As by now everyone in the world knows, Pope Francis offered a lengthy and wide-ranging interview to the editor of Civilta Cattolica, which was subsequently published in sixteen Jesuit-sponsored journals from a variety of countries. As we’ve come to expect practically anytime that this Pope speaks, the interview has provoked a media frenzy. To judge by the headlines in The New York Times and on CNN, the Catholic Church is in the midst of a moral and doctrinal revolution, led by a maverick Pope bent on dragging the old institution into the modern world. I might recommend that everyone take a deep breath and prayerfully (or at least thoughtfully) read what Pope Francis actually said. For what he actually said is beautiful, lyrical, spirit-filled, and in its own distinctive way, revolutionary.
The first question to which the Pope responded in this interview as simple: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio (his given name)?” After a substantial pause, he said, “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” At the heart of the matter, at the core of the “Catholic thing,” is this encounter between us sinners and the God of amazing grace. Long before we get to social teaching, to debates about birth control and abortion, to adjudicating questions about homosexual activity, to disputes about liturgy, etc., we have the graced moment when sinners are accepted, even though they are unacceptable. Pope Francis aptly illustrated his observation by drawing attention to Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “The Conversion of St. Matthew,” which depicts the instant when Matthew, a thoroughly self-absorbed and materialistic man, found himself looked upon by Christ’s merciful gaze. Because of that look, Matthew utterly changed, becoming first a disciple, then a missionary, and finally a martyr.
I believe that this first answer given by Pope Francis provides the interpretive lens for reading the rest of the interview. He is confessing to be a sinner who has found grace and conversion and who has thereby been transformed into a missionary. On the basis of that master insight, he is able to survey both Church and society with astonishing clarity and serenity. One of the most commented upon remarks in the interview is the following: “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.” What the Pope is signaling here is that the Church, as his predecessor Paul VI put it, doesn’t have a mission; it is a mission, for its purpose is to cause the merciful face of Jesus to gaze upon everyone in the world. It is not an exclusive club where only the morally perfect are welcome, but rather, a home for sinners, which means a home for everybody.
And this insight provides the right context for understanding another controversial remark from the interview: “The Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” The Pope is not suggesting that rules — moral, spiritual, liturgical, etc. — are unnecessary or unimportant, but he is indeed suggesting that they are secondary to the central reality of encountering the living Christ. If the Church leads with moral regulation, it will appear, especially to our postmodern culture, as fussy, puritanical, censorious. And it will most likely awaken a defensive reaction on the part of those it wishes to reach. It ought to lead with its always-appealing central message, namely the saving cross of Jesus, and only then should it speak of the moral and spiritual disciplines that will bring people into greater conformity with Christ. If I might proffer a perhaps trite analogy: when attempting to attract a young kid to the game of baseball, you don’t begin with the rulebook; rather, you begin with the beauty and majesty and rhythm of the game — and then you trust that he will come in time to understand the nature and purpose of the rules from the inside.
One of Pope Francis’s gifts as a communicator is a peculiar feel for the memorable image: “Shepherds should smell like their sheep;” and seminarians and priests ought to be willing to “make a mess” come readily to mind. The most striking analogy in the interview is this: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” No doctor doing triage on a battlefield is going to be fussing about his patients’ cholesterol or blood sugar levels. He is going to be treating major wounds and trying desperately to stop the bleeding.
What we find today, the Pope is implying, are millions of people who are, in the spiritual sense, gravely wounded. They are alienated from God, stuck in the no-man’s land of moral relativism, adrift with no sense of direction, and tempted by every form of errant desire. They require, therefore, not the fine points of moral doctrine, but basic healing. Perhaps this explains why the Church’s altogether valid teachings on ethics are so often met with incomprehension or hostility: far more elemental instruction is required.
I will confess to sharing some of the misgivings of commentators who have lamented that the Pope’s criticism of excessive legalism gave comfort to the wrong people. NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) published an ad, which simply said, “Pope Francis, Thank You. Signed, Pro-Choice Women Everywhere,” and Planned Parenthood expressed its approval of the Pope’s call to Catholics not to “obsess” over the issue of abortion. I certainly understand that those who have stood on the front lines of the pro-life battles for years feel that the Pope has unfairly characterized them as fanatics.
In the end, I feel that this relatively casual interview, precisely because it is not a formal encyclical, will provide a route of access to the Church for many people who might otherwise not have bothered to pay attention. It might in fact appeal to many of the walking wounded today who are in desperate need of mercy and healing.