I was at first dismissive of the lead singer of Jason and the Callers’ invocation of categories I developed in Lost Soul of American Protestantism to explain the current statements from Pope Francis. Not to say I wasn’t flattered or surprised that an arch-Roman Catholic would lean on Protestant categories to defend an institution and person who is so superior to Protestantism. But after reading Francis’ interview, I believe Jason is more astute than he realizes (but not so much here). (He should also realize that he belongs to a flock of interpreters, the members of which seem to have forgotten that it was the papacy itself that was supposed to end the Protestant craze of various interpretations.)
Several commentators have been concerned about the mainstream media’s highlighting the pope’s apparently lackadaisical views about homosexuality and abortion, such as:
In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.
A confessionalist, that is, a churchly Christian who values ecclesial forms and ordinances (preaching, sacraments, prayer) as the means by which the Spirit works, as opposed to a pietist who generally disregards forms and elevates the Spirit over all religious externals or man-made doctrines or liturgies, might have responded to the predicament of homosexuality or abortion by pointing a person struggling with these matters to the regular ministry of the church. For someone like Francis — “is the Pope ecclesial?” could be a new taunt — you would expect him to uphold Rome’s sacramental system of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance. Say what you will about the flaws in those teaching and practices from a Reformed Protestant perspective, Rome’s ministry as outlined, for instance, in Trent’s Catechism is as thorough a way of addressing the plight of sinners as someone could imagine.
But instead of upholding the gracious character of the sacramental system, or the mercy that Rome shows in recommending that a person wrestling with sin seek forgiveness and repentance through the ministry of her priests, Francis went in a pietistic direction. That is, he spoke of ways to make the church seem more responsive and charitable.
How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organisational reforms are secondary – that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.
“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”
I mention to Pope Francis that there are Christians who live in situations that are irregular for the church or in complex situations that represent open wounds. I mention the divorced and remarried, same-sex couples and other difficult situations. What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases? What kinds of tools can we use?
“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
To be sure, Francis does mention briefly the role of the confessor in the life of a woman who has had an abortion:
This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?
But the pope’s presentation of the issue is open ended. What should the confessor do? No answer. A woman with a guilty conscience? She needs to work it out with a confessor, but not in a way that would involve the pain of repentance or the acts of contrition, confession, and satisfaction. What happened to the words of Trent which defined contrition as “a sorrow and detestation for sin committed, with a purpose of sinning no more . . . joined with a confidence in the mercy of God and an earnest desire of performing whatever is necessary to the proper reception of the Sacrament”?
In other words, Francis appears to be confused like many pietists, who mistake experience for authenticity. He apparently wants to offer forgiveness to a broken world but does not value highly the very means that his own communion has (and has had for six hundred years) for reaching out to a broken world. It is as if he had read too much Gilbert Tennent and believed that new circumstances required new ministry measures. It is a Roman Catholic instance of pietism’s promotion of feelings and experience at the expense of the outward and ordinary means of grace.
By the way, it is also breathtaking since it is supposed to be either the low church Protestants or the Roman Catholic mystics who are so indifferent to sacraments and ordinances.
Postscript: in a related story, the Vatican press reported on Francis’ efforts to avoid taking a hard line with couples who are cohabiting:
The Pope told priests they should welcome couples that live together and championed the courageous and creative choices involved in going out to the “existential peripheries”, RomaSette says in its article. But the truth factor is crucial here. “The truth must always be told,” not just in the dogmatic sense of the world but in the sense of “love and God’s fullness”. The priest must “accompany” people.
Francis referred to some experience he had in Buenos Aires as examples of creativity. For example, when some churches were kept open around the clock, with confessors or “personal courses” available for couples who want to marry but can’t attend a prenuptial course because they work till late. The “existential peripheries” are the priority. These also refer to the kinds of family contexts Benedict XVI often talked about, for example second marriages. Our task is to “find another way, the just way,” Francis said. . . .
“The problem cannot be reduced to whether” these couples “are allowed to take communion or not because whoever thinks of the problem in these terms doesn’t understand the real issue at hand,” Francis said. “This is a serious problem regarding the Church’s responsibility towards families that are in this situation.” Francis reiterated what he said on the return flight from Rio to Rome after World Youth Day, saying he will be discussing the issue with the group of eight cardinals who will be meeting in the Vatican in early October. Francis added that the issue will also be discussed at the next Synod of Bishops on the Gospel’s anthropological relationship with individual people and the family, so that the whole Synod can look into this problem. “This,” Francis said “is a real existential periphery”.