“To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.”
— Sun Tzu
In my column over at First Things today, I hope to lay a calming hand on a few shoulders that had nearly gone spastic yesterday, in response to early reports of Pope Francis’ chat with reporters as he flew home from World Youth Day. A great many voices on social media were yelling that the pope was being “used” by the press to further a gay-sympathetic agenda; the fact that most secular reports dropped the pope’s clear reference to the Catechism, they argued, was evidence of it.
Well, I say never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance; I think most secular reporters omitting the reference really had no idea how much it mattered in the scheme of things. It did matter of course — to cite the Catechism is to acknowledge that the pope was speaking the Church’s long-voiced teaching on homosexual persons, in direct refutation of the prevailing “church hates gays” narrative the media promotes. But I’m not sure many reporters realized it.
In fact, I am not sure many people fully realize what Francis did on that plane, so let me tell you: he neutralized the power of the media narrative; he exposed the truth that in Christ there is mercy and forgiveness, and that the church exists to offer this in his name; he set whatever “gay lobby” exists in the church on notice that while he has no intention of acting as gay-priest-witch-hunter, he won’t tolerate a bloc acting against the interests of the church. Do you think I’m kidding? He said it right here:
The problem isn’t this [homosexual] orientation—we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby.
But Francis did one more thing: he showed that Peter still carries a sword, but that he has learned a great deal about tactics and is therefore much more subtle than he was at Gethsemane:
In The Art of War, we read, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”
Francis is doing precisely that. Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, who was already despised by the press as Cardinal Ratzinger, Francis is the surprising, not-quite-known entity with whom the press is still unfamiliar and thus only marginally prepared to counter. He keeps people on their toes. He declines interviews, then unexpectedly pops in for one, and then proclaims the reality of Church teachings through a subject the press cannot resist covering.
The fretting and hand-wringing that greets the news on any given day misses the fact that God takes the long view: What seems urgent to us is the merest puff of a moment within the movement of his will, toward his eventual ends. If the press thinks they are moving a socio-political ball forward by quoting a pope who is teaching eternal truths, so what? Why should that trouble anyone? Just as a priest need not be in a state of grace to celebrate a licit mass, the motivations of a reporter who repeats our teachings do not matter. In this way, victory is assured. The headlines are incidental to the action of the Holy Spirit, who exploits them to work God’s own will.
Francis is no fool. He’s a man from South America who went against the Liberation Theology people in his own society, and paid a price for it. He is a warrior. People think they’re seeing defeat, here. I see victory. Read the whole thing, here.
And thanks to Frank Weathers for casually lobbing a Sun Tzu my way. It made it all pretty plain.
Over at Return to Rome, Frank Beckwith has some excellent further thoughts on Francis; Warrior-Man!
The Holy Father is a rhetorical genius here. For the media, “being gay” means celebrating one’s homosexual identity and living it out. That’s not what Francis means, especially given his strong opposition to state recognized same-sex marriage as well as his reference to the Church’s teachings in the Catechism. Replace “homosexual” or “gay” with any number of nouns that we employ to describe people who have certain inclinations and ask yourself if Francis’ comments cohere perfectly with what the Church teaches. Of course they do!
I think what Francis is doing is something I have suggested for quite some time: use the language of inclusion and openness to advance a countercultural, and distinctly Christian, understanding of the nature of the human person. In other words, speak the truth in love. (Wow, what a radical concept!) So, instead of saying that prolifers oppose abortion–which is the language our adversaries want us to speak–we say, with complete integrity and confidence, that we want a community that is open to all human persons regardless of their size, level of development, environment, or dependency.
Pope Francis uses words when he has to, but increasingly I think he’s going the Full Franciscan route, and only using them when necessary. I know some people are up in arms because he hasn’t used the word “abortion” yet — as though it hasn’t been used and overused these 40 years — I think he’s going another route. When he jumps out of a jeep to kiss a deformed man, or asks — as he did in Rio — to be given a chance to meet and bless a “defective” baby, it says everything the pro-life movement could possibly want him to say: God loves his creation; all life matters.