This Extraordinary Pope, Ctd


Watching the theocons respond to the rebirth of Christianity in the Catholic church was bound to be a bewildering experience. For thirty years, the Ratzingerian dynamic held sway – an era in which papal authority was elevated far above the faith of the people of God, in which doctrinal orthodoxy in every single particular was the highest virtue and the one by which all other virtues were judged, in which a pure, orthodox, doubt-free and smaller church was supposed to somehow convert all of Europe back to Christianity, in which liturgical esoterica became neurotic fixations, and outreach meant finding ways to bring opponents of the Second Vatican Council, including even Holocaust deniers, back into the fold.

In every single, defining characteristic of Ratzinger’s long rule – from the era of Ratzinger as head of orthodoxy to Pope Benedict XVI himself disappearing inside a fabulous flurry of fabric and jewellery – Francis has turned a corner. Definitively, bluntly, unmistakably. So what do the the “reactionaries and legalists” (Francis’ own words) have to say now? Matthew Schmitz grapples:

The pope certainly does mean to propose an adjustment, though the nature of that adjustment isn’t immediately clear. The hope of many (and too-eager suspicion of some) that he was muzzling the Church’s moral witness was immediately disappointed. A mere day after the publication of his interview, he denounced abortion in the strongest terms of his papacy, some of the strongest of any papacy …

The Pope’s approach is one familiar to any reader of the gospels. Pharisees try to discredit the gospel by trapping its teacher; the teacher refuses the terms of their question and raises the spiritual stakes. The point here is not to compromise on or back away from truth, but rather to reject its caricature. This is good practical guidance. If it’s what he meant in his broader remarks, then those remarks offer wise advice well worth taking.

Note that he immediately has to grasp onto a short statement after the 12,000 word interview to try and belittle the seismic shift. As if Francis were likely to change a deep moral truth about life in the womb. John Zuhlsdorf, in contrast, just goes into total denial:

People who focus just on the comments that Francis made about compassion for homosexuals and “social wounds” or about not talking about abortion all the time or that the Church has no right to “interfere” with people (as if to say that Francis thinks homosexuality is okay or that the Church should be silent in the public square or that we mustn’t talk about abortion) without also underscoring that Francis was talking about things which need healing and that they are matters for confession (read: sins) have distorted his meaning.

Really? Homosexuality is not okay for Francis in exactly the same way it was not okay for Benedict? Let me offer two direct quotes from both pontiffs. Benedict XVI:

Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not…

The proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.

There is even a hint that gays deserve bashing for pushing society too far. And this edict was issued as the AIDS epidemic was destroying so many lives – and where Francis’ view of the church as a “field hospital” could not have been more appropriate. Instead: condemnation, marginalization, cruelty, tone-deafness.

Francis, in stark contrast:

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.

And these words cannot but be understood as a gentle but nonetheless revolutionary rejection of the entire John Paul II-Benedict XVI era, which was fixated first and foremost on doctrinal orthodoxy in all things, from legalistic details about coverage of contraception to refusing even to employ gay people in lay services for fear they might be infected with the horror of a civil marriage. Can the theocons not read? Or is it too much right now for them to absorb? Francis could not be clearer:

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.

Remember the American nuns under investigation – still ongoing? Why were they under investigation? Because they were not being insistent enough on the issues of abortion, homosexuality and contraception! They were too busy serving the poor. What did the new Pope just say?

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.

But this insistence was not just possible, it was mandatory in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops for the last several years, with their ridiculous Fortnight of Freedom, their obsession with contraception in Obamacare – ignoring the vast moral sea-change of universal coverage in their cramped Pharisaical insistence on these sexual matters – and their bitter, nasty, divisive attacks on gay Catholics and our loves, even as they shielded child-rapists from exposure and from accountability.

Now, of course, the Pope is not about to alter core doctrines nor does he have the authority to do so. But what he has insisted upon is that the truth of the faith is not guarded by one man alone, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to argue. Their deliberate attempt to ratchet power back into the papacy, to use that authoritarian office to purge heretics, freeze debate and chase out the “luke-warm” liberal Catholics in favor of a smaller “purer” church … has been replaced by something much more like John XXIII’s and John Paul I’s vision and the Spirit of the Second Council. Francis understands the appeal and temptation of strong authority. Because he once tried it:

My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.

What replaces that? The authority of the people of God in a journey of faith:

The church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.

No, abortion is not okay. It remains profoundly wrong to take life away from the vulnerable and unborn. But when recognition of this truth springs up from the life of the people of God and does not seek to coerce others by law or intimidation – it has so much more moral authority than when it is imposed by a distant, political monarch in ermine.

One way to ignore these seismic reprimands of the recent past is the following from First Things:

God’s mercy on sinners is the key in which Francis exercises the Petrine ministry. This represents no great change from the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who spoke frequently of the mercy of God and the reality of sin and, in the case of the former, wrote an entire encyclical on the divine mercy.

Sorry – but weak. Read the whole thing. And absorb how deep, penetrating and yet charitable a refutation it is of almost everything that has defined the hierarchy of the last three decades. And rejoice.