Is Pope Francis 2013 like candidate Barak Obama in 2008? A Rorscharch test of sorts? I think that the difference is that while most all social conservatives in the media recognized candidate Obama as a social liberal, socially liberals in the media (that is most of the media) largely seem unable to recognize Pope Francis as a social conservative. Rather, with some rare exceptions, they are convincing themselves – and trying to convince everyone else – that he desires to gradually eliminate certain moral teachings of the church.*
Now I read the whole America interview, and I could understand why the Pope had been interpreted as he has been. The comments of a pastor at Paul McCain’s blog sum things up pretty well I think: “Much of the time his public comments leave me wondering whether he is actually naive, as he says, or just very shrewd.” When I commented there shortly thereafter (not published yet), I asked: “is Francis playing the media or are they playing him or are they, perhaps, both trying to do so?”
Now, after further reflection, I don’t think that he is trying to be a chameleon, but is just being who he is – and, perhaps naively, is simply leaving other’s interpretation of who he is in God’s hands. As the Catholic apologist James Akin says,
“In his way, he is fighting the stereotypes and narratives that the secular media wants to impose on the Church…. Pope Francis seems determined to fight the stereotypes and media narratives by starving them of oxygen and returning the central focus to the proclamation of Jesus Christ and to the love and mercy of God.”**
That seems exactly right to me, for that is what any Christian, in his heart of hearts, want to do. And though none of us can be absolutely sure, we who believe in Christ can be convinced – for good reasons – that we are dealing with other men and women in whom the Spirit of God dwells.
Now of course, as a serious Lutheran, I have some great difficulties with things that Pope Francis has said. As I said last week, I think that his letter to the Italian atheist was more unhelpful than not. Since he is a Roman Catholic I do not think that many of the doctrines he holds to are helpful to Christians, but rather can harm faith. That said, I think in spite of his inconsistencies, the man has a connection to the living Christ and Triune God.
But I must say that even among the some of the more reputable commentators, it is amazing to see the divide:
The headline of William Saletan’s Slate post originally said that Pope Francis “is a Flaming Liberal”. Here is one part of his very interesting piece:
At this point, Spadaro brings up the problem of people who are gay or remarried. He asks, “What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases?” Far from ducking the topic, Francis plunges into it. “During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge,” Francis recalls. “By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”
Francis’s reference to the catechism seems intended to reassure traditionalists that he’s not overthrowing the church’s teaching against gay sex. But in the next breath, he calls this the church’s “opinion.” You can question the translation, but if Francis had said something more like “truth,” surely the translation would reflect it. If this linguistic shift from judgment to opinion isn’t creeping subjectivism, it’s certainly creeping tolerance.
Again, I am convinced that this is wrong even as I see in the Pope’s words – especially the ones that Saletan quotes here – some phrases that persons of a more liberal moral persuasion would want to cling to.
I think some of the best insight comes from George Weigel, who says:
Those who have found the new pope’s criticism of a “self-referential Church” puzzling, and those who will find something shockingly new in his critical comments, in his recent interview, about a Church reduced “to a nest protecting our mediocrity,” haven’t been paying sufficient attention. Six years ago, when the Catholic bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean met at the Brazilian shrine of Aparecida to consider the future, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio, was one of the principal intellectual architects of the bishops’ call to put evangelization at the center of Catholic life, and to put Jesus Christ at the center of evangelization. The Latin American Church, long used to being “kept,” once by legal establishment and then by cultural tradition, had to rediscover missionary zeal by rediscovering the Lord Jesus Christ. And so the Latin American bishops, led by Bergoglio, made in their final report a dramatic proposal that amounted to a stinging challenge to decades, if not centuries, of ecclesiastical complacency:
The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission. . . . It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats. . . . What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel . . . out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries. . . .
A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized would not withstand the trials of time. . . . We must all start again from Christ, recognizing [with Pope Benedict XVI] that “being Christian is . . . the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
The 21st-century proclamation of Christ must take place in a deeply wounded and not infrequently hostile world. In another revealing personal note, Francis spoke of his fondness for Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, one of the most striking religious paintings of the 20th century. Chagall’s Jesus is unmistakably Jewish, the traditional blue and white tallis or prayer-shawl replacing the loincloth on the Crucified One. But Chagall’s Christ is also a very contemporary figure, for around the Cross swirl the death-dealing political madnesses and hatreds of the 20th century. And so the pope’s regard for Chagall’s work is of a piece with his description of the Catholic Church of the 21st century as a kind of field hospital on a battlefield strewn with the human wreckage caused by false ideas of the human person and false claims of what makes for happiness.
If you read his interview with America, you know, as Pastor McCain pointed out, that Pope Francis is quite the serious thinker. That said, it also seems to me that there is a child-like simplicity here – a desire to cut through the noise and present Christ and His grace to all – that many just aren’t getting….
“Whatever your politics, be careful what you read into this. He’s talking to you. He’s talking to me. He’s reminding himself. The news isn’t that he isn’t “a right-winger,” as he tells us. It’s that he’s a pastor. He’s a priest, not a politician.”
* See “Go home New York Times, You’re Drunk”, – the N.Y. Times changed its headlines for its piece on the interview no less than three times – going from “inflammatory”, to “a more moderate one”, to “a crazy, go-for-broke moonbat insane headline.”
**More from Akin: “In our day, any time a pope says something on these subjects it is easy for the media to paint the Church as a stodgy, outdated institution that is merely anti-abortion, anti-homosexual or anti-contraception.
But, while the Church upholds the Christian vision on each of these topics, they are not its core message. Jesus Christ is — and Pope Francis seems determined to fight the stereotypes and media narratives by starving them of oxygen and returning the central focus to the proclamation of Jesus Christ and to the love and mercy of God.
Once this central message has been seen and appreciated by individuals, so that they are drawn to God and to Christ, the other issues can be discussed in due time….
Pope Francis’ strategy of focusing on the Church’s central message of salvation in Christ, while not devoting the expected amount of attention to “culture war” issues — like abortion, homosexuality and contraception — is a risky one.
It is not an approach that was employed by his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but times and circumstances change, and it is his judgment that a back-to-basics.”