The Elusive Pope Frances

The standard take on the new Pope seems to be that he is determined to shake up the Church  and create a new openness to the world.  He is, in his own subtle way, quite critical of the lack of openness in the Church as governed by his predecessors and seems super confident that he has the right stuff to finally accomplish this goal of openness to modern culture: “The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.”

It’s strange to hear a pope describe himself as humble, as if his immediate predecessors were lacking in that quality, which could be implied if that is the critical virtue for success in dialogue, and “little was done in that direction.” What does the Pope mean when he says that little was done after Vatican II “in that direction?” He never tells us, which is a frequent problem when he criticizes the past failures of the Church; he gives us no specifics which leaves us wondering what or who he is talking about. He says, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” But not one concrete example of a small-minded rule is given, which invites speculation as to what rules might be small-minded in his eyes, liturgical rules, celibacy, much of the Code regarding divorced Catholics? And the gamut is certainly being run by those who despise the rules of the Church regarding things like divorced and remarried Catholics and their admission to the sacraments and whatever the dissenters don’t like in pastoral and sacramental practice.

Again, he too often answers questions with a further question which may work in a Jesuit classroom, but generates speculation and confusion in the real world. In the first interview, the Pope does this a number of times: “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ It’s a dodge. That is not what the person was asking about.

A second example: “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?” Again, He gives no answer, and so the question remains open – should the confessor absolve the abortion while ignoring the second marriage, or perhaps even solve the marriage problem in the internal forum of conscience?  Maybe that is why he focuses on private conscience so much, perhaps. Is that an unfair reading? Perhaps this text from the second interview provides a hint as to how he thinks this case should be resolved: “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

That interpretation may be unfair, but open questions invite open speculations. Indeed the atheist interviewer from the Italian newspaper does not hesitate to speculate about the Pope’s thinking. He is very impressed with the Pope’s statement right off the bat that “Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us.” And again: “I believe I have already said that our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope.” The editor thinks this is great that the Church no longer desires to convert people, but just wants an open-ended dialogue with the world. Is he right? The Pope never corrects this startling interpretation of the mission of the Church.

Then, when the pope speaks about conscience in language that differs little from the purely subjective language regarding conscience that dominate our culture, the editor draws this conclusion about the Pope: “An openness to modern and secular culture of this breadth, such a profound vision between conscience and its autonomy, has never before been heard from the chair of St. Peter.” And again in that same August 7 article, the editor reads Francis’ notion of his mission this way: “His mission contains two scandalous innovations: the poor Church of Francis, the horizontal Church of Martini. And a third: a God who does not judge, but forgives. There is no damnation, there is no hell.”

That third “innovation” is surely way off the tracks, but it may be a false reading of a possible principle that explains why Francis is not so concerned with conversion and heavy on the notion of private conscience as the ticket to Heaven. Does he share the universal salvation mentality of many of his Jesuit confreres today? His statements that “Carlo Maria Martini … [is] someone who is very dear to me” and “Jesuits were and still are the leaven — perhaps the most effective — of Catholicism” seem to suggest such a direction. Martini was a most liberal Jesuit and an open dissenter on moral teaching, calling upon the Church to change her sexual norms. Those of us who are Jesuit trained in this country may also not share the notion that his order has been a positive leaven since the Council.  Elusive and enigmatic are the words that come immediately to my mind.

 

 

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