Yesterday's publication of an exclusive interview with Pope Francis by Antonio Spadaro, SJ, editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, is creating quite a buzz in the media. I offer here three reflections on what I believe Pope Francis meant in the context of some key—and easily misinterpreted—responses to the questions posed to him.
1. The Primacy of Mercy in the Thought of Francis
When Spadaro asked the Holy Father what kind of church he dreams of, Francis’ magnificent response was: a field hospital. “The thing the church needs most today,” affirmed the Pope, “is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.”
And in that field hospital, the first order of duty is a tender and mercy-laden accompanying of the spiritually wounded: what Francis calls “proximity.” Bishops, priests, consecrated persons, and all committed disciples of Christ are to tend to, and “accompany” those who have been wounded by life, and often in their own experience of the Church. In fact, it was about this point in the interview that the Pope used slightly different forms of that phrase “accompanying them” six times in short order. And the image he has in mind here is, obviously, the Good Samaritan. We are hearing once again a theme that is at the very heart of Francis thought (as presciently observed recently by John Allen): mercy. If we want to understand Francis, we much think in terms of genuine, Gospel mercy: not failing to ‘speak the truth in love’, yet encountering the spiritually hurting where they are (and applying correctly and pastorally, among other things, the moral principle of gradualism).
2. The Church’s Teaching on Homosexuality: no change of doctrine, but again the change of ‘tone’.
There then emerges in the interview, the question of those whose “wounds” are experienced as condemnation by the Church over their homosexual lifestyle. The Holy Father responded:
“In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
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?’ 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.”
The Pope explained that both this answer, and his response to a similar question last August aboard his Alitalia flight returning from World Youth Day (“Who am I to judge?”), was consonant with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches. In fact, Catechism 2358 states:
They [persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
The person must always be accepted, even when we cannot accept the person’s actions, lifestyle or behavior. “Acceptance” here does not mean condoning the behavior. Rather, it means genuine Christian love, which speaks to this person in love, which accompanies this person in love, and which also requires honest dialogue about a biblical vision of human loving union on which the Church’s moral teaching on human sexuality is founded.
What we hear then in Francis once again is not something that presages a change of Catholic moral teaching on homosexual acts, but yes, a significant change of tone. Catholic teaching must be enveloped in genuine Christian agape love: a love that encounters, dialogues, accompanies, and endures even in the face of profound disagreements over moral teaching.
But prior to dialogue about specific moral norms, there must arise a discussion about the basis of our moral convictions: the person of Jesus Christ. Which leads to a final reflection.
3. Moral Rules Detached from Kerygma Will Bring Down the ‘Moral Edifice of the Church’
“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.
And further in this same context:
“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.”
What to make of all that? That we should capitulate and stop speaking in the public square about the “tough issues”? Hardly. But at the basis of his remarks, I find a profound truth which must today come to bear heavily on our understanding of evangelization and catechesis: the presentation of a “disjointed multitude of doctrines” (and moral norms) apart from the joyful and Emmaus-like heart-warming proclamation of Jesus Christ is inherently flawed. Catechesis apart from kerygma no longer works.
This Pope wants us—disciples of Jesus—to focus more on “what fascinates and attracts,” namely, the adorable person of Jesus Christ. In so many ways today, moral argumentation will not only fail to attract people to Christ, but will—in many contexts and circumstances—turn them away. Our error has so often been to focus first on argumentation. We must learn—lest, indeed, the Church’s edifice of moral teaching come tumbling down life-less and fruitless, cold and barren, a legalistic house of cards empty of meaning—to focus first on the beauty, the compelling attractiveness of the Teacher from Nazareth.
Francis understands this. He wants us to understand too.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).