words–simple denunciations of poor moral choices don’t connect. People only hear them as stern and arbitrary denunciations from some old guy. For Catholic moral values to be communicated they must be communicated in a whole context with concern for the whole person and every aspect of the complex individual, social, moral and spiritual situation.
He goes on to explain that there are different levels of importance to the doctrinal and moral teachings of the church. The most important is the gospel of Jesus Christ which needs to be proclaimed to a needy world.
“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. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. 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. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
There’s that words “obsessed” it’s the only time it is used in the interview. The Pope is saying it is no good simply throwing out there a grab bag of moral principles and stated doctrinal beliefs and saying “Here. do this and believe that and that is the Catholic faith.” This is exactly what Christian catechesis and life has too often been (not just Catholic). Instead the Pope calls us to live lives radiant with the love of Christ, to proclaim the gospel simply and profoundly and exhibit that love to a needy world.
I like “freshness and fragrance of the gospel” and the proposal of the gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant.”
Mark Shea comments on these same issues here and can’t resist a dig at conservative Catholics who miss the point just as much as the NY Times did.