Guest ColumnistMaking sense of Pope Francis: Christian ambition in evangelization and the humility of dialogue

When Pope Francis was interviewed by the Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, he began with a joke and a smile. But the Pope’s initial, light-hearted exchange with this prominent European atheist serves as an important window into our Holy Father’s approach to the modern world.

Pope Francis walked into the room where Scalfari was waiting, shook hands with him and with a smile said, “Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me.”

Scalfari responded, “It’s a joke….My friends think it is you who want to convert me.”

To which the pope replied:

“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.”

Later in the interview Pope Francis laments that not more has been done in the last 50 years to dialogue with non-believers.  “Our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair and hope….”  He comments on how the council fathers of Vatican II “knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.” (1) 

And doing something he certainly is.  Pope Francis has created quite a stir in his two recent interviews, sparking much conversation from Catholics and non-Catholics alike about the future of the Church and his papacy.  His comments, for example, about abortion, gay marriage and contraception are celebrated by some and feared by others as a radical departure from Catholic moral teaching on these matters.

The Pope’s comments, no doubt, have been controversial.  But I would like to focus on one theme from his interviews that can shed important light on the Church’s mission of evangelization in our world today. The key to interpreting Pope Francis’ statements properly is found in his vision for the Church. The Holy Father says he wants a Church that doesn’t just open its doors to others, but goes out to the world: to those Christians who are indifferent, to the Catholics who stop going to Mass, and even to unbelievers like Eugenio Scalfari.  And that outward focus shapes the way he presents the Gospel message to the outside world.

In his September 19 interview in the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civiltá Cattolica, the Pope describes the Church as a field hospital reaching out to the suffering people in the world today. When helping the seriously wounded on the battlefield, he says, it doesn’t make sense to focus on people’s cholesterol and blood sugar levels.  We must urgently heal their most serious wounds first; only after those wounds are given attention, can other aspects of living a healthy life be addressed.

Similarly, many people today do not know the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they are suffering serious wounds in their lives as a result. To help them, we must first offer an initial proclamation of the Gospel—the message that Jesus loves us, He has saved us and wants to bestow his mercy upon us and offer a life much better than what people experience without him.  The heart of the Gospel is the saving love of Jesus, not “Gay marriage and abortion are morally wrong” or “Contraception separates the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage.” It is in this sense that Pope Francis said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and contraceptive methods” and that “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” (2) 

But let’s be clear: he is not saying that abortion, gay marriage and contraception are morally OK or that the Church should be silent on these matters. He explains that the Church’s teaching on these issues is clear and that he is a faithful son of the Church. He himself has defended these teachings as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. And the day after the Holy Father’s La Civiltá Cattolica interview was released, he gave a very strong critique of abortion: human life “is sacred—at each and at every stage…it is always valuable.  And not as a matter of faith—no, no—but of reason, as a matter of science!” He described abortion as a result of a “widespread mentality of the useful, the ‘culture of waste’,” that “asks for the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker. Our response to this mentality is a decisive and unhesitating ‘yes’ to life.” (3)   

These are not the words of a man trying to change Catholic teaching on the life issues.

Not the Status Quo

Still, the Pope is signaling a new emphasis in the way in which he thinks the Catholic faith should be proclaimed to the world. Given the cultural setting in which we find ourselves in the secular West, we must recognize that we are in missionary territory. And that has significant consequences for how we present the faith to those outside the Church. We are not teaching in a cultural vacuum.  Pope Francis insists several times in his La Civiltá Cattolica interview that we need to give an initial proclamation of the Gospel, one that takes on what he calls a “missionary style”—an approach that focuses on the essentials of the Gospel. A proclamation that tells the story of God’s love, God’s plan of salvation, and fascinates and attracts people and makes their hearts burn as the two disciples experienced with Jesus on the Road to Emmaus. 

His putting the emphasis more on God’s love and mercy than on complex moral issues is an important matter of priority and order.  In harmony with previous magisterial teaching, Pope Francis underscores how initial proclamation of the Gospel must come first.  Catechesis and then drawing out moral consequences for our lives comes after, he says.  The Gospel message of Christ’s love and mercy provides the context for understanding the moral consequences. But without that context (and with the crisis of reason today), how is someone in our secular world to understand why two men can’t get married or why a married couple should not use contraception? These are not the ideal lead-off topics for the new evangelization.  The Pope expresses this point best when discussing how a good homily is structured.

“A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives…The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.” (4) 

This approach is in perfect harmony with John Paul II who explained how catechesis is a moment in the larger process of evangelization and one that builds upon certain elements of the Church’s pastoral mission that prepare for catechesis, including “the initial proclamation of the Gospel or missionary preaching through the kerygma to arouse faith” (Catechesi Tradendae, 18). It reflects the “divine pedagogy” in which God reveals Himself to man gradually and in a proper order, starting with the most fundamental truths of the Gospel that provide the context for expounding on other aspects of the faith.  Debating the all-male priesthood or papal infallibility with someone who does not even believe in Jesus Christ, for example, is not likely to bear much fruit. We generally must address the more fundamental issues first.

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The order of the Catechism of the Catholic Church also reflects the divine pedagogy. (5) The first pillar of the Catechism, the Creed, sums up the story of God’s love for us in creation, redemption and sanctification.  The second pillar tells how we are drawn into that story of God’s love through the life of grace imparted to us in the Sacraments. Then, only after knowing the story of Christ’s salvation and after learning how we are filled with Christ’s life through the Holy Spirit’s work in the liturgy, do we come to the third pillar of the Catechism, which addresses the moral life. Here, Christian morality is presented as our response to God’s love for us and our life in Christ Jesus.  Indeed, the Catechism proclaims the Church’s moral teachings as a life “worthy of the Gospel” which we are made capable of pursuing by the grace of Christ received in the sacraments and through prayer. 

When the Church’s moral teachings, however, are taken out of the context of God’s loving plan of salvation and our life in Christ, they appear as arbitrary rules from a bygone era being imposed on people today.  What is supposed to be the pathway to human beatitude comes off as legalistic moralism. And without the life of sacramental grace—the very grace that makes us capable of living the moral life in Christ—the beautiful moral teachings of the Church can seem quite discouraging. Without grace, people are incapable of pursuing the high call of imitating Christ.  People outside the Church, therefore, cannot be asked to practice heroic virtue overnight, and they need much more than a list of strong moral condemnations.  They need the initial proclamation of the Gospel to understand the context of the Church’s moral teachings. And they need the hope and encouragement that grace gives the person to pursue the good, even when it is very difficult to do so.

The Difference between Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul
Perhaps the difference between the initial proclamation of the Gospel to which the pope is drawing our attention and the more in-depth catechesis and moral exhortation that follows can be illustrated by the difference between Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul.  In Acts, the way Peter and Paul initially proclaim the faith to those who have not yet heard the Gospel is different from the way Paul instructs believers in his letters to established Christian communities.

In Acts, Peter and Paul’s initial Gospel presentation focuses on God’s plan of salvation culminating in Jesus Christ dying and rising to save us our sins. To the crowds at Pentecost, for example, Peter proclaims the core of the Gospel message: Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead and the call to repent, be baptized and be forgiven of sins (Acts 2:14-39). He does the same before the crowds at Solomon’s Portico (3:11-26), before the high priest and rulers of Jerusalem (4:8-12), after the angel released him from prison (5:30-32) and when he defends the baptism of the Gentiles (10:34-43).

Paul takes a similar approach of focusing on the core Gospel message on his missionary journeys (Acts 13:16-41; 17:22-31). In every case there is simply an initial proclamation and a general call to repent—to turn away from sin and turn to the Lord. But there is no in-depth challenge on specific moral issues such as infidelity in marriage, neglect of the poor or unchaste living—not because the people had mastered these areas of the moral life—but because they needed the story of salvation before they could comprehend and aspire to live the high moral calling in Christ.(6)      

The apostles certainly were not afraid to address tough moral issues. Read First Corinthians in which Paul condemns the Christians there for their failure to feed the hungry, their pride, their drunkenness, and their many sexual sins including adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, and incest.  But there, Paul was addressing the believers inside the Christian community—those who already knew Christ crucified and surrendered their lives to Him, but were now struggling in their walk with the Lord.

Perhaps Pope Francis can be seen as taking a similar approach.  Like Paul, when he has in mind primarily those outside the Church, as he has in these two public interviews, he takes a more missionary-styled approach which leads with authentic dialogue and initial proclamation. But when he is particularly addressing those inside the Church, as he did in his September 20 address to Catholic gynecologists, a focus on the particular moral consequences of the Christian life may appear more clearly.

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At the same time, his drawing attention to the core of the Gospel message speaks volumes to those inside the Church as well. He is reminding us that the core of Catholic identity is not about wearing a badge that says “I’m pro-life” or “I don’t use contraception”—as essential as faithfulness in these important moral issues might be for Catholic living. The very heart of Catholicism is a living encounter with Jesus Christ, intimate communion with the Lord who died for us and wants to forgive us and heal our wounds. 

That, in fact, is how Pope Francis views his own identity as a Christian.  When asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?,” he didn’t respond, “I’m a pro-life Catholic” or “I follow the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.”  Rather, he said he sees himself in the role of Matthew the tax collector, “a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.” And in so doing, I think he is inviting us to do the same.

(1) Eugenio Scalfari, “The Pope: How the Church will Change” La Repubblica (October 1, 2013).

(2) Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America (September 19, 2013).

(3) Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting Organized by the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (September 20, 2013).

(4) Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America (September 19, 2013).

(5)This is a point my colleague Sean Innerst has often emphasized. See his doctoral dissertation: Sean Innerst, The Ancient Narratio as an Ecclesial Participation in the Divine Pedagogy: A Study of its Sources and Proposal for its Current Application (University of South Africa, November 2010), pp. 287-302. See also: Sean Innerst, “Divine Pedagogy and Covenant Memorial: The Catechetical Narratio and the New Evangelization” Letter & Spirit, vol. 8 (St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology: Steubenville, OH, 2013) (forthcoming).

(6) Innerst notes more broadly how the canonical arrangement of the New Testament can be seen as reflecting the divine pedagogy with the narrative Gospels and Acts preceding the more detailed doctrinal explications and moral  consequences found in the New Testament epistles.  Sean Innerst, “Divine Pedagogy and Covenant Memorial: The Catechetical Narratio and the New Evangelization” Letter & Spirit, vol. 8 (St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology: Steubenville, OH, 2013) (forthcoming).

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