How many thousands of Roman Catholics who are close readers of their Church, one must wonder, are reading through the interviews and statements of Pope Francis perplexed at the suggestion that he’s reversing its course?
Some legions of less-close readers are no doubt preparing their emotions to abandon a Church that they perceive as now being led astray. Some other legions are likely putting their plans of abandonment on hold to see if the Church is returning (so they see it) toward their preferred vision.
Such are the inner workings of Evil that those whom it can sway, it will. Pushing, now, follows pulling, then. A headline in the online political magazine Politico: “Pope Francis criticizes church emphasis on abortion, gays.”
As absurd as the statement is, in so many ways, some will believe it. In hundreds of publications and Web sites, right now, writers who are proudly ignorant of the workings and beliefs of the Church are paraphrasing and quoting its leaders in such a way as to convince believers that it’s been overrun and toppled… whether a given Catholic believes that to be positive or negative is immaterial.
Let’s stipulate that Francis is the Pope the Church needs at the moment. For a Catholic, that’s a baseline faith in the structure of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit.
This doesn’t mean the Pope will execute things perfectly or do everything correctly — at least in the sense that human beings think of doing things correctly.
God can work with the errors. One may think of scientists who make discoveries after having forgotten to do something, although that’s discovery, not creation. Think, instead, of quick, random, accidental mutations that chart a new evolutionary path for a species.
But that example vastly overstates the present reality. Many in the media have seized upon the Pope’s summer of statements as a sign of theological revolution. But he’s only saying the things that the news media and skeptics have always ignored when other Christians have said them.
When we said “love the sinner,” they’ve focused on “hate the sin.” More, they’ve dismissed the statements of love as if they were mere disclaimers to soften our image. Now, they’re taking “love the sinner” as if Francis will impose secular liberalism as new doctrine on a Church of haters.
Note carefully Francis’s description of himself. He might be “naïve,” he says. “I can look at individual persons, one at a time, to come into contact in a personal way with the person I have before me. I am not used to the masses.” It may be that he’s made the statements that he has because he doesn’t realize how they’ll be cast in the mass media.
Or maybe it’s intentional; it really doesn’t matter either way. Maybe the Church, in our era of mass media, social media, media bias, and obsession with mediacy needs a Pope who speaks casually, almost carelessly. Maybe that’s the shade that will allow modern society to see what was always there.
During the fiercely revolutionary days of the last century, when the cultural tides came as great waves, the world needed a Church that it would read as stepping forward to maintain vital ground, holding on to what souls it could. It needed a figure like John Paul II, standing resolutely against Communism and, in old age, leaning resolutely on his staff as a rebuke to a society with a narrow vision of human value. The institutional Church had to say that destruction of the family and devaluing of human life is not subject to legislators’ and judges’ machinations.
The message that somebody of authority had to say was, “Yes, there is sin, and we should stand against it.” That put more weight on smaller groups, down to individuals, to exemplify the love. And it hasn’t been easy, as the secular world sneers and scoffs and tells us that we don’t understand the retrograde hatefulness of our Church.
Perhaps the century to come cannot help but produce another impression from the Church. The cultural field is now flooded with secularism and relativism. Perhaps the tide is beginning to go back out, and having stood its ground, the Church is in the midst of the flood, and its role will be to lift up the drowning and those in danger of being swept out to sea.
One might say that our society has just renewed the Fall, and perhaps the message it needs to be able to hear is that which Jesus said to the condemned woman in John 8:11. “Neither do I condemn you.”
Now the challenge that will be left to us, in our smaller groups, down to individuals, is to finish the sentence: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Keep dry.
Expanding one of the quotations that has gotten great play in a godless media seeking validation shows the elided lesson:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
Speaking from Rome, the Pope cannot provide context for a planet of people. That is for the bishop and the priest and the family and the godparent and the friend.
By way of explanation, Francis brings it down to the most personal and private interaction that Catholics have with their Church, the confessional: “The confessor,” he says, “is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax.” It is an error, he goes on to say, either to thrust forward the text of rules as a shield or to retreat to the winds of the times, proclaiming sinful acts not actually to be sinful.
“Neither [approach] really takes responsibility for the person.”
Jesus was able to express the full thought to the woman: I do not condemn you; now, cease to sin. And perhaps Francis could, as well, to an individual. In large groups, though, we humans prove repeatedly that we have difficulty with such communications. One faction hears the first clause; another hears the second; and then we disagree on what was said.
So, whether it’s Pope Francis’s intent or a contrivance of the secular world, the message being heard from the hierarchy’s highest authority is the first, the softer, clause. We must pray that he has not erred in his trust that those of us out in the saturated landscape will find the strength to continue wading along on our mission even as the mockery that we’ve long faced adds a sneer that our own papa is against us.