Pope Francis and His Critics

Pope Benedict XVI, according to the New York Times, wanted a smaller, purer Catholic Church. Pope Francis, if the Times is to be believed, is well on the way to making the first part of his predecessor’s putative vision a reality, by driving all of those who remain faithful to Christian moral teaching out of the Church.

Of course, when it comes to all things Catholic, the New York Times (and especially Laurie Goodstein, its designated hitter on stories involving the Catholic Church) is not to be believed. Up until March 13, 2013, most faithful Catholics in the United States knew that. But since the election of Pope Francis, a small but increasing number of those same Catholics seem inclined to believe every distortion that Miss Goodstein writes, and the Times sees fit to print, about the Holy Father.

The latest lie involves Pope Francis’s interview with the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica. As Steven D. Greydanus points out, the Times‘ breathless story went through at least three headlines on their website (and at least two versions of the opening paragraph) before settling on the one that upset so many American Catholics last Thursday morning, September 19: “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control.”

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Of course, Pope Francis said nothing of the sort, as the full English translation of the interview, published by the U.S. Jesuit journal America, makes clear. Here’s a little tip to keep in mind when reading articles on the Catholic Church in the New York Times (or, really, any of the mainstream media): If the “gotcha” quotation is a single word, it has been taken out of context. Not sometimes, or even most of the time, but 100 percent of the time.

Just as Pope Benedict never said that he desired a smaller, purer Church, but rather that such a Church might well come into existence because of external forces, including the kind of persecution that the New York Times would not simply welcome but champion, so Pope Francis did not say that the Church is “obsessed” with homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. Rather, he declared, “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” Shorn from their moorings, the Church’s moral teachings threaten to become abstractions—the Law that condemns rather than gives life. Christian morality does not stand outside the Gospel but flows from it—from the real, lived encounter with Jesus Christ.

As Pope Francis put it in his interview, “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.” Or as Christ answered when the Pharisee asked him, “Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36-40),

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.

Reverse that order—make the Church’s opposition to abortion and homosexual “marriage” the two greatest commandments, and convince ourselves that the love of God and neighbor flows from them—and not only may we lose sight of the God Whom we are to love with our whole heart and soul and mind, but we may also find ourselves in danger of losing the battle to save unborn children and defend marriage. Indeed, that is where we are today, and that is why the Holy Father told his interviewer, “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.”

“But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25). This, the encounter with the God Who became Man and died for our sins, Pope Francis says, “is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.” It is what made the early Christians burn with a zeal so strong that they were willing, in turn, to die for Christ, and, in the process, to bring the Roman Empire to the One, True God.

And a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum: Abortion and infanticide and even the practice of contraception and homosexual activity declined as love for Christ, and for their neighbor for His sake, grew in the hearts of men. Saint Paul would find a kindred spirit in a man whose experience of the power of Christ is so strong that he truly believes that “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.” What are abortion and homosexual activity and the destruction of the marital embrace through contraception if not spiritual diseases and wounds?

What, indeed! They are the greatest moral issues confronting mankind today. They destroy millions of lives every year—not figuratively, but literally. Saving souls is essential; but saving lives is, too. Conversion takes time; lives are being lost today.

Yes, they are. And the Church must provide a moral witness on such matters of life and death, even to those who have not responded to the Gospel of Christ, who have not had the encounter from which Christian morality flows.

And She does provide that witness. The reason the New York Times is so obsessed with the Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception and homosexual activity is because that teaching is abundantly clear. It could not be more clear if every one of Pope Francis’s public utterances were like the address he delivered to the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations on Friday, September 20, the day after his interview in La Civiltà Cattolica was published:

The human fragility in each of us is invited to recognize the face of the Lord, who in his human flesh experienced the indifference and loneliness that often condemn the poorest, both in countries in the developing world, and in affluent societies. Every child not allowed to be born, but unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, the Lord’s face, inasmuch as before he was born, and while born, he experiences the rejection of the world.

The Church’s teaching could not be more clear: but if every one of Pope Francis’s public speeches were like this, the Church’s teaching might well lose all of its force. As Frank Weathers notes, Pope Benedict, in an address to the bishops of Switzerland on November 9, 2006, explained why:

I remember, when I used go to Germany in the 1980s and ’90s, that I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems.

If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith—a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Pope Benedict reminded his fellow bishops, wrote to the Christians at Rome that “The Christian is not the result of persuasion, but of power”—the power of the encounter with the Risen Christ.

“[T]he proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives,” Pope Francis told his interviewer. “Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.” If we reduce the Christian Faith to a moral system, we rob it of its power—a power that changed forever the lives of men like Ignatius, who wrote those words to the Romans on the way to his own martyrdom.

Pope Francis, it is said (with more than a little justification), does not speak with the precision and clarity of his predecessor. And in the face of distortions by the New York Times and confusion among the faithful, precision and clarity are greatly to be desired. So let us leave the final words to Pope Benedict, from that same address to the bishops of Switzerland—words that, as much as the New York Times and Pope Francis’s critics in the Church might hate to admit it, have found an echo seven years later in the Holy Father’s interview with La Civiltà Cattolica:

I think that this is the great task we have before us: on the one hand, not to make Christianity seem merely morality, but rather a gift in which we are given the love that sustains us and provides us with the strength we need to be able to “lose our own life.” On the other hand, in this context of freely given love, we need to move forward towards ways of putting it into practice, whose foundation is always offered to us by the Decalogue, which we must interpret today with Christ and with the Church in a progressive and new way.

(Photo credit: Tony Gentile / Reuters)


  • Scott P. Richert

    Scott P. Richert is publisher for Our Sunday Visitor and Editor at Large for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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