When a friend excitedly forwarded me the New York Times article on remarks made by Pope Francis in his recent interview, I closed the page just as soon as I had clicked the link. The sensational headline—“Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control”—told me everything I needed to know about what the Pope had not said in his interview. So I decided to wait and see what he had said before reading any pop interpretations.
The meanings of the Pope's remarks will be debated at length in other forums, by people whose competence for discussing such matters far surpasses my own. I offer here just a cursory reflection on the themes of Francis’ interview.
Needless to say, the degree to which persons find the Pope’s words fantastic (in the descriptive, not evaluative sense) probably mirrors the degree to which those persons don't quite understand what the Catholic Church is and is not, or much more tellingly, who Pope Francis is and is not. If the past few days have taught us anything, it’s that real hermeneutical literacy consists in more than a front-to-back reading of a text. Indeed, one can hardly hope to understand the place out of which Francis speaks without a deep familiarity with Catholic teaching, Catholic history and even Catholic spirituality—especially, and this cannot be stressed enough, the Pope's identity as a priest of the Society of Jesus.
“Don’t criticize what you don’t understand,” Bob Dylan once wrote. I’d add to that, don’t be too quick to exult in it either.
Those whose hopes in doctrinal revision have been engaged by the present pontiff’s conciliatory and evangelical tone throughout his papacy will be disappointed, of course, to encounter a sentence that the Times didn’t deem worthy of reference: “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church.”
In other words: There is nothing in Church doctrine or dogma with which Pope Francis disagrees. This should go without saying, but there are those who don’t realize that the Holy Spirit would not guide the election of a man who was determined to overthrow the moral doctrines of the Church that selected him.
At the same time, it is increasingly clear that Francis has reform of various ecclesial, customary or pastoral sorts in mind: in the Curia, in Vatican affairs, in the public perception of the papacy, in the Church’s pastoral tone.
Make no mistake, there is nothing static or tired about Francis’ statements and his style; they are not “old hat” by any standards. The interview may be genuinely puzzling to many faithful Catholics who are wondering now how they should witness to the dignity of human life, the dignity of marriage and right sexual conduct.
Each of us has a responsibility to receive the Holy Father's words with docility. After all, there is really no question at all about how he views abortion and same sex marriage; reference countless remarks he made as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and his Friday statement about the evil of abortion.
At the same time, we should seek to make intelligible and to synthesize Francis’ words with what we know of the Church's mission and her nature and also—crucially—Francis' spirituality and nature as a priest in the Jesuit order. Thus, that search for intelligibility will inevitably implicate and resolve into a context for his words and indeed his entire pontificate: the spiritual “narratives” and the mystical “memory” about which Francis speaks so beautifully and even poetically.
In my mind, the cardinal fruit of this interview will be the lesson bespoken by its media fallout: Unless we cultivate the only authentic hermeneutic through which the Pope’s entire papacy can be properly understood—a knowledge of who the Church is and who Francis is—the witness of his actions and words alike will be ripe for misunderstandings that, in symbiotic turn, generate either heteropraxis or undue dissent.
That authentic hermeneutic simply is the Tradition of the Church—in which Francis' own role as a Jesuit priest can be situated—that makes communicable the grounding for his entire worldview. Unless we understand the very nature, life and essence of that Church—and thus the “narratives” and “memories” in which her pastors, including her supreme pastor, live and move and have their being—we can’t hope to properly receive, with docility and humility but also with fides quaerens intellectum, the Gospel that the Church, and in a special way her Magisterium, is tasked with proclaiming.
The most telling part of the interview are Francis' words about Fr. Peter Faber, the Jesuit order and how a Jesuit views the world, the Church and the Gospel. Did anyone else notice that Francis begins the interview with an admission of being "a bit naïve," only later to acknowledge that he admired Faber for reasons that were strikingly self-descriptive?
I ask the pope why he is so impressed by Faber.
“[His] dialogue with all,” the pope says, “even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.”
At the same time, there are some genuinely puzzling parts to the interview, and we shouldn't feel any need to stretch his words beyond credibility by donning blinkers in an attempt to salvage a perfect segue between previous papacies and this one. Not a few remarks caught me off guard; reading some, I thought, “Benedict would almost surely disagree with this, at least how it's been phrased”; still others evoked my own hesitation.
That being said, I don’t question the Pope’s prudence, as some have both in this instance and in the summer fiasco over his statements on “gay judgment,” mostly because the Pope has already established the context in which he will speak as a pastor to pastoral formation and the vocational expression his own evangelizing will take: He is a son of the Church, and the Church’s teachings are clear. (Let’s not forget that only 6 months ago, American media—drawing largely on the Pope's comments as an Archbishop—was lamenting that Francis was going to bring the same old right-wing conservative approach to things.)
It is because the Pope has established this “doctrinal parameter” that he feels safe speaking pastorally on the expressions that the Church’s evangelization should take. That people continue to conflate references to pastoral and doctrinal reform speaks more to their own skewed vision than the Pope’s lack of verbal discernment:
“No, the Jesuit always thinks, again and again, looking at the horizon toward which he must go, with Christ at the center. This is his real strength. And that pushes the Society to be searching, creative and generous. So now, more than ever, the Society of Jesus must be contemplative in action, must live a profound closeness to the whole church as both the ‘people of God’ and ‘holy mother the hierarchical church.’ This requires much humility, sacrifice and courage, especially when you are misunderstood or you are the subject of misunderstandings and slanders, but that is the most fruitful attitude” (my emphasis).
Really, the core strands of the interview are the importance of a discerning spirit—which is guided, informed by and depends upon theological, philosophical and doctrinal expressions of the faith of the Tradition—and a call for a constant realization that we are first and foremost the recipients of God’s gratuitous love and mercy. This is the narrative out of which Francis speaks. This is the narrative back to which he wants to gather a scattered modernity, collecting lost sheep under the mantle of Mother Church. And this is a narrative that embraces—not rejects—the Church’s moral teachings:
Only in narrative form do you discern, not in a philosophical or theological explanation, which allows you rather to discuss. The style of the Society [of Jesus] is not shaped by discussion, but by discernment, which of course presupposes discussion as part of the process.
The Pope's final words are perhaps his most revelatory:
“Above all, I also know that the Lord remembers me. I can forget about him, but I know that he never, ever forgets me. Memory has a fundamental role for the heart of a Jesuit: memory of grace, the memory mentioned in Deuteronomy, the memory of God’s works that are the basis of the covenant between God and the people.
It is this memory that makes me his son and that makes me a father, too.”
We encounter in the living, vibrant Tradition the memories and the narratives of the Church universal, extended—as Francis emphasizes in the interview—through time and space; “the democracy of the dead,” as Chesterton put it.
Fidelity to this Tradition is what Francis is after in this interview. Our Church is fundamentally maieutic, he wants to communicate, because in and through the Church—the sacrament unto the world—we meet the person who indeed stirs our hearts in truly maieutic fashion, just as he did the disciples’ on the road to Emmaus (another favorite narrative of the Pope’s). This encounter certainly implicates, is fostered by and gives rise to moral living as a response of love, to Love. Francis doesn't want members of the Church losing sight of that primordial Love in their efforts to communicate the laws of love to others. That seems like a fair reminder to issue.
This is hardly the interview picture painted by the Times and its misguided, sensational headlines. It is not what every Catholic expected from the Pope. Concern and disappointment are reasonable responses—he could have been less ambiguous or taken more care to clarify what he was not saying, so that subsequent statements on hot-button topics aren't perceived as backpedaling maneuvers aimed at pleasing "the doctrine-minded, conservative wing" of the Church—but not the most spiritually fruitful ones, I think.
I for one, because of this interview, will try better to understand the Pope on his own plane of expression and thought qua Jesuit priest, rather than clucking at him for not meeting me on my own.