na·ive·té or na·ïve·té  (nv-t, nä-, nv-t, nä-)


1. The state or quality of being inexperienced or unsophisticated, especially in being artless, credulous, or uncritical.
2. An artless, credulous, or uncritical statement or act.

[French naïveté, from Old French naivete, native disposition, from naif, artless; see naive.]


Francis, Our Jesuit Pope
September 23, 2013
R.R. Reno

Friday saw the release of a fairly extensive interview with Pope Francis. The media was atwitter and reported the interview as a sign of a something big, something new. Some swooned. Perhaps this is the sign of the beginning of a long hoped-for liberalizing trend in the Church. Not likely. The Pope calls himself “a son of the church,” whose teachings are “clear.” But the tone is mobile, the rhetoric fluid, and he uses terms and phrases from the standard playbook of progressive reform. Thus, the media’s reading of the interview isn’t willful.

When Pope Francis was elected a friend asked me what to expect. “Strap on your seatbelt,” I replied. The comment didn’t reflect any special knowledge of Jorge Bergoglio. But I know Jesuits. They tend to be extremists of one sort or another. They’re trained to speak plainly, directly, and from the heart rather than according to the standard script.

Many passages in this interview reflect Pope Francis’ identity as a Jesuit. He speaks about himself in frank, personal ways that have the ring of authenticity. I don’t mean his comment that “I am a sinner,” which some secular commentators imagine a novel modesty. That sort of remark is Christianity 101. Instead, I mean: “I am a bit astute . . . but it is also true I am a bit naïve.” “I am a really, really undisciplined person.”

We’re not dealing with a modern politician who surrounds himself with handlers and carefully stays “on message.” Pope Francis is relatively unfiltered. He’s also not entirely self-consistent. That’s not a criticism. Only a person who carefully regulates what he feels, thinks, and says can maintain rigorous consistency in his public persona and public statements.

By my reading, Pope Francis was being a bit naïve and undisciplined in parts of this interview, which although reviewed by him before publication has an impromptu quality I imagine he wished to retain. This encourages a distorted reading of what he has in mind for the Church. This is a problem related, perhaps, to his Jesuit identity.

A key passage involves his image—a very helpful one—of the Church as “a field hospital after battle.” He observes that in such a circumstance we need to focus on healing as best we can. Some of the protocols and procedures fitting for a hospital operating in times of peace need to be set aside.

He then digresses into fairly extensive reflections on what the Church needs in the way of pastoral leadership in this situation: “pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” We’re not to allow ourselves to fixate on “small things, in small-minded rules.” The Church needs to find “new roads,” “new paths,” and “to step outside itself,” something that requires “audacity and courage.”

These and other comments evoke assumptions that are very much favored by the Left, which is why the interview has been so warmly received, not only by the secular media, but also by Catholics who would like the Church to change her teachings on many issues.

Such comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame. It’s one in which Catholics loyal to the magisterium are “juridical” and “small-minded.” They fear change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins.” I heard these and other dismissive characterizations again and again during my twenty years teaching at a Jesuit university. One of my colleagues insisted again and again that the greatest challenge we face in the classroom is “Catholic fundamentalism,” when in fact very few students today even know the Church’s teachings, much less hold them with an undue ardency.

It’s in this context that Pope Francis makes extended observations about the profound pastoral challenge of ministering to gay people today, to which he adds the personal statement that he cannot judge a homosexual person who “is of good will and is in search of God.” He also speaks of other pastoral challenges: a divorced woman who has also had an abortion. These are subtle remarks, and necessary ones.

He sums up this section with statements about the witness of the Church today. They are the ones most often quoted: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” “It is not necessary to talk about these issue all the time.”

In themselves these statements are obvious and non-controversial. Since my entry in the Catholic Church in 2004, I have heard some homilies on abortion, gay marriage, and even one on contraception. But these are infrequent. For the most part priests expound the mystery of Christ, which, as Pope Francis emphasizes, is the source and foundation of our faith. Without Christ at the center, the Church’s moral teachings can quickly become mere moralism.

But Pope Francis has been undisciplined in his rhetoric, casually using standard modern formulations, ones that are used to beat up on faithful Catholics—“audacity and courage” means those who question Church teachings, the juxtaposition of the “small-minded” traditionalists to the brave and open liberals who are “in dialogue”, and so forth. This gives everything he says progressive connotations. As a consequence, American readers, and perhaps European ones as well, intuitively read a progressivism into Pope Francis’ statements about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thus the headlines.

This is not helpful, at least not in the field hospital of the American Church. We face a secular culture that has a doctrine of Unconditional Surrender. It will not accept “talking less” about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The only acceptable outcome is agreement—or silence. Dialogue? Catholic higher education has been doing that for fifty years, and the result has been the secularization of the vast majority of colleges and universities. Today at Fordham or Georgetown, the only people talking about contraception, gay rights, or gay marriage are the advocates.

The Holy Father is trying to find his way—we’re all trying to find our way—in a sometimes (but not always, as he rightly emphasizes) hostile secular culture. That Francis will make mistakes is certain. He says as much himself. I think he has in this interview.

Perhaps this and other mistakes are to be expected. He warns us that we all must risk mistakes if we’re to bear witness to Christ in the world. We must sow the seed of the Gospel and see where it grows, which is how I read the spirit of his remarks in this interview. To a certain degree we must be a bit naïve to scatter seed promiscuously, hoping it will take root even as we know the soil rocky. But I don’t doubt Pope Francis is also a bit astute. He’ll see what’s fruitful and tend the fragile shoots of faith where the Gospel takes root.


R.R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. Image via Wikimedia Commons.




9.23.2013 | 2:22am
Rick says:
A generally well-balanced perspective on Francis’s interview. It is quite true that he was not pandering to either the Left or the Right, nor was he changing any basic moral teachings of the church. The thrust of his statements was to promote the bold and innovative propagation of the heart of the Gospel, and he quite rightly distinguished that from particular moral and social teachings on topics such as abortion, contraception, and gay marriage.

What the “Right” seems reluctant to acknowledge is that he clearly criticized the obsessive nature of some Catholic leaders’ preoccupation with these moral teachings, even if they aren’t often the topic of homilies. For example, how many articles in FT over the past several years have dealt, from one angle or another, with the subjects of abortion or gay marriage? Quite a large number, I would say. And how many articles have dealt with the problem of the acceptance and pastoral nurturing of the marginalized of the world–such as the divorced woman who has had an abortion? Not a great number, as I recall. His purpose was to call our attention to this imbalance.

9.23.2013 | 8:47am
JERD says:
It has become common in our over bureaucratized culture to see a moral teaching as a policy option reached by consensus. Thus, Francis’ statements are viewed through the lens of the question, “will the church change policy?”

Francis has made no mistake. He sees a a world where Catholics contracept at the same rate as the general population. Homosexuality is going mainstream. He recognizes that the people in the pews consider their consciences just like politicians consider policy options, “which option is right for me?”

So, the issue he confronts is, “How do we change hearts and minds?” Rather than start with rules Francis argues, start with Christ. Have friendship with Christ, the rules will follow. Put another way – convert the heart and mind to Christ; after that seeking the good and the true in sexual ethics will be a piece of cake.

9.23.2013 | 9:05am
walt weaver says:
It seems like converts (or even those raised in a Fundamentalist Protestant environment who remain Protestant) swing to the opposite pole. In Reno’s case, it is clear that the ‘surety’ of the Church is an attraction. A Protestant minster friend’s opposite reaction to his Evangelical upbringing is the other side of the picture.

I think Francis’ liking Hopkins is one clue. “There lives the dearest deep down things because the Holy Ghost broods over the world with warm breast and with, ah, bright wings.” This, and his evoking John XXIII, who projected the optimism of the Gospel.

My simple (note) take is that his persona is who he really is. He is no PR act.

Time will tell, and I am willing to wait.

9.23.2013 | 9:08am
Pay says:
I think you have done another wonderful job with this piece. I cannot say I agree with all your analysis, but at least, unlike other Catholic press/writers, you have not spun it so that it seems nothing untoward happened. That is the best contribution about this essay. You spoke what is true without the usual spin.

9.23.2013 | 9:39am
Sonia says:
Finally someone in the catholic world has stated what is clear to many catholics about this interview without trying to explain away the disturbing comments.  Great to know all the suffering and persecution that comes from engaging American society when God calls us to witness to the truth-is well appreciated by Pope Francis.  Perhaps the Pope would like to come out to the streets of any major American city and see how interested the general public is in hearing about the love of Christ for them. Perhaps he might find they are much more interested in strong arming Catholics to their proabortion and pro-gay marriage views, and denouncing the Church and Catholics in general. No, Pope Francis, we that follow the magisterium have not provoked or initiated the conflict and we are not “obsessed” with these issues, they have been thrust at us and we have engaged society on the battlefield, to use your symbolism. God help us all. Jesus I trust in you.

9.23.2013 | 9:44am
Ricko says:
Thanks! I agree that the interview contained some very loaded language that does not translate well in the traditional Catholic Church. I have attended Mass regularly for the past 40 years (since college) and have never heard a sermon on contraception or gay marriage. And very few on marriage and divorce. There would be no action on Pro-Life matters in our parish if it were not for local activists. The issue of killing unborn children would simply not be heard, or acted upon.  Think about IVF, ART etc. Should we, as a Church, be objecting to the widespread use of these techniques? Wouldn’t this cause emotional distress to the hundreds of thousands of parents using these medical facilities to conceive, or to conceive just certain kinds of children. Would our concern for the ethical use of such methods detract from the ‘central message of the Gospel’?

9.23.2013 | 9:54am
kathryn sperrazzo says:
You are right on the mark. Where has the Pope been? I never hear a sermon on sexual morality at church; not anti contraception or homosexuality; pro-life is sponsored, true, and we are leading the world in this area. Our priests generally focus on the Gospels, and the love of Jesus.
I think the Pope is coming from a narrow viewpoint, Jesuitical and liberation theology of the 20th century; that’s now old school. How about the Catholic social workers, bishops, administrators, nurses and doctors in the field, battling the pagan morality? How about the millions of victims of sexual dysfunction? What does he have to say about that? Hey, Pope, get with it – there’s a whole new world out there; get out of liberal Rome and see the realities!

9.23.2013 | 10:12am
Stanley Anderson says:
I confess to feeling a bit squirmy over some of the Pope’s phrasings at times. But as I said in reply to a column in a different blog, the media will ALWAYS find a way to misunderstand and misrepresent anything anyone, let alone someone as prominent as the Pope, says. So it is not a case of “if only he had said…” or “he might have more profitably put it thus…” or whatever.  And in the end, I have to always fall back on the comfort that if Jesus himself was able to put such seemingly unreasonable trust and authority into that rascal and sometime-Satan-like fellow Peter, I suppose we can do no less. It has something to do with the Holy Spirit, I think.

9.23.2013 | 10:26am
Bernie says:
I think that George Weigel has a very good commentary on Pope Francis’ interview. He says that most people need a close walk with the Lord to understand why the catholic church says no to abortion, gay marriage and contraception. Without Jesus deeply in your life it is hard to understand these prohibitions. But how do people get to know Jesus? People get to know Him by God’s people evangelizing and telling them about their Lord and Savior. By telling them what Jesus has done for us and for me in particular. I must tell people how Jesus has saved me, loved me and healed me. Then I must let the Holy Spirit take over and just pray for that person. I think that is what Pope Francis is telling us. He is not changing anything that is moral or doctrinal. They will always remain the same.

9.23.2013 | 10:49am
tony o says:
Excellent piece. It is getting tiresome having to explain to my Protestant friends that the Pope did NOT say what he appears to have said, or is reported to have said, in his attempt to engage the secular culture. Perhaps, and I say this respectfully, the Pope should proclaim Jesus AND His Church, Christ’s love AND his moral admonitions, the need for forgiveness AND repentance.   Jesus without doctrinal solidity is perilously close to the “my Jesus” gnosticism of modern Protestantism. We are, after all, Catholics.

9.23.2013 | 10:57am
Gail Finke says:
Like Pay above I think this is a wonderful piece, however unlike Pay I do agree with most of your analysis. I don’t think Francis was talking to Americans — he was talking to Italians, who have a different idea of what makes a good interview — and I would assume he was talking to South and Central Americans. I don’t know what their interviews are like. He was not setting out a course for the universal Church, he was just talking. Many Americans will take this as a new course for the Church because that’s how we think — the American media doesn’t just interview people to see how they think and who they are and whether or not they like Puccini… There is no point to an interview in America unless you’re charting a new destination, announcing a big change, asserting your opinion dogmatically, etc.   I do think that in America we’re dealing with issues that are being thrust on us as “all or nothing — agree or we will destroy you.” And I do think Pope Francis’s remarks can be dismaying to people who are in the trenches and feel as if they have been dismissed. I don’t think he meant them that way, but for those people who often barely get the support of their own priests and bishops, much less their fellow parishioners, what the pope says means a lot.

9.23.2013 | 11:08am
Fr Eric says:
Good concise review. Pope Francis’ interview reminded me of a personal conversation or a theologian speaking to a class of seminarians. It was not designed for the hostile secular press that wishes to destroy, complety, the Church.   Small minded rules for the press means sexual morality. I am not aware of an overabundance of homilies on abortion, homosexuality, contraception; yet, I am aware that the Gospel is not being preached. Nevertheless, Saints shook up the Church. “Field hospital” implies wounds and mercy implies sin. The world and many Catholic universities deny both and cling to the progressive idioms that Francis uses. I will spend the next few months completing the phrases and statements of Francis to maintain the Faith among nervous faithful and defend against those who deny the need for spiritual M*A*S*H units on the edge of the battlefield.

9.23.2013 | 11:16am
Howard Kainz says:
How can we blame the media for their interpretation of this quote: “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 immediate implication, of course, is that the Church is talking about these things all the time — which doesn’t seem to jibe with the experience of many Catholics.

9.23.2013 | 12:54pm
steve says:
You can’t confuse (mislead) people (back) into the Church, and expect them to remain when it becomes clear that, as it turns out, the more controversial teachings were never going to change. Reno’s analysis is right on, and charitably offered. There are mistakes of doctrine – which haven’t been made – and mistakes of prudence – which have been made, now several times. Even a wonderful man and good pope can err, and it is an error to frame the discussion of controversial issues in a way that makes him sound embarrassed by them.

9.23.2013 | 1:06pm
Margaret Hickey says:
Agree with Reno’s overview but would express my concerns more strongly. The’obsession’ with homosexuality and abortion is with the secular media who only cared to quote Benedict X1 when he spoke on such issues. It is the laity of the Cathoic Church and in particular I think the women for whom Francis wishes to forge a new role who are most engaged with the current ‘battlefield’ issues of abortion, marriage and family in the public square. He has undermined their struggle with his soft-focussed, porous language. He could have explained the mercy and compassion of Jesus for all without exception without undermining the efforts of laity in particular to defend life and the family in a hostile world. He is more naive than astute if he did not anticipate that his interview would be most warmly received by Catholic dissidents and the secular press. Yes, it will take time to restore balance. For a supporter of collegiality, Francis would appear to have taken few soundings before this watershed interview,

9.23.2013 | 1:15pm
pgk says:
Howard Kainz- “The immediate implication, of course, is that the Church is talking about these things all the time — which doesn’t seem to jibe with the experience of many Catholics.”

Yes. I am a 32 y/o cradle Catholic and attended Catholic schools for 12 years, and I am pretty sure I have never heard more than 5-10 sermons mentioning abortion, gay marriage, or the use of contraceptive methods.

9.23.2013 | 1:25pm
Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:
I’m really surprised that few have made the connection between the pope being Latin American and the fact Evangelical Protestantism is growing rapidly in that region.
And what do many ascribe Evangelical success to:: Their concentration on Jesus Christ. If one loves and follows Christ , Christian morality will follow. (That is one reason why, on so many issues, Evangelicals have basically the same “traditional” morality as Catholics.)
As said in this posting –Christ must be at the center otherwise we are just on a moralizing trip.

9.23.2013 | 1:29pm
Carol says:
The English translation of Francis’ words is somewhat misleading. In Italian, he says, we can tend to fixate on “small things, small rules”. The translation: “Small minded rules” has an ideological spin and can be considered an editorial comment on the part of the English translators (Jesuit editors from America Magazine…).

9.23.2013 | 1:30pm
Hen says:
“Who am I to use a false premise” Pope Francis by saying that “we talk too much about the divisive issues of abortion, the homosexual culture and contraception” only brought to us a greater realization of how little if any, such talk comes from our pulpits. Thanks for a great piece RR. We are also sadly aware of a fairly recent time when more talk on a certain so-called delicate subject  [pedophilia]  could have in effect saved us much treasure and especially the tragedy of Church scandal.


9.23.2013 | 3:11pm
George says:
“This is not helpful, at least not in the field hospital of the American Church. We face a secular culture that has a doctrine of Unconditional Surrender. It will not accept “talking less” about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The only acceptable outcome is agreement—or silence.”

If we do not engage this culture, how to we convert it? I think it’s helpful to remember that that in the true battle, the people of this secular culture are not the enemy. The Pope cannot evangelize by being a politician and speaking like one and he knows that. We, in the overly politicized American Church need to learn from him in this regard. Yes, some might misinterpret him. Why are we so concerned. Those educated in these matters understand the Pope, and will teach those not educated what the Pope is really teaching. Some will, of course, then reject the pope as being “conservative” and “backwards.” Other however, who, because of Francis and the way he talks to the world, might open their hearts and give the teachings they find hard and “backwards” a second chance. Only God can know.   Our job is to convert, and to do that we have to meet people where they are now, not where we want them to be. We can’t do that by being politicians. The church has to take these risks if it wants to convert the world.

9.23.2013 | 3:52pm
Mike Melendez says:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”

How is it that people miss the word “only”?

9.23.2013 | 4:03pm
Rich Williams says:
As a former member of the liberal ELCA Lutheran church, Pope Francis’ words are all to familiar. We heard the leadership repeat them constantly, especially as they denounced those of us who held to traditional definitions of life and marriage. Ultimately, the ELCA made us unwelcome and we found new church homes. I hope that doesn’t come to pass in the Catholic Church.

9.23.2013 | 4:08pm
WesleyD says:
Mr. Reno, I agree with your points.   However, I think that the role played by the mainstream media in distorting the pope’s recent comments should not be underestimated. Today, four days after the interview, the AP and the New York Times continue to assert that the pope criticized the focus on abortion as an “obsession” with “small-minded rules.”   In fact, his use of “obsession” was in a different context, and his reference to “small-minded rules” was in response to a different question entirely. For the media to combine these is not merely distortion but a full-on lie.

9.23.2013 | 5:22pm
Yaya says:
“Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:
I’m really surprised that few have made the connection between the pope being Latin American and the fact Evangelical Protestantism is growing rapidly in that region.
And what do many ascribe Evangelical success to:: Their concentration on Jesus Christ. If one loves and follows Christ , Christian morality will follow. (That is one reason why, on so many issues, Evangelicals have basically the same “traditional” morality as Catholics.)
As said in this posting –Christ must be at the center otherwise we are just on a moralizing trip.”   Not only moralizing but second guessing, asserting, assuming, and judging, as if all knowing, with regards to the Holy Father’s words. I am trusting the Holy Spirit as to what will be the fruits of such an interview. Without Christ at the very center of our lives, all rules the Church defends, teaches, proposes and supports are but straw.   Mr. R.R. Reno, yours is a fair observation of what our Holy Father is trying to say though I may not agree with it all but it is appreciated.   Let’s keep praying for him, our beloved Church and the world since many do not have the time nor the luxury to debate such important matters. Syria, the entire Middle East and Africa come to mind. Amen!

9.23.2013 | 5:34pm
Jakob Cornides says:
A very well written comment on “The Big Interview”! Indeed, it is true that all that the Pope has said can be read in line with the Catechism. This is not a big doctrinal revolution.   And yet his comments on abortion and homosexuality just aren’t helpful. The Pope should encourage, and not belittle, those who still are brave enough to fight against the cultural mainstream.

9.23.2013 | 5:57pm
c matt says:
Although it is odd that the trifecta of abortion, contraception and homosexuality is mentioned in the “small matters” section, but other obsessions the RC is known for – immigration reform and death penalty – are not. Just saying.

9.23.2013 | 8:50pm
FW Ken says:
Pope Francis fought the culture wars in Argentina and lost. They lost the same-sex marriage battle, and abortion is inching in. Perhaps he has learned from those losses.   Moreover, it’s entirely possible that it’s time for the Church in the United States to grown up and start acting like a Catholic Church. The pope has a world to think about. We have part of a continent.


9.24.2013 | 12:56am
Donna Ruth says:
As I read the combox, I wondered how many have carefully read, re-read, and annotated the interview, which, by the way, was translated to English by five independent editors. Readers of encyclicals, apostolic letters and papal books will not recognize papal speak in this interview; rather, they will read what R.R. Reno suggested was the “standard playbook of progressive reform.” Commenter Rich Williams echoed that when he wrote: “As a former member of the liberal ELCA Lutheran church, Pope Francis’ words are all too familiar. We heard the leadership repeat them constantly …” It is disturbing. I could point to dozens of these progressive reform references in the interview. Those of us who have sought to know our faith, yet have had to endure liberal pastors, are well acquainted with the nuances. It is more in what is not being said. It is in a preacher giving a perfunctory nod to trad teaching, but only as a springboard to liberal nuance, using the oft-repeated “however,” or “but”: “The Church teaches x, and that is fine; however …” The average pew dweller, overcome with the cares of life does not hear the nuance of the liberal-speak. In the end, we have inherited a pope who is 50 years a Jesuit. He will need to shed some Jesuitical garb as he begins to embrace the enormity of “Tu es Petros.” Oremus. Thanks R.R. I felt a lot less lonely after reading your commentary.

9.24.2013 | 5:09am
Margaret Hickey says:
Deacon John Bresnahan makes a most arresting point in noting that Evangelicals in countries like Argentina win hearts to Jesus before engaging with moral questions and indeed their moral stances on life and marriage are not very different to ours. We need to appreciate where Francis is coming from too. It would indeed be a pity if his much needed straight talk about ” airport bishops” and clergy who are more like “bureaucrats” than pastors as well as his previous denunciations of clerical careerism were lost in the disappointment many of us feel with the tone and language of this interview. Let us pray that his gifts of faith, courage, humility and indeed spontaneity are led by Spirit. To Donna’s Oremus I say, Amen.

9.24.2013 | 8:32am
Barbara Jensen says:
I am glad that Pope Francis realizes he is ‘undisciplined’ in his thinking. If ‘the big interview’ is a taste of what he has to offer, we are headed for even rockier times in the Catholic Church than we have had the last 40 years. That Naral has thanked him publicly, and that the the likes of Jane Fonda are ‘impressed’ with him, gives one an indication of the fruits of this man’s ‘pastoral’ plan. He is a disaster. Let us pray for Holy Mother Church.


9.24.2013 | 9:11am
JP says:
My wife read to me the interview before I left for work on Friday morning. What the Holy Father said was both inspiring and interesting. Yet, beginning with the Jesuit weeklies, word got out that the interview focused on a “new direction” with new “emphasis”. Within 12 hours word spread that the Pope had issued a smack down to orthodox Catholics. A global echo chamber ensued where few if any editors even read the interview. They just passed their headlines back and forth spreading disinformation. In short, the interview was in all likelyhood a set up. Not sure how this can be avoided.

I suppose as long as we have dis-interested Catholics the disinformation campaign will continue. On a brighter note, the MSM did the same with Pope JPII. For a year or 2 he was a media darling who they believed was one of their own. By 1983-84 it was obvious that he wasn’t


About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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