Sunday, 22 September 2013

Is the Pope Catholic?

The Pope’s stunning multi-session interview with a Jesuit magazine last week properly generated headlines about his crack over the ‘obsession’ among Catholics with abortion, contraception and the like. But there is a lot more than that phrase in the text, some of it potentially more significant. [Disclosure: I once wrote an article for America, the English-language Jesuit magazine that carried the papal interview.]

The 10,000-word conversation, released simultaneously to 15 Jesuit publications in a variety of languages, suggests a mystical side to Francis I as well as a political one. I’m not versed in this sort of theological reflection, but it’s striking that Francis speaks of his recent trip to Brazil as a ‘mystery’ and emphasizes that absolute certainty is not given to us in the earthly realm (rather extraordinary considering his job).

He also says he sought ‘community’ early in his clerical life and is not comfortable with isolation and traditional papal remove, which, he implies, are dangerous. This is consistent with his austere style and his habit of answering letters with a phone call to the surprised faithful.

Furthermore, his comments suggest that these are not mere personality quirks of historical or gossipy interest. Francis’s interview is peppered with remarks about the importance of treating church affairs as a communal effort in which the whole membership ‘thinks’, not just the hierarchy. Even salvation is not a strictly individual experience, but something that occurs ‘in the web of human relationships’. This is far afield from the obedience-based reliance on priestly magic to intercede with the divine powers as the sole means of getting a seat within the pearly gates.

‘All the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief’, he told the Jesuit editor, in another remarkable colloquoy. He quickly denies that he is suggesting ‘populism’, perish the thought, but then warns that limiting the church to a ‘small group of selected people’ will make it ‘a nest of mediocrity’—pretty strong stuff after years of hearing the exact opposite from Benedict XVI.

Francis’s longer statements express concern for humanity out-weighing concern for institutional Catholicism—another contrast with the recent past.

I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.

Francis also had curious ideas about how to deliver pastoral care, offering an example of drug addiction in poor neighborhoods. He calls for a ‘direct connection’ to the poor and to ‘understand the problem from the inside and study it’. These are refurbished ideas directly out of liberation theology that his two predecessors did everything in their power to stamp out. We won’t hear Francis cite the ‘preferential option for the poor’ that came out of Medellin and other Latin American episcopal conferences, but he’s hinting at resuscitating its spirit—enough to get some Opus Dei cardinals’ faces turning as purple as their gowns.

As for orthodoxy, he reminds the interviewer that slavery was once considered acceptable. ‘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’.

Here’s some more of Francis’s commentary:

The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.

One could take such talk as religious boilerplate, and perhaps it is. But it is not the familiar call to return to doctrinal orthodoxy and to forget about earthly affairs like poverty, violence and oppression. Francis also endorses ‘finding new paths’ and speaks repeatedly of the need to restore primacy to the Christian message of universal participation in the human community, understood in his terms as ‘redemption’, which ‘comes before moral and religious imperatives’. This is a radical notion in a world dominated by us/them divisions and exclusion, fratricidcal religious wars and the brutalities of modern save-your-own-ass capitalism. We could do worse than to have such a voice making itself heard in these times.

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