Anyone who speaks or writes in public knows that there’s a difference between saying something and communicating it. Every utterance risks misunderstanding and unless you have the courage and sheer impertinence to take a risk, you won’t ever say anything at all.
That’s why, as Richard Weaver brilliantly argued, there’s an ethics of rhetoric. You have to be careful not only about what you say, but how you say it. The how is part of the what. A carefully worded, but insipid, moral plea falls flat. The careless presentation of a complex argument leaves people even more uncertain and anxious.
Which brings us to the recently released lengthy interview with Pope Francis. The media have fastened on several phrases that the Church does not need to be always speaking about abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, and that it needs “a better balance,” with more focus on God’s saving love and less “insisting” on or “obsessing” about narrow and sometimes trivial rules. Predictably, the media have gone to town claiming that the pope is implying that the controversial moral teachings of the Church are “secondary.”
Eloquent defenses of the pope have appeared, notably this one by my onetime colleague George Weigel. George rightly contextualizes Francis’s remarks – and in a way his whole papacy – within an evangelical thrust. By bringing people back into touch with God’s love, the pope argues, they will be able to hear the harder moral teachings again.
Anyone who wants sentire cum Ecclesia (“to think with the Church”) and who believes that the Holy Spirit is active in papal elections must grapple with Francis’s fresh spirit.
You must already feel the “but” coming. So let me state it straight out. Granting all the above, when this pope gives interviews (something he does not like), it has almost always become disconcerting. And there may be good reasons for that. You can’t stop people from misinterpreting you. But the pope is among other things a teacher. And a good teacher has a moral responsibility to guard against misinterpretation.
I’ll get to specifics shortly. But I want to point out – hoping that I’m wrong – something I fear has already begun.
After Vatican II the Church went through decades of turmoil because of “the Spirit of Vatican II,” a spirit that contradicted the Conciliar documents and much of Christian history. But that didn’t matter. That wayward “spirit” carried all before it.
We are, I believe, close to what may become a Spirit of Bergoglio, another period of confusion based, once again, not on the pope’s actual words, but in the unbalanced emotions to which certain, casual expressions of his have given rise.
The words themselves, though always orthodox, are not without problems. My colleague Brad Miner points out that 1,300,000,000 babies have been aborted worldwide since the 1980s. The Church just spoke out forcefully about avoiding the deaths of innocents in Syria. Is it obsessing to shout from the housetops about the massive modern slaughter of the innocents?
The pope is right that it is pastorally wrong to obsess or insist all the time about certain sins. It’s utterly counterproductive, just humanly speaking, to interact with other people that way.
The question here, however, is not about a more pastoral approach. I confess, I don’t know who is he referring to as “obsessing,” other than a very few zealots. In the United States – the same could be said about Europe and Latin America – we’ve been talking about God’s saving love towards sinners for decades. The papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were not eras of authoritarian moralism. They were sophisticated efforts to give us the real Second Vatican Council – a proclamation of God’s saving power and clear moral guidance, together. That’s what most of us have experienced as the Church in recent decades.
Pope Francis does add something:
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. 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.
That urgency and radiance and freshness is new – and welcome.
But if he were to call me – he does such things, but I’m not holding my breath – I would point to the misleading phrase that starts this passage. It’s true: not everything in Catholicism is on the same plane. Benedict and the American bishops, for example, tried for years to explain that life takes precedence over secondary policy questions. Francis no doubt agrees, but before making his strong evangelical point, he’s given an unnecessary opening to those who would twist his words.
Those of us who publicly fight these battles already know what we’re going to be hearing from the other guys: “Will you Catholics stop yapping all the time about abortion [or contraception or gay marriage]. Even the pope has told you to give it a rest.” And they won’t be entirely wrong.
The world is only too happy for the Church to leave the battlefield and allow the secular world to kill babies in unimaginable numbers, destroy marriage, and along the way reduce religious freedom – none of which will be good in the long run for the evangelical efforts Francis favors.
Francis is seeking to bring a new Catholic spirit to the world and that’s all to the good. Let’s hope the spirit that arises is the one he seeks, not a wayward one that others foist on him and the Church.