Sep 22, 2013

The Surprising Nature of the New Pope

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Pope Francis created shock waves again this past week with his surprising ability to not hate on entire groups of people. Of all the comments in his interview with fellow Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, what has gotten the most press was his blunt assessment of the Church's relentless focus on divisive issues. The Church is "obsessed," he said, with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception.

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.

The pontiff reveals much more than the radical nature of his thinking here. He reveals that he has been "reprimanded" for it. By whom, one wonders.

People as diverse as John M. Becker of the Bilerico Project and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League have quite rightly pointed out that there has been some overreach in the reading of the pope's remarks. This is not a break with Church doctrine. What it is is a shift in tone and emphasis. He's reading from a different part of the Catechism. Where his recent predecessors were focused on the homosexuality as "objectively disordered" portion, for instance, Pope Francis is more interested in the "respect, compassion, and sensitivity" portion. At no point is he calling on the Church to dispense with its moral teachings, however backward they may be. He is, after all, a "son of the church." 

What both sides of this debate miss, however, is just how drastic this shift in tone is. I don't think Bill Donohue -- like much of the Catholic hierarchy -- has the self-awareness to realize how hateful he sounds most of the time. And I don't know if Becker is considering fully the potential power of compassion.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry in Mount Rainier, Md., said Francis’ comments amount to a “new dawn” for the Catholic Church.

“Pope Francis’ words and example have opened up new opportunities for the Catholic Church to welcome and dialogue with LGBT people,” DeBernardo said. “His words will give courage and hope to thousands of pastoral ministers and Catholic faithful who have been doing this work for many decades, but who have often received penalties and discouragements from church leaders who did not share this pope’s broad vision.”

What the uproar over the pope's most publicized comments reflects more than anything is how out of alignment with Christ's core teachings the Catholic Church has been. As I wrote here, there is something horribly wrong when a pope's announcement that he won't judge people is seen as a radical departure.

What I found even more striking than his more tolerant focus was his introspection, self-examination, and humility. This excellent analysis by John Reese puts some of these statements in the context of Jesuit principles. But you don't have to be a Jesuit, or even a Catholic, to see that this pope strikes a very different posture than his predecessors. When he describes himself as a "sinner" it doesn't sound like lip-service to an ideal -- mainly because he goes on to discuss some of his transgressions in very frank terms.

In the interview, Pope Francis explains why he was labeled a conservative by many Jesuits in Latin America. He confesses it was his own fault.

In my experience as superior in the Society, to be honest ... I did not always do the necessary consultation. And this was not a good thing. My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. That was a difficult time for the Society: an entire generation of Jesuits had disappeared. Because of this I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself.

My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.

This method of learning from one's mistakes is very Ignatian and reflects how imbued Francis is by the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola as experienced in his Spiritual Exercises. Pope Francis may sometimes look like a Franciscan, but he always thinks like a Jesuit.

That kind of humility is something the Church hierarchy has been unable to muster -- even as the sex abuse crisis makes its sins nakedly apparent. Pope Francis's articulation of personal responsibility marks a sharp departure from that Hierophant energy that has been so reflexive whenever Church officials have been challenged by the press, concerned clergy, and their own flock. Pope Francis seems unwilling to float above the fray in the rarefied air of spiritual superiority. He'd rather live in modest surroundings and wash all the wrong kinds of feet. And he seems to be really serious about putting the needs of the poor above the comfort of the priesthood.

There are still open questions about how this very different communication style will translate into meaningful action and an eyebrow raising track-record. Pope Francis has remained in lockstep with some of the most regressive decisions of his predecessors -- the crackdown on those uppity nuns, for instance. But he sure has changed the conversation.

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