This article first appeared in the January issue of Townhall Magazine.
It is rare that a communication out of the Roman Catholic Church can be described as both shocking and unexpected, but the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI was officially resigning as Bishop of Rome–effective immediately on February 28, 2013, was exactly that.
It was a proclamation his own advisors reportedly never saw coming, and one that members of the College of Cardinals never expected to hear. This news was historic: A sitting pontiff had not resigned from office since Gregory XII stepped down in 1415. Benedict’s decision sent tremors through the Catholic Church and beyond.
Benedict’s years in office were anything but uneventful. His most vocal detractors often accused him of covering up (or not dealing forcefully enough) with the child sex abuse scandals that came to light during his pontificate. But the reasons he cited for retiring had little, if anything, to do with his ministry; but instead had everything to do with his failing health.
“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering,” he said in his official resignation speech. “However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
And with those words, the speculation began: Who would the College of Cardinals select as Benedict XVI’s successor? Who would be next to carry the staff of the Vicar of Christ?
Jorge Mario Bergoglio S.J., the humble Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected on the fifth ballot. He was an unlikely choice given his advanced age, and was also the first non-European pontiff to be chosen in more than 1,000 years. Elections, in many ways, often shed light on the direction a nation, community or institution is headed. And the selection of Bergoglio was no different.
Since his promotion nearly a year ago, Pope Francis has been an inspiring and charismatic world leader. He has sought to soften the church’s image as an ascetic and cold institution, incapable of welcoming into its ranks those whom Jesus described as “the least among us.” Francis proclaimed at the beginning of his pontificate that he wanted “a church that is poor and for the poor,” later recounting how he took his papal name from Francis of Assisi, a 12th century man of wealth and privilege who later renounced his possessions to serve the poor and forgotten.
“[But] Francis is also the man of peace,” he would later tell an audience of journalists in Rome on March 16, 2013, three days after his election. “That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects his creation.”
His pontificate was off to a promising start.
The Spin Begins
Though there is little evidence suggesting that Pope Francis differs significantly from his predecessors on matters related to church doctrine, his style and emphasis is distinctive. His predecessor was bookish and introverted, known during his pontificate as a gifted but reserved intellectual. By contrast, Francis seems to evangelize with a different ethos. He often speaks extemporaneously when addressing the faithful, wading into crowds to kiss babies and bless wellwishers–much to the chagrin of his security entourage.
And though he is a scholar in his own right, Francis has also been nicknamed the “cold-call Pope” because he sometimes calls Catholics who write heartfelt personal letters to him on their home telephone lines. In a sense, he is a man of the people and offers far more accessibility to the laity than his more cerebral predecessor was ever able to exhibit. But again, while their styles are different, these Pontiffs are indeed woven from the same spiritual cloth.
And that, in turn, is what the media by and large do not yet seem to understand.
Perhaps the most egregious example of the secular Left taking Pope Francis’ words out of context was in regards to what he purportedly said about several hot-button social issues, including abortion, during an extensive interview with the Italian Jesuit journal, La Civilà Cattolica. During that meeting he told the interviewer, Father Antonio Spadaro, the following:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said, according to an English translation of his remarks reprinted in America Magazine. “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.”
Pope Francis did not trivialize these issues. He did say, however, that the church cannot open its arms to anguished Catholics and non-believers alike by constantly discussing only these few points of doctrine to the exclusion of all else. Instead, he urged church leaders to “warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them,” by first professing Jesus’ undying love for each and every single one of them, and reminding them that the promise of salvation is offered to every human person, in spite of their sins and moral failings.
It was a message of love and hope that was perhaps unexpected from the recently elected Pontiff:
“I see the Church as field hospital after battle,” Francis added. “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wound.”
It is clear that nothing this pope said was inconsistent with traditional Catholic teaching. He merely stated the obvious; that oversaturating the laity with diatribes against homosexuality and abortion is, at times, counterproductive and impedes Jesus’ greatest calling to pastors: spreading the Gospel to those who yearn to hear it. But, of course, that didn’t stop one of the most radical pro-abortion groups in the United States, NARAL Pro-Choice America, from interpreting his words as a de facto endorsement of what they specifically do—namely, promoting legalized abortion.
“Dear Pope Francis,” the group wrote on their Facebook page in eye-catching orange and white lettering. “Thank you. Signed, Pro-choice women everywhere.”
This is a fundamental misreading of Catholicism in general and a complete misinterpretation of Pope Francis’ words in particular.
The idea that the Holy Father now somehow supported abortion rights, because of what he purportedly said in that interview, was preposterous on its face. Nonetheless, Pope Francis later reaffirmed his true position shortly thereafter, in a speech delivered to an audience of gynecologists.
“Every child that isn’t born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord,” he said. “Things have a price and can be for sale, but people have a dignity that is priceless and worth far more than things.”
Clearly those are not the words of a pro-choice pontiff “modernizing” the Catholic Church, as much as progressives would like this to be the case. Those are the words of the Bishop of Rome, reaffirming the sanctity and dignity of human life.
Pope Francis the “Liberal”
Not surprisingly, another short quotation from the 12,000-word interview, which drew ample attention from secular media outlets, concerned comments Pope Francis made vis-à-vis homosexuals.
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he said. “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?’ 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.”
These words echoed what Pope Francis said last year on his return trip home from the World Youth Day celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:
“Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” he asked a roomful of journalists on the flight. “You can’t marginalize these people.”
Naturally, after both interviews were published and subsequently disseminated, the American Left was in a state of uncontrollable jubilation. “What does that interview tell us?” thundered the online publication Slate, after Francis’ conversation with Fr. Antonio Spadaro went viral. “It tells us [that] the Pope is a liberal.” The Washington Post added: “this humble man from Argentina who describes himself first as a sinner, and prefers simplicity to the opulence afforded by his station is, like Jesus Christ, a radical.”
“Pope Warns Church on Divisive Rules on Abortion, Gays,” exclaimed one ABC News headline, before later unpublishing the article.
But here is the question: what did Pope Francis actually say? And most importantly, what did he mean?
Pope Francis meant that, above all, the role of the pastor is not primarily to heap judgment on sinners, but rather to show them mercy and compassion. In fact, the Pope has long maintained that he himself is a sinner. That is to say, he is a human being–and therefore vulnerable to the same temptations as everybody else. What he warned church leaders about specifically, however, was inadvertently blinding themselves to God’s “first proclamation.”
“The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” he said. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”
In other words, in order to successfully spread the Gospel, church leaders need to do a better job reaching out to the disillusioned and hopeless. Yes, the Church’s views on homosexuality and abortion are crystal clear and unchanging, notwithstanding all the hype, spin and certain posturing in some circles to the contrary. But it is worth noting that the Church does not and will not single out or discriminate against individuals based on their race, gender or sexual orientation. For example, according to the catechism, sexual intercourse before marriage between any couple is explicitly prohibited:
“Those who are engaged to marry are called to live chastity in continence,” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2350) states unequivocally. “They should see in this time of testing a discovery of mutual respect, an apprenticeship in fidelity, and the hope of receiving one another from God. They should reserve for marriage the expressions of affection that belong to married love.”
The Catholic Church does not discriminate against homosexuals. Premarital sex is a sin regardless of one’s sexual orientation.
The Catechism (CCC 2358) goes on to say:
“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
Pope Francis’ comments, therefore, are important and refreshing—not because he is changing church doctrine—but because he’s opening a dialogue. He is emphasizing God’s love and mercy above everything else, regardless of one’s sins or lifestyle, as the unifying thread which unites all Christ Seekers. This, he argues, is the way to open the hearts and minds of all those disappointed by the corruption, hypocrisy and scandals that have poisoned the Holy Catholic Church. It is the first of many steps the church must take in order to reach out to those whom Pope Francis describes as the “socially wounded.”
Pope Francis and His Critics
As one might imagine, Pope Francis’ ascension has not been celebrated in every corner of the Roman Catholic Church. Strict traditionalists, for instance, worry that his tendency to speak extemporaneously has consequences: chief among them diluting the Church’s messaging on key social issues. After all, for generations this wing of the Catholic Church has always struggled to present social doctrine to the world in clear and easy-to-understand terms—an undertaking some suspect Pope Francis is undermining inadvertently.
“When NARAL sends you a thank you note, it’s clear something got miscommunicated,” Robert Royal, president of the Washington, D.C. think tank Faith & Reason, told the Washington Post last year. And Royal is not alone in voicing his concern with Pope Francis’ unorthodox methods.
But more to the point, conservative Catholics have long argued that fundamentally changing church doctrine would be the end of Catholicism as we know it. They note correctly that Christian denominations that embrace post-modernism and “liberalize” their church’s positions on, say, abortion or gay marriage, invariably lose the support of their congregations—and church attendance plummets.
But that’s a far cry from what is happening today in the Catholic Church. The Church itself is growing, most notably in Africa and Latin America. And even if Pope Francis wanted to change Catholic doctrine, he doesn’t have that authority. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, former-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained why on his blog during the 2013 papal conclave.
“A [common] misperception is that a new Pope can ‘change doctrine,’” he wrote on the New York Archdiocese’s official website, on March 9, 2013. “That, of course, is impossible. Catholicism is a revealed religion, meaning we believe that God has told us about Himself and about the meaning of life, primarily by sending us His Son as the “Word made flesh.” “In other words,” he added, “the how of our teaching can change; the what of it cannot.”
Indeed. And that is precisely where Francis comes in. As St. Peter’s successor, he is entrusted with the holy task of rehabilitating the Church’s image at a crucial moment in its history, while at the same time preaching the Good News to His flock.
His way of building a more inclusive church, then, may seem radical to some, but perhaps he was elected for a reason: to shake things up. And he is not violating any moral precepts by doing so. As the Catholic scholar and public intellectual George Weigel has put it, Pope Francis is committed to advancing the cause of “radical Christocentricity”—namely, the idea of putting Jesus Christ at the center of every Christian’s life.
As we have seen, the media will inevitably misunderstand and distort what Francis is trying to do. But this is how Pope Francis has chosen to lead this New Evangelism. •
Daniel Doherty is the deputy news editor at Townhall.com