One priest’s early thoughts on Pope Francis’s ways

July 31, 2013

On Monday, I asked Father Bill Dailey, the Thomas More Fellow at Notre Dame's Center for Ethics & Culture and a wise and humane priest of my acquaintance, what he thought of Pope Francis's tenure so far. His response follows.


A bishop watches live video of Pope Francis on his tablet as he waits for Francis to arrive for a meeting with Brazilian cardinals and bishops at Sao Joaquim Palace in Rio de Janeiro. (Domenico Stinellis/AP)

Much is being made of Pope Francis’s rare, 80-minute, 21-question impromptu airborne news conference during his return from World Youth Day in Brazil. Caution would dictate reading too much into the remarks so far reported, not least because no complete transcript of the conversation is yet available in English. But the very fact of the free-wheeling exchange, and the nature of some of the remarks permits at least some responsible comment and speculation.

To begin with, the Holy Father’s decision to make himself available to such open questioning is emblematic of a theme he has repeated early and often in his papacy: the Church must go out to the world.

A bit of historical context may be helpful. When Blessed John Paul II was elevated to the papacy, he observed a Church going through a good deal of turmoil after the roiling changes within the Church wrought by the Second Vatican Council, and the cultural ferment that had characterized the previous decade and a half in the West. The “conservatism” of his pontificate, such as it was, consisted in emphasizing that the Council had not abandoned orthodoxy as to doctrine and in battling the relativism of secular culture. That project seemed at least in part to shield Catholicism from the doctrinal drift that arguably characterized mainline Protestant churches over the same period.

In this sense, there was a strong inward-looking emphasis of the pontificate of John Paul II, however much his globe-trotting evangelization and outgoing personality were also hallmarks of his time as the Bishop of Rome. When he was succeeded by the scholarly Benedict XVI, the inward looking project and the battle with relativism continued, and it was led now by a quieter, more introverted personality. (And of course, all of this is painting with broad brush strokes—Benedict XVI traveled widely, and his visit to the USA, which I had the privilege to witness personally on the South Lawn and at National Park, was triumphant.) The two pontificates combined amounted some 34 years of a project of consolidation and stabilization.

It is little wonder then that Pope Francis’s style and substance reflect his sense that it is time once again for the Church to resume the outward focus that has always been its reason for existence: to bring Christ to the world. That greater outward focus is better seen as a tribute to his predecessors than as a repudiation of them; Francis’s confidence is confidence about the Catholic Church, its traditions, doctrines, and modes of evangelization, as they have been preserved and handed on. Necessarily, then, his expressions of gratitude to Benedict XVI have the ring of sincerity, even as Francis’s own style and emphases are different.

But what of his reported remarks concerning homosexuals, that, “[i]f they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” It would be vastly premature to interpret this as an opening toward a revision of the Church’s understanding that natural law forbids sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, not least as they were made, it seems, in reference to a questions about power blocs in the Vatican and the existence of a “gay lobby.” Indeed, the remarks went on to reject lobbying “for an orientation.”

But it would be a mistake not to see in the tone of Pope Francis’s pastoral, a welcoming approach that begins with the mercy of God and invites a dialogue with the other. And in an era marked by what the distinguished philosopher Charles Taylor has termed “soft relativism,” in which “vigorous defense of any moral ideal is somehow off limits,” we do well to recall that mercy only makes sense against a horizon of better and worse choices, of virtue and vice, indeed of sin. So Pope Francis, in affirming the mercy of God as the starting point of our dialogue, likewise affirms that not all actions are equally virtuous and calls us all to be mindful of our own sin.

While the catechism has long recognized the dignity of homosexual persons, a Church battling relativism and secularism has at times opened itself to the fair criticism that it just might think God was particularly perturbed with homosexual sins against chastity, even though it is well known that the Church’s very exalted vision of human sexuality is one that heterosexuals frequently fall short of as well. Thus, Pope Francis’s recognition that homosexuals, like everyone else, can accept the Lord and have good will, against the backdrop of recent Church history, puts into practice for the Church what the Church has long asked of homosexuals: to recognize that they are first children of God struggling toward holiness, and secondarily people with same sex attraction.

Is it possible that Pope Francis might at some point invite a theological reflection with an opening toward the approbation of homosexual sex? It is possible. But it should be noted that even if Francis is 100% certain that the Church’s teaching about the call to chastity for homosexual persons is correct, that teaching will only be fruitfully conveyed when the Church is convincing in its love for people with same sex attractions. Thus, both those who believe the Church is mistaken and those who embrace its teachings might be encouraged by Pope Francis’s emphasis here.

Finally, it was noteworthy that Pope Francis declared that he perceives this to be a “time of mercy” and a “change of epoch,” in the course of discussing the Church’s pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics. While acknowledging the complexity of the challenges, the pope placed the question in the broader context of history that I tried to suggest earlier is the way to understand his emphases and his actions. It is far too early to tell whether this change of epoch will bring with it significant changes in doctrine or discipline, in part because doctrine and discipline do not appear to be at the heart of Pope Francis’s understanding of the epoch in which he is called to lead. Rather, establishing a warm, joyful and welcoming invitation to Christ, going out to the world and especially to the poor, seem to define his vision far more than fraught or enervating theological controversy.

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