Gentler tone, tougher Gospel

Pretty much everyone has weighed in already on Pope Francis’ recent interview, but I’’d like to share a few observations too.

Response has generally fallen into two categories: Those who’ve latched on to certain topics and perspectives and implied a drastic reversal of papal and Church teaching; and others who maintain that he said nothing new, that his remarks have been grossly distorted by the news media and that, as a result, the ensuing conversation is misguided.

As is often the case with extremes, thankfully, there is something more valid somewhere in between.

True, Pope Francis’ interview published in various Jesuit publications around the world, including our country’s own America, is not prompting any catechism revision. Church teaching on such fundamental topics as salvation, morality and care for the poor remains unchanged. Secular media outlets, understandably, may not appreciate the intricacies of church doctrine and some may have gone a bit overboard in their declarative statements of what Francis said, but it would be a mistake to claim that the pope’s remarks were not newsworthy and maybe even revolutionary in terms of the Church’s recent experience.

The pope didn’t advocate for gay marriage or the ordination of women and he didn’t back down on the church’s staunch opposition to abortion, but he used language in addressing these contentious issues that is in remarkable contrast to what is often heard. In many ways conversation in the Church has mirrored the world around us; not so much in content but in the argumentative, self-assured tone that we find in Congress and on cable news channels. Instead of regarding complicated matters in strident shades of black and white, Francis encourages a more contemplative, careful approach. A more person-centered awareness.

Here’s an example of what I’’m talking about.

Following the release of the pope’s interview, Father Jonathon Morris, who some of you may know as a Fox News Channel commentator, shared on Fox part of a note that he’d received from one of his sisters who is gay. She communicated the struggle she’d endured as a gay woman with the church’s statements regarding homosexuality. His sister, Fr. Morris said, found the pope’s tone in the interview, if not his specific remarks, refreshing and encouraging.
But, within minutes of sharing his sister’s views, Fr. Morris was being castigated in various on-line forums for promoting his sister’s lifestyle in his failing to condemn her. He was falling victim to the same divisive, hard-hearted, judgementalism that Francis, in the interview, was trying to discourage. It’s not that we simply embrace an “anything goes” approach, but that we not be so sure and quick to point fingers that might just as quickly and easily be pointed at us.

Or, as Francis observed, “When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of the person with love, or reject and condemn that person? We must always consider the person.” Later in the interview, the pope spoke of those who seem to have all truth locked up tight: “If one has the answers to all the questions – that is the proof that God is not with him.” There must always be, he said, “a margin of uncertainty” in the quest for God.

Which is difficult. Many of us prefer precision in such matters. We want to know if the question at hand is right or wrong, good or bad. There’s a propensity on the part of some to regard the world as dark and evil, as opposed to hopeful and alive. Francis spoke of such a negative world view as “complaining,” which he said “never helps us find God.”” Complaints about the “barbaric” world stand in opposition to the fundamental truth “that God is to be encountered in the world of today.”

There’s also the matter of breadth. Catholic teaching, he said, must be balanced to include a diversity of concerns and issues, not be narrowly confined to rote acquiescence to just a few matters. Church teaching must be proclaimed so as to fascinate and attract, rather than, as it can too often seem, to bore and alienate. Worthy gospel proclamation “makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus,” Francis 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 … Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences flow.”

Both sides referred to earlier are correct. Francis didn’t say anything that’s all that new, but he said so much that we haven’t heard before, or at least from someone of his stature in a very long time.

It may be a matter of tone, but tone matters dramatically, especially for those who are most easily judged, those who feel most alienated, those who Francis fears have felt more rejected than embraced by the Church.

Here’s an example of what a different tone sounds like: “This Church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”

So, did he say anything different, maybe not. Did he talk about and emphasize things that haven’t been emphasized much of late by Church leaders. Yes. Did he say things differently? Without a doubt. Which is not to say the Christian life has gotten any easier, that abiding by Church teaching is more slack. If anything Francis is more rigorous, challenging us to recognize and strive toward greater faithfulness to a wider breadth of values and concerns. TL


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