The Confession of the Pope Who Came From Afar
In an interview with the magazine of the Jesuits of Rome, Jorge Mario Bergoglio unravels the enigma of his silence on the anthropological revolution taking place. Which involves birth, death, procreation, the entire nature of man
by Sandro Magister
ROME, September 20, 2013 – In the twenty-eight pages of his interview with the director of “La Civiltà Cattolica” Antonia Spadaro, published simultaneously in sixteen other magazines of the Society of Jesus all over the world, there are two passages in which Pope Francis unravels one of the biggest enigmas of his pontificate.
That is, he explains why he has been so taciturn on questions on which his predecessor popes have clashed more vivaciously with the dominant culture.
The first of these passages is the following:
“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.
“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. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.
“We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
“I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. 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. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.
“The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. 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.”
The second revealing passage is sparked by this observation of pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio:
“Ours is not a ‘lab faith,’ but a ‘journey faith,’ a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.”
Father Spadaro writes:
“So I ask the pope if this also applies, and how, to an important cultural frontier which is that of the anthropological challenge. The anthropology to which the Church has traditionally referred and the language with which it has expressed it remain a solid point of reference, the fruit of age-old wisdom and experience. Nonetheless, the man to whom the Church addresses itself no longer seems to understand it or consider it sufficient. I begin to reason on the fact that man is interpreting himself in a manner different from that of the past, with different categories. And this also because of the great changes in society and a broader study of himself.
“At this point he gets up and goes to get the breviary from his desk. It is in Latin, now worn from use. He opens to the Office of Readings for Friday of the 27th Week in Ordinary Time and reads me a passage from the Commonitorium Primum of St. Vincent of Lerins: ‘Ita etiam christianae religionis dogma sequatur has decet profectuum leges, ut annis scilicet consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate.’ (Even the dogma of the Christian religion must follow these laws, consolidating over the years, developing over time, deepening with age).”
The pope continues:
“St. Vincent of Lerins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the Church to mature in her own judgment.
“Even the other sciences and their development help the Church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.
“After all, in every age of history, humans try to understand and express themselves better. So human beings in time change the way they perceive themselves. It’s one thing for a man who expresses himself by carving the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace,’ yet another for Caravaggio, Chagall and yet another still for Dalí. Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.
“Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the Church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the Church’s teaching.”
From these arguments one gathers that Pope Francis is far from seeing in the modern-day cultural revolution the tremendous transition of civilization forcefully denounced by the popes who preceded him.
What prevails in Bergoglio is the idea that the new man who is moving forward, rather than harshly putting the Church to the test, is instead helping it to grow in understanding of the truth and to get rid of “ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now have lost value or meaning.”
The complete text of the interview with “La Civiltà Cattolica”:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.
In a widely covered interview, Pope Francis asked Catholics to stop speaking out on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. This signaled a wholesale change in the Church’s stance toward the world, an opening of windows to let in the air, a banishment from the religious sphere of any concern that became entangled with the political.
Or so said certain people eager to replace one political conception of the papacy with another, to change out a Tea Party pope for a Move On magisterium. “Pope Francis Is a Liberal,” declared Slate, “It’s not just homosexuality or birth control. He’s profoundly anti-conservative.”
Others have pointed out that the Church’s teaching hasn’t changed, that no change in that teaching has been proposed, and that, moreover, when read correctly the pope’s words are perfectly of a piece with every utterance of Benedict. Despite the truth of many of their discrete observations, it sometimes seems such interpreters would refuse the pope the right to say something new.
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:
In his strongest public words to date on the subject of abortion, Pope Francis affirmed the sacredness of unborn human life and linked its defense to the pursuit of social justice. “In all its phases and at every age, human life is always sacred and always of quality. And not as a matter of faith, but of reason and science!” the pope said Sept. 20 to a gathering of Catholic gynecologists. Pope Francis characterized abortion as a product of a “widespread mentality of profit, the ‘throwaway culture,’ which has today enslaved the hearts and minds of so many.”
That mentality, he said, “calls for the elimination of human beings, above all if they are physically or socially weaker. Our response to that mentality is a decisive and unhesitating ‘yes’ to life.” The pope grouped together unborn children, the aged and the poor as among the most vulnerable people whom Christians are called especially to love. “In the fragile human being each one of us is invited to recognize the face of the Lord, who in his human flesh experienced the indifference and solitude to which we often condemn the poorest, whether in developing countries or in wealthy societies,” he said. “Every unborn child, though unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of the Lord, who even before his birth, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world,” he said. “And every old person, even if infirm and at the end of his days, carries with him the face of Christ. They must not be thrown away!”
This is no surprise. In 2009, Francis offered these high-proof words regarding Argentina’s gay marriage bill:
“Let’s not be naive, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God,” writes Bergoglio in a letter sent to the monasteries of Buenos Aires, where he is archbishop. “We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
If Francis isn’t urging silence on moral issues, what’s his point? Francis is a man who think in terms of particular cases and vivid images. In the words of Father Spadaros, his spirituality “is not made of “harmonized energies,” as he would call them, but of human faces.” It’s helpful, then, to look at the one concrete example he offers of engaging on a difficult moral question:
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. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.
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.