The Holy Father’s interview published today is the first time we’ve had a chance for an in depth look at the man. One of the frustrating things about his papacy so far is that it has been big on dramatic gestures and small on content. There’s not anything wrong with that. He clearly prefers the off the cuff remark and the spontaneous homily to the careful, well thought out theological treatise. It is also true that he has the style of a prophet, and prophets are good at preaching through dramatic gestures and actions as well as words.
His interview reveals a simple man of the poor–a compassionate and humble man who has people as the heart of his concern. He wishes for a church that is outgoing, creative and risk taking. He wants a gospel that is lived in a compassionate, forgiving and Christ-like manner. He pushes against a Catholicism that is legalistic, puritanical and condemnatory. He wants a church that reaches out to the poor, the rejected and the forgotten. He wants to show a church that loves the sinner.
All this is well and good, but I have some worries. Every pope is both empowered and limited by his own history and culture. Pope Francis is from a generation and a culture which is Catholic. For the most part everyone is Catholic. They understand the basics of Christian morality and the fundamentals of the Christian story and the basic elements of the Catholic faith. Too often, however, that Catholic culture was impeded by a Church that had become overly clericalized, legalistic, condemnatory and hide bound.
Francis’ message to that kind of Catholic culture and that kind of Catholic Church is sharp and necessary. It’s fresh, creative and powerful. He’s basically saying, “Get out of your churchiness and get into the streets. Be with the people and share your faith together and bring Christ to those who have forgotten how to find him in the church.” As such his message is relevant and vital for the Church in South America and Central America where Catholics are being wooed away by Evangelicals who do present a vital, relevant and compassionately involved message.”
Francis’ message of forgiveness, acceptance and embrace of all works well enough in a Catholic culture where people know they are sinners and have a basic understanding of confession, reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. The problem in translating Francis’ message to post-Christian Europe, Liberal Protestant America and other developed countries is that most of the population either have no concept of sin in their lives or they deny the idea completely. Therefore Francis’ message of forgiveness, acceptance and embrace simply comes across as condoning whatever lifestyle people happen to have chosen. Catholics might make the distinction between loving the sinner and hating the sin…non Catholics both don’t and won’t make that distinction. Consequently, the Pope’s message simply comes across as him being a real nice guy who doesn’t judge anybody–like everybody else in our relativistic society.
Within his own largely Catholic context the Pope’s message works, but in our own culture his message is in danger of being interpreted as wishy washy, mealy mouthed liberal gobbledegook. He is saying to the homosexual person–”God loves and accepts you and so do I. But you need to sincerely seek him and turn from your sin.” The secular Westerner simply hears him say, “Hey man, I’m OK. You’re OK.” He says, “Neither to I condemn you go and sin no more” and they hear him say, “Neither do I condemn you. Do what you want.”
My point can be made by an illustration from real life. When I was in El Salvador on a mission trip we celebrated Corpus Christi in the local village church. Everybody in the town turned out for the procession. We went from station to station saying prayers and the whole population either actively participated or they at least looked on and understood what was happening. In that context the idea that the priest would receive a sinner with compassion and forgiveness fits. Its a language they all understood. They knew the church’s teaching on sin. They therefore understood forgiveness. The priest’s acceptance was all part of the forgiveness he offered. For the priest to reject and condemn them would also be understood to be a bad thing.
If I had a Eucharistic procession in Greenville, South Carolina (where less than 4% of the population are Catholic and a good number of the majority are actually anti-Catholic) nobody would understand what was going on. In our society the idea that a priest offers forgiveness and reconciliation is incomprehensible. For that matter that a priest would condemn anyone is also incomprehensible. They don’t have any idea what a priest is and what he’s for to start with. For that matter an alarming number of Catholics don’t seem to know either!
Francis’ language therefore of compassion, forgiveness and reaching out is dependent on a society that has a Catholic worldview and vocabulary. Where I live that culture and vocabulary does not exist. If I just went out wearing my cassock– to the troubled part of town where my parish is located and tried to reach out to people they would simply think I was a kind social worker in a dress.
This is not to criticize the essentials of Francis’ message–simply saying that in other contexts much more is needed than the priest simply being a nice guy that forgives and accepts everyone. In his culture that action communicates the love and mercy of God because the people have that as part of their worldview. Where I live the very basics of the Catholic message need to be communicated clearly–and that includes some basic communication about sin.
Francis’ call to get out and share the gospel through compassion and acceptance is vital and necessary, but in some parts of the church a more explicit explanation and defense of the faith will also be necessary. People cannot be forgiven unless they ask for forgiveness and they cannot know their need of forgiveness unless they realize they are sinners and they cannot realize they are sinners without someone first bringing the message to them.
In other words, there can be no healing if the disease is not first diagnosed.
UPDATE: K-Lo comments on the Pope’s interview for Fox News here.