Francis’ Interview and the Unexpected Unity of the NY Times and the Francis Haters

Francis’ Interview and the Unexpected Unity of the NY Times and the Francis Haters September 20, 2013

Well, it’s been a day now since Francis’ terrific interview was published. First thing you should do go read the whole thing, cuz it’s great.

What’s fascinating to me is how many people are reacting, not to the interview, but to the dunderheaded way in which it is being misread and misinterpreted in the media. Exhibit A:

 Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control

Um, no. He didn’t say that. If you want to really understand what the pope said you need to grasp that the central issue for him is the living encounter between Jesus Christ and each human person. Here are the *real* key words from the interview:

“The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”

That’s the key to understanding everything else in Francis’ interview. The whole thing was about the fact that the faith is primarily an encounter of human persons with the person of Christ, not about salvation by rules and slogans. It’s in *that* context that he makes the following remarks:

We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

“This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But 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.

“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 are two massive ironies about this whole kerfuffle.

The first irony is that the press pored over a 12,000 word interview, zeroed in on a dozen words on the Pelvic Issues and declared “POPE SAYS CATHOLICS OBSESSED ABOUT SEX!!!!” Erm, have you checked the mirror, MSM?

That said, the Pope isn’t wrong to direct his message to Catholics.  And his principal message to conservative Catholics when it comes to the Pelvic Issues is “Don’t be as cramped, narrow, and blind to the person as the world and the world’s media is. When you focus too much on fighting the world you start to think like the world, trying to run the Church by rules and laws and slogans and power and fear and punishment and not by putting first things first: which is Jesus Christ and our personal encounter with him. The press can’t be expected to get that. But we Catholics *must* get that.”

And so (irony #2) what astonishes me is not the the NY Times doesn’t get that, but that the conservatives all over the blogosphere panicking about the pope’s remarks don’t get that either. Those who are expressing various degrees of outrage, dismay, panic and betrayal at the Pope’s remarks ironically agree far more with the NY Times’ take on the core of the Faith than they do with Francis’ take. Both talk as though Francis has somehow overturned or endangered the Tradition of the Church by his remarks. They only differ on whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Neither grasp that Francis has done no such thing and has, in fact, articulated the heart of the Tradition.  It is this: the law was made for man, not man for the law.

The encounter of the human person with God in the person of Christ Jesus has primacy over everything else.    Everything. Else.  All other things–yes, even the extremely important issues of abortion, gay marriage, and the family–cannot be allowed to become the *only* things or the faith is reduced a form of idol worship (a favorite theme of his) in which a few secondary truths take precedence over the encounter of the human person with his Savior Jesus Christ.  The “obsession” he denounces is not with defending innocent human life and the family (“The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church”).  Rather, it is with reducing the faith–the living encounter of human beings with the merciful Savior Jesus Christ–to abstract rules, power, and fear without respect for the person (“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently”).

In this he is perfectly right and, mark this, wholly unoriginal.  It’s the same thing that moved Jesus to eat with tax collectors and sinners.  It’s also the same thing that moved JPII to remark in Redemptor Hominis, not that the Church is the road that man and woman must walk but that man and woman are the road the Church must walk.

Sherry Weddell had some very perceptive commentary on her FB page:

From Forming Intentional Disciples, spurred by reading Pope Francis’ interview:

I am not a Christian because it “makes sense” or because someone sat down and diagrammed it for me. I am a Christian because I have been loved deeply and unconditionally by Christians. Some of them… troubled me with hard questions. But all of them loved me when I did not love them… Reason is a wonderful tool, but it is a weak force for deep change in human beings. Faith, hope and love are not tools; they are virtues, powerful and exceedingly difficult to embody, and much more efficacious than reason for changing lives.” – Paul Wallace

It’s amazing, challenging, unnerving for Trads, and you have to read between the lines on homosexuality but it fits in completely with the thresholds of pre-discipleship. He is an evangelizing pastor whose instincts are all personal and missionary, not a defender of the sharp lines and exact phrasing . . but a highly relational apostle. Many American Catholics have regarded the fundamental job of the papacy to be drawing sharp lines and defending those lines against those who want to cross them. PF wants to cross those lines to connect with the lost and lapsed.

I would certainly agree that JPII was highly apostolic and exceedingly personal but he was also a major intellectual while Benedict was a loving but deeply introverted intellectual who needed lots of private space. Francis is a cultured, literate man but not a public intellectual and that is really different. He is first and foremost an apostolic pastor – not an intellectual. Very different from the last four Popes. This is an experience of the Papacy through a man who is 100% pastor. Different charisms really matter.

I love this guy so much.  He really really gets it.  So far from seeing him as overturning the Tradition or (as the media love to promote) attacking the work of his predecessors, I see this man as offering a magnificent opportunity to make the riches of the Faith available to the world in a way that makes Jesus personally accessible to a generation that cries out for Him.  He is an unexpected and astounding gift to us and I am deeply grateful to God for him as I am for his predecessors.  What an amazing Church this is!  What an amazing time to be alive.  Deo gratias.

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