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September 27, 2013
That Church that feels uncomfortable with Francis and The Strategies of the Faith
By Massimo Introvigne

By Massimo Introvigne

*This column was originally written as a letter to the editor of the Italian daily "Il Foglio." It is translated and reprinted here with permission.

To the director:

The reactions to the interview with Pope Francis have been varied and diverse, from enthusiasm to discomfort, even among people who share the same battles on the subjects of abortion, gender ideology-inspired laws and criticism of the contemporary “dictatorship of relativism” - an expression of Benedict XVI’s that Pope Francis also used in his March 22 speech to the diplomatic corps.

The way of expressing oneself in an interview is not the same as in an encyclical. It is much easier to find sentences susceptible to being pulled out of context and thrown maliciously onto the front page. And the context is one that is not necessary to appreciate. But it is always useful to try to understand, to transform even the discomfort into cultural and political reflection, rather than keeping it in and later spitting it out as poison, as is the case with so many angry comments that now proliferate on the Internet.

The first area of discomfort concerns Vatican II, which Francis does not touch, not because he does not appreciate it but because he takes it for granted. And on the traditional Mass, whose liberalization by Benedict XVI appears reduced in the interview to an attempt to meet the whims of small marginal groups, whereas Pope Ratzinger wanted the riches of the old rite to be made known to the whole church. But it is also true that the celebration of Mass in the ancient rite, and the just renouncement of the damages caused by those who interpret the Council with a liquidation of all the previous Magisterium, cannot be opportunities to reject the documents and the reforms of Vatican II nor to question the legitimacy, not just validity, of the new Mass that sprung from the reform of Paul VI as a means of sanctification for the faithful, the Mass always celebrated by Benedict XVI himself.

Whoever promotes the old Mass in opposition to the new Mass - or uses it to spread what Benedict XVI called "anti-conciliarism," that is, the rejection of all the texts of the Council that introduce elements of reform - really use the old rite in an "ideological" way. That this was not licit was already said, many times, by Pope Ratzinger.

The second discomfort is manifested when Francis announces that he does not intend to talk much “on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” He does not affirm that he will never speak of them, and in fact right away, on Sept. 20, he spoke with clarity about abortion to Catholic doctors. But, [he says] that he will say little about it, that he will leave these issues to national Bishops’ Conferences - in Italy, Cardinal Bagnasco is expressing himself with particular clarity - and that he even believes some in the Church are talking too much. Why this decision that of course creates discomfort for those who are at the forefront for life and the family? In a world very far from the faith, Francis thinks that it is expected of the Pope to begin again from the first announcement.

The announcement of the elementary things: that Jesus Christ is God and that he came for our salvation, that he offers his mercy to everyone, that repenting is possible, that conversion is not an individual effort but that it always passes through the Church. Benedict XVI said in Lisbon on May 11, 2010, “Often we are anxiously preoccupied with the social, cultural and political consequences of the faith, taking for granted that faith is present, which unfortunately is less and less realistic.” Francis is preoccupied firstly with “that faith is present,” he proclaims it through the merciful face of the Lord that offers his forgiveness to all, even homosexuals, women who have aborted and the divorced and remarried. It isn’t that the moral proclamation isn’t part of the Christian message, nor that Francis is thinking about changing doctrine. But moral teaching for the Pope comes after the proclamation of salvation through the mercy of God.

All pastoral strategies have merits and defects, open possibilities for mission and bring their risks. There is certainly no respect lost for the Pope if one underscores also the risks, grave ones, in a moment in which several nations - including Italy - [in an effort] to marginalize the Church in society, the attack begins with morals. The dictatorship of relativism attacks morality to destroy faith. Pope Francis is thinking that he does not need to accept the place of combat chosen by others. He turns the logic of the world on its head and speaks of another: he announces compassion and mercy. To the world, he shows Jesus Christ, merciful and crucified. He invites all people to throw themselves down first at his feet. So many sociological inquiries confirm it: there are so many people in all of the world who let themselves be moved by this appeal from Pope Francis. Others, who are also uncomfortable about their strategies and priorities may also permit themselves to be enthused by the heart of the Magisterium of Pope Bergoglio, the invitation to “go out” and proclaim the faith to those who don’t go to church. That the world needs so many things, but that without the faith one cannot survive, was - after all - also the greatest teaching of Benedict XVI.

Italian sociologist and author Massimo Introvigne is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, a group of scholars from around the globe who study new religious movements. He is the main author of the Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy and is also a leading member of Alleanza Cattolica, a movement which aims to study and to diffuse the Church's social doctrine. Introvigne has worked with both the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe on matters of religious liberty and persecution.

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