The Francis Transformation
He has unveiled the true program of his pontificate in two interviews and a letter to an atheist intellectual. With respect to the popes who preceded him the separation appears ever more clear. In words and in deeds
by Sandro Magister
ROME, October 3, 2013 – The first meeting, in these days, of the eight cardinals called to consultation by Pope Francis and his visit tomorrow to Assisi, the city of the saint whose name he has taken, are acts that certainly characterize the beginning of this pontificate.
But even more characterizing, in defining its approach, have been four media events of the month just ended:
– the interview of pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio with “La Civiltà Cattolica,”
– his letter in reply to the questions addressed to him publicly by Eugenio Scalfari (in the photo), the founder of the leading secular Italian newspaper, “la Repubblica,”
– his subsequent conversation-interview with Scalfari,
– and another letter in reply to another champion of militant atheism, the mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi, this last written not by the current pope but by his living predecessor.
Anyone who might wish to understand in what direction Francis intends to proceed and in what he is separating himself from Benedict XVI and from other popes who proceeded him need do nothing other than study and compare these four texts.
In the interview with pope Bergoglio in “La Civiltà Cattolica” there is a passage that has been universally perceived as a clear reversal of stance with respect not only to Benedict XVI but also to John Paul II.
“We cannot insist only [It is important to note that word “only” since it modifies everything that follows. – Abyssum] 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.”
Naturally Pope Francis is well aware that also for the two popes who preceded him the absolute priority was the proclamation of the Gospel; that for John Paul II the mercy of God was so central as to dedicate a Sunday of the liturgical year to it; that Benedict XVI wrote precisely about Jesus as true God and true man the book of his life as theologian and pastor; that in short none of all this divides him from them.
Francis must also know that the same consideration applies to the bishops who more than all the rest have acted in harmony with his two predecessor popes. For example, in Italy, Cardinal Camillo Ruini. Whose “cultural project” centered key events precisely on God and on Jesus.
There was however in Karol Wojtyla, Joseph Ratzinger, and pastors like Ruini or in the United States the cardinals Francis George and Timothy Dolan the intuition that the proclamation of the Gospel today could not be disjointed from a critical interpretation of the advancing new vision of man, in radical contrast with the man created by God in his image and likeness, and from a consequent action of pastoral leadership.
And it is here that pope Francis separates himself. In his interview with “La Civiltà Cattolica” there is another key passage. To Fr. Antonio Spadaro, who asks him about the current “anthropological challenge,” he replies in an elusive manner. He demonstrates that he does not latch onto the epochal gravity of the transition of civilization analyzed and forcefully contested by Benedict XVI and by John Paul II before him. He shows himself convinced that it is more worthwhile to respond to the challenges of the present with the simple proclamation of the merciful God, that God who “makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and makes it rain on the just and on the unjust.” [This is the “missionary” style of preaching/teaching. One focuses on the essential Gospel truth and ignores all the social/political burning issues of the present time. – Abyssum]
In Italy, but not only there, it was the cardinal and Jesuit Carlo Maria Martini who represented this alternative orientation to John Paul II, to Benedict XVI, and to Cardinal Ruini.
In the United States it was Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin who represented it, before the leadership of the episcopal conference passed to cardinals George and Dolan, very loyal to Wojtyla and Ratzinger.
The followers and admirers of Martini and Bernardin today see in Francis the pope who is giving shape to their expectations of a comeback.
And just as a Cardinal Martini was and continues to be very popular in the public opinion outside of and hostile to the Church, the same is happening for the current pope. [ I thanked God that Martini was not alive and papabile at the last conclave; he was a loose cannon with a loose way of speaking that was typical of the “seamless garment” afficianados. -Abyssum]
The exchange of letters and the subsequent conversation between Francis and the professed atheist Scalfari help to explain this popularity of the pope even “in partibus infidelium.”
One passage of the article of August 7 in which Scalfari posed questions to him was already indicative of the positive idea that the founder of “la Repubblica” had formed of the current pope:
“His mission contains two scandalous innovations: the poor Church of Francis, the horizontal Church of Martini. And a third: a God who does not judge, but forgives. There is no damnation, there is no hell.”
Having received and published the letter of reply from Bergoglio, in commenting on it Scalfari added this other satisfied consideration:
“An openness to modern and secular culture of this breadth, such a profound vision between conscience and its autonomy, has never before been heard from the chair of St. Peter.”
In affirming this, Scalfari was referring in particular to what Pope Francis had written to him about the primacy of conscience:
“The question lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, even for one who does not have the faith, is present when one goes against conscience. Listening to and obeying it means, in fact, deciding in the face of that which is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision hinges the goodness or wickedness of our actions.” [The key word in this statement is “perceived” since it is possible to have a ill-formed conscience, ill-formed through culpable ignorance. Such a conscience cannot be followed in making moral judgments since it will cause one to be subject to serious sin. – Abyssum]
Francis had not added anything else. And some observant readers wondered how such a subjective definition of conscience, in which the individual appears as the sole criterion of the decision, could be reconciled with the idea of conscience as the journey of man toward the truth, an idea developed by centuries of theological reflection, from Augustine to Newman, and forcefully reiterated by Benedict XVI.
But in the subsequent conversation with Scalfari, Pope Francis was even more drastic in reducing conscience to a subjective act:
“Each one of us has his own vision of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and to fight the evil as he understands them. This would be enough to change the world.” [Again, Pope Francis leaves unstated, but he obliquely refers to it by his use of the phrase “as he understands them,” the obligation of everyone to act only with an properly informed conscience. Culpable ignorance does not excuse anyone. – Abyssum]
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Enlightenment-style atheist Scalfari should have written that he “perfectly shares” these words of Bergoglio on conscience.
Just as there is no surprise in his pleased acceptance of these other words of the pope, almost a program of the new pontificate, or “the most urgent problem that the Church is facing”:
“Our objective is not proselytism, but listening to the needs, the desires, the disappointments, the desperation, the hope. We must bring hope back to the young, help the old, open to the future, spread love. Poor among the poor. We must include the excluded and preach peace. Vatican II, inspired by Pope John and Paul VI, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to open to modern culture. The council fathers knew that opening to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with nonbelievers. After then, very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and the ambition to want to do it.”
There is nothing in this program of the pontificate that could turn out to be unacceptable to the dominant secular opinion. Even the judgment that John Paul II and Benedict XVI did “very little” in opening to the modern spirit is in line with this opinion. The secret of the popularity of Francis is in the generosity with which he concedes to the expectations of “modern culture” and in the shrewdness with which he dodges that which could become a sign of contradiction.
In this he decisively separates himself from his predecessors, including Paul VI. There is a passage in the homily that then-archbishop of Munich Ratzinger pronounced at the death of Pope Giovanni Battista Montini, on August 10, 1978, that is extraordinarily illuminating, in part on account of its reference to conscience “that is measured by the truth”:
“A pope who today would not undergo criticism would be failing in his task in the face of these times. Paul VI resisted telecracy and demoscopy, the two dictatorial powers of the present. He was able to do so because he did not take success and approval as the parameter, but rather conscience, which is measured by the truth, by the faith. This is why on many occasions he sought compromise: the faith leaves very much open, it offers a wide spectrum of decisions, it imposes as the parameter love, which feels obligated toward everything and therefore imposes great respect. This is why he was able to be inflexible and decisive when what was at stake was the essential tradition of the Church. In him this toughness did not derive from the insensitivity of one whose journey is dictated by the pleasure of power and by disdain for persons, but from the profundity of the faith, which made him capable of bearing the opposition.”
In confirmation of that which distances Pope Francis from his predecessors has come precisely the letter with which Ratzinger-Benedict XVI – breaking his silence after his resignation – responded to the book “Dear pope, I write to you” published in 2011 by the mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi.
Both of the past two popes have dialogued willingly with professed atheists and secular opinion leaders, but they have done so in very different forms. If Francis dodges the stumbling blocks, Ratzinger instead emphasizes them. [This is an important distinction! Ratzinger is not right and Francis wrong! Both are right but are using such radically different styles of teaching that uneducated can easily be induced to jump to the wrong conclusion, as we witness daily in the babbling of journalists. – Abyssum]
It should be enough to read this passage of his letter to Odifreddi:
“What you say about the figure of Jesus is not worthy of your stature as a scholar. If you pose the question as if ultimately nothing were known about Jesus and that nothing were ascertainable about him as a historical figure, then I can only invite you in a decisive way to make yourself a bit more competent from a historical point of view. For this I recommend to you above all the four volumes that Martin Hengel (an exegete of the Protestant theological faculty of Tübingen) published together with Maria Schwemer: it is an excellent example of precision and of very broad historical information. In the face of this, what you say about Jesus is careless talk that should not be repeated. That in exegesis there have been written also many things of scarce seriousness is, unfortunately, an incontestable fact. The American seminar on Jesus that you cite on pages 105 and ff. confirm only once again that which Albert Schweitzer had noted with regard to the Leben-Jesu-Forschung (research on the life of Jesus), and that is that the so-called ‘historical Jesus’ is for the most part the reflection of the ideas of the authors. These maladroit forms of historical work, however, do not in any way compromise the importance of serious historical research, which has led to true and sure knowledge about the proclamation and figure of Jesus.”
And further on:
“If you want to replace God with ‘Nature,’ there remains the question of who or what this nature may be. In no place do you define this, and it therefore appears as an irrational divinity that does not explain anything. I would like, however, above all to note also that in your religion of mathematics three fundamental themes of human existence remain unconsidered: freedom, love, and evil. I am amazed that with a single comment you would dismiss freedom, which nevertheless was and is the foundational value of the modern age. Love, in your book, does not appear and also about evil there is no information. Whatever neurobiology may say or not say about freedom, in the real drama of our history it is present as a decisive reality and must be taken into consideration. But your mathematical religion does not acknowledge any information about evil. A religion that overlooks these fundamental questions remains empty.
“My criticism of your book is in part a harsh one. But frankness is part of dialogue; only this way can understanding grow. You have been very frank, and thus you will accept that I should be so as well. In any case, however, I consider very positively the fact that you, through your engagement with my ‘Introduction to Christianity,’ should have sought such an open dialogue with the faith of the Catholic Church and that, in spite of all the contrast, in the central field of interest convergences should not be entirely lacking.”
So much for the words. But to distance the last two popes are also arriving the facts.
The ban imposed by pope Bergoglio on the congregation of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate against celebrating the Mass in the ancient rite has been an effective restriction of that freedom of celebrating in this rite which Benedict XVI had guaranteed for all.
It emerges from conversations with his visitors that Ratzinger himself has seen in this restriction a “vulnus” [ “wound” – Abyssum] on his 2007 motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum.”
In the interview with “La Civiltà Cattolica,” Francis dismissed the liberalization of the ancient rite decided by Benedict XVI as a simple “prudential decision motivated by the desire to help people who have this sensitivity,” when instead the intention made explicit by Ratzinger – expressed at the time in a letter to the bishops of the whole world – was that “the two forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching.”
In the same interview, Francis defined the postconciliar liturgical reform as “a service to the people as a re-reading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation.” A strongly reductive definition with respect to the vision of the liturgy that was proper to Ratzinger as theologian and pope.
Moreover, also in this field, Francis replaced en bloc last September 26 the five advisors of the office of papal liturgical celebrations.
Among those removed was for example Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, a liturgist for whom Ratzinger himself wrote the preface to his most important book, dedicated to the orientation of liturgical prayer “to the Lord.”
While among those promoted are liturgists much more inclined to second the celebratory style of Pope Francis, this too visibly far from the inspired “ars celebrandi” of Benedict XVI.
The interview with Francis in “La Civiltà Cattolica,” made public in multiple languages on September19:
The pope’s letter to Eugenio Scalfari, published in “la Repubblica” of September 11:
The subsequent conversation between the pope and Scalfari, which took place on September 24 at the Vatican residence of Santa Marta and was published in “la Repubblica” of October 1:
The passages of the letter from Joseph Ratzinger to Piergiorgio Odifreddi previewed in “la Repubblica” of September 24:
Before pope Bergoglio, Scalfari had an even more intense relationship with the cardinal and Jesuit Carlo Maria Martini, archbishop of Milan from 1979 to 2002.
In particular, Scalfari reviewed very favorably the book that is perhaps most revealing of the vision of that cardinal on Christianity and the Church, ‘Nighttime conversations in Jerusalem. On the risk of the faith,” published in 2008, a book very widely read and discussed inside and outside of the Church:
> God Is Not Catholic, Cardinal’s Word of Honor
As the atheist he professes himself to be, Scalfari wrote that he found it comforting that “the Son of Man for Martini should be much more pregnant than the Son of God.”
At the time, one of Martini’s expressions in that book was very striking: “You cannot make God Catholic.” It is significant that this should have returned from the mouth of Pope Francis in the conversation with Scalfari of last September 24: “I believe in God. Not in a Catholic God, there exists no Catholic God, there exists God.”
On the peak and decline of the leadership of Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin in the Catholic Church of the United States, one thorough analysis is that published by George Weigel in “First Things” in February of 2011:
Benedict XVI dwelt on the question of conscience in particular in 2010, during his voyage in Great Britain with the beatification of John Henry Newman, and yet again in the pre-Christmas address to the Roman curia of that same year:
For its part, the homily of then-cardinal Ratzinger at the death of Paul VI, it too with a reference to conscience “that is measured by the truth,” was published for the first time at the beginning of last August in a special issue of “L’Osservatore Romano,” at the fiftieth anniversary of the election of pope Montini.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.