Beliefs Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The Liberal Pope

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pope_Francis_in_March_2013.jpg
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pope_Francis_in_March_2013.jpg

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pope_Francis_in_March_2013.jpg

Yesterday was not a good day for right-wing Catholics. To the great delight of their opponents, Pope Francis declared himself outside that fold. “I have never been a right-winger,” he said. Roll over, Benedict, and tell JPII the news.

Of course, Catholic conservatives being what they are, the first move was to insist that the MSM had misrepresented what the pope said in his 12,000-word interview with the editor of the Jesuit newspaper Civilità Cattolica (translated and published simultaneously in a dozen Jesuit newspapers around the world).

“The New York Times headline reads: ‘Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion.'” Kathryn Jean Lopez began over at NRO’s Corner. “Believe it or not, though, he talked about more than sex.” “Please, folks,” pleaded Phil Lawler of CatholicCulture.org, “don’t be trapped in unproductive debates about what some uninformed reporter claims the Pope said.”

Sure, the Times and the rest of the MSM focused on what Francis had to say about the neuralgic issues that have held center stage for the American hierarchy in the last decade or so. To wit:

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. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. 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.

Among the reprimanders would be Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, who told his diocesan newspaper last week, “I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion, and many people have noticed that. I think it would be very helpful if Pope Francis would address more directly the evil of abortion and to encourage those who are involved in the pro-life movement.” By contrast, the pope said, “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.” Capisce, Bishop Tobin?

Moreover, to pretend that this did not lie at the core of Francis’ message is the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting la-la-la-la-la.

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 pope’s “new balance” is that the church must dial up the essentials of the Gospel, and dial back the less necessary moral issues.

Over at the American Conservative, ex-Catholic Rod Dreher, no longer constrained to identify papal pronouncements with his own religious outlook, called a spade a spade.

I love his style — seriously, I do — but I am sure the liberal Pope has been very, very naive in his words here. Look at the weight the media, who amplify his words, put on the homosexuality, contraception, and abortion parts of a very long interview. The world wants to be told, “It’s okay, do what you like.” He no doubt doesn’t mean at all for that to be the lesson of his words, but that’s how they will be received. For liberals and Moralistic Therapeutic Deists within Catholicism, it’s springtime. For traditionalists and conservatives in the Catholic Church, it’s going to be a long winter. It was easy for conservative Catholics to be strong papalists under John Paul II and Benedict. This papacy is going to be a time of trial for them.

Personally, Francis doesn’t strike me as the naive type. While I don’t have a dog in this fight either, I think there are a lot of Catholics who would like to be on board a less genitally obsessed church not because they’re looking for a moral free ride but because they want something else from their church.

As for me, I’d like to see some evidence that the right-wingers, who love to talk about the importance of the magisterium, are taking the pope’s magisterial pronouncement seriously. As in: “Gee, maybe we have been too preoccupied with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thanks, Your Holiness, for the paternal correction about the need for the church to re-balance itself as it makes its way in the contemporary world.”

But I’m not holding my breath.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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