This past August, two men sat and quietly discussed major issues facing the world and the Church. Rev. Antonio Spadaro and Pope Francis. The one, the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal based in Rome; the other, the head of the Catholic Church, the world’s largest Christian Church. On Sept. 19, their thought-provoking and engaging conversation ignited a media explosion. The New York Times headlined its story: “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control.’ ” The Guardian tagged its story “Pope Francis sets out vision for more gay people and women in ‘new’ church.” CNN blog happily announced “Pope Francis: Church can’t ‘interfere’ with gays.”
It is very clear from the pope’s remarks in this latest interview, as well as in his July 29th interview on the plane trip back to Rome from Brazil, that the Holy Father is urging all, Catholics and non-Catholics, not to condemn gay people, divorcees and women who have had an abortion. Nonetheless, the media response’s to such an evangelical approach is astonishing. The embrace of our Holy Father of all people, saints and sinners, is the message of Catholicism. Why, then, is the media predicting that Pope Francis is launching a major reformation of Catholic teaching on these issues?
In his most recent interview, the pope himself gives us the key to understand his remarks. He said, “When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.” Following his advice, we need to look carefully at the context in which these issues are being discussed.
First, the context of the Church in society. There is a general perception of Catholicism that is engendered by the media’s issue-focused reporting. Most often, the media spotlights the Church’s teaching on right to life, human sexuality and gender equality as out of touch with a society that tolerates and, in some circles, vigorously promotes abortion, sex relationships outside the marital union of a man and a woman and radical feminism. By highlighting how the Church is out of step with the new laws on these important areas of human life, the image of the Church as a rule-based institution becomes the context in which the issues are presented.
Pope Francis has happily reminded all of us that this should not be the context for discussing these issues. We are dealing with people, not just issues. God loves every person whom he calls into being. As the Holy Father so beautifully says, “God is in every person’s life… Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.” God does not abandon us. He loves each of us enough to have sent his Son as Savior. In the world, the Church is Christ. Her message is his message. It is mercy and forgiveness. Therefore, the mission of the Church is to bring healing to the wounded, to uplift those brought down by sin and to set them free to love as Jesus teaches.
Second, the context of the present papacy. The historical moment is important. Pope Francis steps into the shoes of the fisherman, following in the footsteps of two of the greatest popes that have ever led the Church. Our present Holy Father is not, in any way, sweeping aside the great body of truth so clearly enunciated by these holy and scholarly popes. He is working from the foundation of the truth that the Church has always taught. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, there followed a general confusion on basic issues among many Catholics. The flood of new insights and exciting pastoral initiatives left many unmoored and reaching out for some solid truth to steady their faith. Blessed Pope John Paul II published the Catechism of the Catholic Church providing us with an easy access to the teachings of the faith.
Pope Benedict XVI, who himself had closely collaborated with Pope John Paul in the development of the Catechism, taught the faith with theological insight and pastoral clarity. His Wednesday audiences, his books on Jesus and his talks gifted the Church with a catechesis that will provide food for meditation for years to come. His work on restoring the reverence and beauty of the Liturgy is already bearing fruit in the lives of the faithful.
Enter Pope Francis. He says, “The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the Church.” Here there is no wavering on Church doctrine. When he remarks that “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he obviously sees these as matters on which the Church has something to offer. Not insisting only on these issues, nonetheless, means teaching on these issues! He wants to widen the view from the issue of abortion to the person who makes the decision for an abortion, from the issue of gay marriage to the person with a homosexual orientation, from contraception to married couples and their struggles.
Pope Francis is beginning his Petrine ministry where his venerable predecessors left off. He is taking the dogma and morality of the Church and applying it pastorally. He sees “the Church as a field hospital after battle.”
What a great image! Society’s whole scale departure from the truth about the human person has wounded many. The Church is about healing individuals. The Church is not custodian of a “rule book.” But, she is the voice of Christ calling the world to justice, peace and charity. The doctrine, that is, the teaching of the Church on faith and morality, guides us along the way and lights the path to goodness.
We need to step back from breathless reporting of the media hyped to hear the pope enunciate a vision for “a new church.” On our own, we need to listen to what the Successor of Peter is telling us. He is calling us to the central message of the Gospel. God loves us in Christ. He heals the wounds of sin and division. He calls us to the fullness of life within his Church. By speaking in the common sense pastoral language that bishops and priests use every day, the pope, as Supreme Pastor of the universal Church, is disarming those who stand against the Church.
It is that gift of candor that makes Pope Francis a reformer. He is reforming the way the world sees Catholicism.