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.
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.