Editorial on Pope’s Interview
“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” ―Blaise Pascal, Pensées
In my last letter, Letter #89, I argued that Pope Francis, in his controversial August interview with Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., made public September 19, had attempted to draw attention to the fundamental thing, that is, the saving work of Jesus Christ which redeems man.
And I said that the Pope’s personal, mystical encounter with Christ when he was 16, on September 21, 1953, was a key to his thinking on this point. And I said that this was part of the “context” within which we must understand the remarks of the Pope in this interview.
I then left off, saying that I would come back to the interview, and try to explain in more detail why Francis said what he said, putting it into the context of the changes in the world and in the Church during the past century, and since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Therefore, below, I am sending the text (see below, end of this letter) of my editorial for the October issue of Inside the Vatican. (subscribe to the magazine)
But I am also sending additional material, since the editorial, by itself, is also incomplete — as any essay of only a few hundred words must inevitably be.
The interview has caused confusion
That there is confusion is clear.
A letter I received on September 22 from the distinguished American Catholic moral theologian, Prof. Germain Grisez, explains this confusion (he has authorized me to share his letter):
Dear Dr. Moynihan,
Insofar as I understand what Pope Francis had to say, I can agree with him, but he said some things that I do not understand, and that have already been made bad use of by the secular media. Take the following passage:
“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.”
The teachings of the Church certainly are not all equivalent. There is a hierarchy.
But what is the point of saying that the Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently”? Making this assertion suggests, unfortunately, a caricature of the teachings of recent pontificates. I assume Pope Francis would reject that reading. But where, then, is the state of affairs that needs to be overcome?
Proclamation in a missionary style does focus on essentials. But the new evangelization cannot proceed as if the Gospel has not been already preached, and either understood or not, but in either case, rejected. Still, I agree that what is central needs to be presented more clearly and forcefully than has generally been the case. Unless people believe that Christ has risen and will come again and gather into his kingdom all who are ready to enter, and unless they hope to be among those ready to enter, there is no use trying to instruct them about what they need to do in order to be ready to enter.
But what is meant by “moral edifice of the Church”? Many people mistakenly think that the moral truth the Church teaches is a code she has constructed and could change. If that were so, it could collapse like a house of cards. Perhaps Pope Francis means that the moral teachings, though they are truths that pertain to revelation, will collapse for the individual who lacks hope in the kingdom to come. But who knows what he means? The phrase is impressive. It reverberates in one’s depths. But if it was suggested by a spirit, it was not the Holy Spirit, for it is bound to confuse and mislead.
I’m afraid that Pope Francis has failed to consider carefully enough the likely consequences of letting loose with his thoughts in a world that will applaud being provided with such help in subverting the truth it is his job to guard as inviolable and proclaim with fidelity. For a long time he has been thinking these things. Now he can say them to the whole world — and he is self-indulgent enough to take advantage of the opportunity with as little care as he might unburden himself with friends after a good dinner and plenty of wine.
Grisez here is making a serious, impassioned criticism of Pope Francis’s choice of words: he says the “spirit” that suggested these interview remarks to Pope Francis “was not the Holy Spirit” because, he says, these words were “bound to confuse and mislead.”
Now, we all know that every word spoken by a Pope is not “infallible.” The Pope’s doctrinal infallibity on matters of faith and moral only covers a very narrowly defined area of “ex cathedra” (“from the chair”) statements, and this interview was clearly not “ex cathedra.” [Note: Papal statements are only "ex cathedra" when the Pope says "I am about to speak from the chair of Peter, in full knowledge that I am defining a Catholic belief that has been held always, everywhere, by all ("quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est")." Only then can he "not err," i.e., be infallible. And he can only define a doctrine already held by all the faithful since the beginning; by definition, he cannot break with or change Church teaching. Only two times have Popes ever spoken "ex cathedra," once for the solemn proclamation of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 (Pius IX), and a second time for the solemn proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption in 1950 (Pius XII).]
Like any man, the Pope is allowed to speak, in private conversation (and even in interviews which will be made public), of many matters in a “human” way, out of his own “human spirit,” and there is nothing sinister or evil in this. No one should expect that every word spoken by any Pope in an interview, or a press conference, be beyond all shadow of confusion. And everyone knows that a few words, taken out of context, can be read in a way opposed to the real meaning of the speaker. Even the meaning of a verse of Scripture can be distorted, taken in isolation and out of context. So one may begin to structure a defense of Pope Francis along these lines.
Still, something quite serious is occurring, clearly, when thoughtful, respected Catholic theologians are stating that the Pope as speaking out of a spirit which is “not the Holy Spirit,” but rather one which is “bound to confuse and mislead.”
And that urgently requires clarification.
That clarification has begun. Many have written useful articles explaining how the Pope’s remarks have been “cherry-picked” by commentators who are presenting only a few phrases out of a lenghthy interview.
One of the most useful is by Archbishop Charles Chaput, formerly of Denver, now of Philadelphia. Here is what he wrote in his weekly column for the arcdiocesan website on September 25. Link
Pope Francis and “The Interview”
By Archbishop Charles Chaput, of Phliadelphia
September 25, 2013
I had the gift of two unusual blessings last week. The first was a moment to greet Pope Francis in Rome after his Wednesday, September 18, general audience. We had met and served as delegates to the 1997 Special Assembly for America. Sixteen years have passed, but this Pope has a remarkable memory to match his generous spirit. He recalled a friendly conversation we’d had in great detail, and the events of those days that helped shape both of us as young bishops.
The second blessing was being away from the United States on September 19 when Jesuit magazines around the world released the Pope’s remarks to Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J. Thanks to my schedule, I couldn’t read the full interview until I was on the plane home, four days after it appeared. But the emails I received about it — some of them happy; some of them angry; some of them gloating; some of them from Catholics feeling confused or even betrayed — were instructive.
Some people grasped at the interview like a lifeline — or a vindication. One person praised the Holy Father for stressing that the “Church must focus on compassion and mercy, not on enforcing small-minded rules.” She added that “we’re at last free from the chains of hatred that have ruled the Catholic Church for so many years and led to my unease in bringing my own children into that Church.”
More common though were emails from catechists, parents and everyday Catholics who felt confused by media headlines suggesting that the Church had somehow changed her teaching on a variety of moral issues.
I heard from a mother of four children – one adopted, another disabled from birth — who’d spent years counseling pregnant girls and opening prolife clinics. She wanted to know why the Pope seemed to dismiss her sacrifices. A priest said the Pope “has implicitly accused brother priests who are serious about moral issues of being small minded,” and that “[if you’re a priest,] being morally serious is now likely to get you publicly cast as a problem.” Another priest wrote that “the problem is that [the Holy Father] makes all of the wrong people happy, people who will never believe in the Gospel and who will continue to persecute the Church.”
We can draw some useful lessons from these reactions. First, we need to be very careful in taking mass media coverage of the Catholic Church at face value. Second, we need to actually read the Holy Father’s interview for ourselves, and pray over it, and then read it again, especially in light of the Year of Faith. A priest here in Philadelphia asked for a show of hands at a Mass last Sunday, and nearly everyone in the church, which was full, had heard about the Pope’s interview. But only five persons had actually read it. Third and finally, we need to open our hearts — all of us — and let God lead us where he needs us to go through the words of the Holy Father.
Pope Francis does not at all turn away from Catholic teaching on matters such as sexuality and the sanctity of human life. How could he? We should remember that Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day — two women with an intimate, passionate devotion to the poor — also saw abortion as a brutal crime against the poorest and most defenseless of the poor: the unborn child.
Among the many vital things the Pope reminds us of in his interview is the new and drastically different condition of the modern world that God seeks to save. It’s one thing to argue about abortion and sexuality when both disputants in the debate share the same basic moral framework and language; the same meaning to words like “justice;” the same set of beliefs about the nature of the human person. But it’s quite another thing when we no longer have that common vocabulary. The modern world is mission territory. It’s morally fractured. Our politics, as Alasdair MacIntyre once famously wrote, is civil war pursued by other means. The modern heart can only be won back by a radical witness of Christian discipleship — a renewed kind of shared community life obedient to God’s Commandments, but also on fire with the Beatitudes lived more personally and joyfully by all of us.
There’s a passage from the Pope’s interview we need to remember in a special way in the weeks and years ahead:
“Proclamation of [Jesus Christ] 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 proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”
The Holy Father asks none of us to abandon the task of bringing the world to Jesus Christ. Our witness matters. Every unborn child saved, every marriage strengthened, every immigrant helped, every poor person served, matters. God calls on us to help him sanctify every aspect of our shared lives — at home, at work and in the public square.
But if, as the Pope describes her, the Church is a “field hospital” for the wounded in a cruel world, then the goal of our witness is to create a space of beauty and mercy; to accompany those who suffer; to understand the nature of their lives; to care for and heal even those who reject us. We need to speak the truth, and work for the truth, with love. And we need to realize that nothing we do – either as individuals or parish communities — will bear fruit unless we give ourselves to the whole Gospel with our whole heart.
Protecting and saving the lives of innocent ones: The Pro-Life Movement
It’s quite clear why Catholics who have worked in the movement to protect and defend innocent human life — whether by praying for a conversion of individuals to Christ, or by writing, or speaking, or teaching, or by sacrificing personal time and wealth (not to mention human respect) in sidewalk counseling to try to save babies from death and their mothers from real damage to their bodies, spirits and souls — may have felt saddened, even disheartened, by the words of Pope Francis.
There are thousands who work in Pregnancy Aid Centers seeking to give help and counsel to troubled pregnant women in difficulty. They actually embody exactly what our Holy Father was saying: they are being incarnate versions of God’s mercy to women suffering from the unmerciful “mercy” of their husbands, boyfriends, parents, friends, and society in general.
The warning of the Pope that such noble, difficult work cannot be the sole Christian witness does not mean, as some have suggested, that those carrying out this witness lack feelings of mercy toward sinners, or are insufficiently aware that they themselves, like all humans, are also sinners.
In this sense, the Pope’s remarks were too brief, too summary, and thus open to misunderstanding.
And, for those who are watching carefully, one can see that the Pope himself is already offering “additions” and “amendments,” as it were, to his interview remarks, in order to lessen the confusion.
On September 20, the very next day after the release of the interview, Pope Francis, certainly aware of the uproar and confusion his remarks had sparked, made some very strong pro-life remarks.
Here are excerpts from a report on what he said, from the excellent Vatican journalist Francis X. Rocca of Catholic News Service:
Pope condemns abortion as product of “throwaway culture”
By Francis X. Rocca, Catholic News Service
September 20, 2013
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — 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!”…
Pope Francis’ remarks came one day after the publication of an interview in which he warned that focusing on certain moral teachings, including abortion, could undermine the church’s efforts to preach the Gospel.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” the Pope said in the interview, noting that he had been “reprimanded” for failing to speak often about those topics. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time…
“Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things,” he said. “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 hidden life of prayer
Still, even in this article, the same problem emerges: the Pope’s words are being cited out of context, and without any indication of his reason for speaking them.
So this means that even in the circles of Catholic journalism, the Pope’s interview is being offered to us primarily as a few lines of text which are not adequately explained.
Why did the Pope speak those words?
There is an answer, and I give it in the editorial below.
The answer is that Francis’s entire life is marked by a very profound encounter with Christ, and a love of Christ, which he sets at the center of his self-understanding, and of his teaching. And he did this in the interview.
Francis’s life has been charcaterized by a life-long commitment, a life-long struggle, to become more Christlike.
I myself have been a witness to a small part of this life. I have stayed in the Domus Santa Marta, where he resides, on occasion since his election to the papacy.
Each morning after Mass, before going to breakfast, he sits alone in the pews before the Holy Sacrament, sometimes for 20, sometimes for 30 minutes. I have been there as well, in long minutes of utter silence.
And each evening before dinner, after the work of the day, he returns for a long period of solitary adoration, from about 6:50 p.m. until going to dinner a little before 8 p.m. So he “bookends” his day with a time of silence with the Lord.
Francis is a man whose life is in keeping with his words. He lives simply. He speaks bluntly, honestly, from the heart. He is in love with Christ, and wants all to be filled with that same love, because, in His goodness, in His beauty, in His holiness, He is worthy of love, and has loved us first.
This spiritual life means the Pope would never criticize anyone who is working for a good cause, especially for the good cause of protecting innocent human life.
But it also means that the Pope wishes to point beyond any and every “action” to a certain person who is to be known, and loved and served, Jesus Christ, in whom we live, and move, and have our being, because He fills that “God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God.”
The spiritual life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the key to explain why he said what he said in the interview.
The October 2013 Inside the Vatican magazine Editorial
What Did Pope Francis Mean?
Pope Francis has done it again. His recent interview, released September 19, has received praise from the “liberal left” and sparked outrage on the “traditional right.” But few have understood him rightly
By Robert Moynihan
“Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord.” —Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, April 27, 2001, in his presentation in Buenos Aires of a book by Father Luigi Giussani
“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… 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.” —Pope Francis, interview in Civilta Cattolica released September 19
“I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon. I am one who is looked upon by the Lord.” —Pope Francis, ibid.
Pope Francis, in his recent Civilta Cattolica interview, has been profoundly misunderstood.
Those who praise him think he is changing, or may be preparing to change, Catholic moral teaching. The Guardian of London wrote on September 20: “In the most sensational interview, the Pope has attempted to change the whole direction of modern Catholicism.” This is not true — at least not as The Guardian intends it. Francis tells us that he is “a son of the Church,” and so accepts and defends Church teaching, and has no wish to alter it.
Those who blame him say he is being imprudent, giving the impression that he is “downplaying” the gravity of moral evils, like abortion and and sexual immorality. But Pope Francis was not “downplaying” evil. Rather, he was focusing on something else: the encounter with Christ. Conversion to Christ. The most essential thing of all.
What could seem a “scandalous” levity toward immorality is rather an emphasis on conversion to the living Christ as the source and wellspring of a deeper moral life. And in this new emphasis, yes, it may be true that he is attempting “to change the whole direction of modern Catholicism.” For Pope Francis has a very special vision of Christian conversion and Christian life, based on the “encounter” with Christ.
Twelve years ago, on April 27, 2001, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), gave a talk in Buenos Aires at the presentation of a book by Father Luigi Giussani, the Founder of the Communion and Liberation Movement. (Bergoglio had started reading Giussani’s works in about 1990, and had come to share his conviction that the fundamental dynamic of the faith was a real “encounter” with Christ.)
Bergoglio said of the book: “It is the description of that initial experience… of wonder which arises in… the exceptionally human and divine presence and gaze of Jesus Christ.”
He continued: “Everything in our life, today just as in Jesus’ time, begins with an encounter. An encounter with this Man, the carpenter of Nazareth… We cannot understand this dynamic of encounter which brings forth wonder and adherence if it has not been triggered — forgive me the use of this word — by mercy. Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord. I beg the theologians who are present not to turn me in to the Sant’Uffizio or to the Inquisition; however, forcing things a bit, I dare to say that the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.”
So even in 2001, long before he became Pope, Bergoglio was speaking in terms of “encountering mercy” toward his “sin” in a way he knew might perplex people, might “raise eyebrows” at the Holy Office.
Yet he also explained, already in 2001, how this experience of God’s “merciful embrace” prompted a commitment to traditional morality — that the one led to the other. He wrote that, after this experience, “we feel a real desire to respond, to change, to correspond; a new morality arises.”
In other words, the encounter comes first, then ethics, “an ethics which is born of the encounter, of this encounter which we have described up to now.”
He added: “Christian morality is not a titanic effort of the will, the effort of someone who decides to be consistent and succeeds, a solitary challenge in the face of the world. No. Christian morality is simply a response. It is the heartfelt response to a surprising, unforeseeable, ‘unjust’ mercy… The surprising, unforeseeable, ‘unjust’ mercy… of one who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me again, hopes in me, and expects from me. This is why the Christian conception of morality is a revolution; it is not a never falling down but an always getting up again.”
For Bergoglio, moralities not rooted in this “encounter with Christ” are “efforts at prayer and immanent spirituality which never go beyond themselves.”
And, for him, “going beyond oneself,” toward Christ, encountered in the Church, is the essence of the Gospel: “Jesus is encountered, just as 2,000 years ago, in a human presence, the Church, the company of those whom He assimilates to Himself, His Body, the sign and sacrament of His Presence.”
So, here is the point: Pope Francis, the head of the Church, is seeking to make the Church, if it will follow his lead, into a place where others may “encounter” Jesus. Will anyone come?
Francis believes they will. He believes, with St. Augustine, that human beings were made for God. “From the depths of my being, something attracts me toward Someone who looked for me first, is waiting for me first, is the ‘almond flower’ of the prophets, the first to bloom in spring,” he said. “It is the quality which God possesses and which I take the liberty of defining by using a Buenos Aires word: God, in this case Jesus Christ, always primerea, goes ahead of us. When we arrive, He is already there waiting.”
Pope Francis spends time in silent prayer each morning after Mass. He spends time “with the Lord” to know him more, to love Him more, to serve Him more.
Francis is suggesting we all step down occasionally from “saving others” or the important work we do “in the world” to look within. Spend time with Jesus. Ask Him what we should do.
Love is healing. Love is inviting. The Christian faith, in its essence, is not about finger-pointing, which does not heal and makes people turn away. It is about looking upon people with the love of Christ, the same love with which he looked upon us, when we were far from Him. This is what Pope Francis is saying.
(To be continued)