An Evangelical Pope

As the returns come in, the difference between Rusty Reno at First Things and Michael Gerson at the Washington Post reinforce the notion that the more you want Christianity not to be bound by rules, institutions, or forms — which is to say, you’re an evangelical — the more you like Francis. And the more you want Christianity to provide rules, stability, and patterns for belief and practice — which is to say, you’re an institutional conservative (e.g. ecclesial or confessional Christian) — the more you wonder about Francis.

First the evangelical Gerson:

Rather than surrendering the moral distinctiveness of the Catholic Church, he is prioritizing its mission. In the America interview, he vividly compared the church to “a field hospital after battle.” When someone injured arrives, you don’t treat his high cholesterol. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” The outreach of the church, in other words, does not start with ethical or political lectures. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”

There is a good Catholic theological term for this: the “hierarchy of truths.” Not every true thing has equal weight or urgency.

But this does not adequately capture Francis’s deeper insight: the priority of the person. This personalism is among the most radical implications of Christian faith. In every way that matters to God, human beings are completely equal and completely loved. They can’t be reduced to ethical object lessons. Their dignity runs deeper than their failures. They matter more than any cause; they are the cause.

So Francis observed: “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.”

This teaching — to always consider the person — was disorienting from the beginning. The outsiders get invited to the party. The prodigal is given the place of honor. The pious complain about their shocking treatment. The gatekeepers find the gate shut to them. It is subversive to all respectable religious order, which is precisely the point. With Francis, the argument gains a new hearing.

Then the Episcopalian-turned-Roman Catholic Reno:

Such comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame. It’s one in which Catholics loyal to the magisterium are “juridical” and “small-minded.” They fear change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins.” I heard these and other dismissive characterizations again and again during my twenty years teaching at a Jesuit university. One of my colleagues insisted again and again that the greatest challenge we face in the classroom is “Catholic fundamentalism,” when in fact very few students today even know the Church’s teachings, much less hold them with an undue ardency.

It’s in this context that Pope Francis makes extended observations about the profound pastoral challenge of ministering to gay people today, to which he adds the personal statement that he cannot judge a homosexual person who “is of good will and is in search of God.” He also speaks of other pastoral challenges: a divorced woman who has also had an abortion. These are subtle remarks, and necessary ones.

He sums up this section with statements about the witness of the Church today. They are the ones most often quoted: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” “It is not necessary to talk about these issue all the time.”

In themselves these statements are obvious and non-controversial. Since my entry in the Catholic Church in 2004, I have heard some homilies on abortion, gay marriage, and even one on contraception. But these are infrequent. For the most part priests expound the mystery of Christ, which, as Pope Francis emphasizes, is the source and foundation of our faith. Without Christ at the center, the Church’s moral teachings can quickly become mere moralism.

But Pope Francis has been undisciplined in his rhetoric, casually using standard modern formulations, ones that are used to beat up on faithful Catholics—“audacity and courage” means those who question Church teachings, the juxtaposition of the “small-minded” traditionalists to the brave and open liberals who are “in dialogue”, and so forth. This gives everything he says progressive connotations. As a consequence, American readers, and perhaps European ones as well, intuitively read a progressivism into Pope Francis’ statements about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thus the headlines.

This is not helpful, at least not in the field hospital of the American Church. We face a secular culture that has a doctrine of Unconditional Surrender. It will not accept “talking less” about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The only acceptable outcome is agreement—or silence. Dialogue? Catholic higher education has been doing that for fifty years, and the result has been the secularization of the vast majority of colleges and universities. Today at Fordham or Georgetown, the only people talking about contraception, gay rights, or gay marriage are the advocates.

Francis is certainly giving new meaning to papal audacity and Roman Catholic conservatism.


7 thoughts on “An Evangelical Pope

  1. Darryl:

    A bit off topic.

    But, while speaking of rules, forms and governing legislation, what’s with this story out of the
    Vatican? Wondering if there may be some ecclesiastical traction on this? Or, is it just another talking point amidst the inaction and inconsistency heretofore?

    “Vatican declares Nancy Pelosi may no longer receive Communion”

    “The Vatican has finally had enough of U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi illogically insisting she’s a “good Catholic” while consistently supporting unrestricted abortion.”

    Back to the regularly scheduled programming.


  2. While I agree with the observation and tend to agree that evangelicalization is a bad thing, I’m not sure that it couldn’t happen to a better organization than the RCC.

    I also suspect that the Pope is trying to mute the chorus of obnoxious nut-jobs who presume to speak on the Church’s behalf, such as Bill Donohue of the Catholic League.


  3. Gerson: The outreach of the church, in other words, does not start with ethical or political lectures. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”

    mark: Does this mean that the “evangelical” message has now become some kind of universalism? But isn’t Barthianism still better than Arminianism? Isn’t “he has saved you” better than “he wants to save you, if you let him”?

    Short answer–no. We were all born guilty, and until we believe the gospel, we remain condemned in our sins. The proclamation of a true church is not that “God has saved you” but rather that God has elected some persons in Christ, and that Christ has died for them, but that these people for whom Christ died are not yet justified until God legally imputes Christ’s death to them and causes them to effectually hear the gospel.

    Yes, I know that this is a little more complicated than the way Billy Graham says it. Graham used to tell us what we had to do to be born again. Now he tells us that sincere people of all faiths are accepted by God. Graham was wrong both times.


  4. Along these lines: Pope vs Popes: Francis vs John Paul II and Benedict XVI:

    Francis: “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” “The Church’s preaching must begin first with the proclamation of salvation” “Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence,” he said.”

    vs John Paul: “the Church’s teaching on the respect for life should be taught constantly and courageously” and “To be truly a people at the service of life we must propose these truths constantly and courageously from the very first proclamation of the Gospel, and thereafter in catechesis, in the various forms of preaching, in personal dialogue and in all educational activity.”


  5. I know, I know, neither of these is officially articulating a dogma. Nevertheless, as Pope Pius XII said:

    What is expounded in the Encyclical Letters of the Roman Pontiffs concerning the nature and constitution of the Church, is deliberately and habitually neglected by some with the idea of giving force to a certain vague notion which they profess to have found in the ancient Fathers, especially the Greeks. The Popes, they assert, do not wish to pass judgment on what is a matter of dispute among theologians, so recourse must be had to the early sources, and the recent constitutions and decrees of the Teaching Church must be explained from the writings of the ancients.

    Although these things seem well said, still they are not free from error. It is true that Popes generally leave theologians free in those matters which are disputed in various ways by men of very high authority in this field; but history teaches that many matters that formerly were open to discussion, no longer now admit of discussion.

    Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

    But apparently they are open to revision by subsequent popes.


  6. By GEORGE NEUMAYR of the Catholic World Report – an online magazine from an ortodox Catholic perspective:

    “Laity and clergy should reject, respectfully, the liberalism of Pope Francis.

    “In St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, he wrote that he rebuked the first pope, St. Peter, “to his face because he clearly was wrong.” The issue was St. Peter’s capitulation to Jewish culture in his approach to the Gentiles. St. Paul moved swiftly to correct him for the sake of the early Church’s unity and doctrinal fidelity to Jesus Christ. St. Peter, he wrote, had gone wobbly after meeting with a group of Jewish Christians who insisted that the Gentiles follow Jewish rules rendered obsolete by Jesus Christ:

    For, until some people came from James [Paul’s reference to Jewish Christians], he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to [Peter] in front of all, “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

    “St. Thomas Aquinas used this episode in his commentary on the right of subjects to resist flaky superiors:
    There being an imminent danger for the Faith, prelates must be questioned, even publicly, by their subjects. Thus, St. Paul, who was a subject of St. Peter, questioned him publicly on account of an imminent danger of scandal in a matter of Faith. And, as the Glossa of St. Augustine puts it (Ad Galatas 2.14), ‘St. Peter himself gave the example to those who govern so that if sometimes they stray from the right way, they will not reject a correction as unworthy even if it comes from their subjects.” (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, Q. 33, A. 4)

    “All of this is highly relevant to the pontificate of Francis. For the good of the faith, laity, clergy, bishops, and particularly powerful cardinals should start playing Paul to Francis’s Peter, as his culturally conditioned liberalism threatens to undermine the unity and orthodoxy of the faith. Peter snapped out of his pandering phase; let’s hope Francis does the same.

    “Even if given the most charitable reading, Pope Francis’s recent interview with Jesuit publications was alarming in its spirit-of-Vatican II liberalism….”

    Full article HERE

    Me: So much here for one to comment on…


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