I have to confess that I have wickedly enjoyed all the internet hand wringing by conservative and traditional Catholics in response to Pope Francis’s interview in America magazine. They are worried that in Francis the Catholic Church now has the pope that Vatican II progressives have been praying for for the past fifty years. They are worried that Francis’s remarks “do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame” (R. R. Reno). They are worried that with Pope Francis at the helm, the reform of the Catholic Church will grind to a halt. They are worried that if the Catholic Church ceases to focus on the important ethical (read “sexual”) issues of the day, the barbarians at the gate will soon overwhelm us.
But what exactly did the Pope say? The controversial sentences are these:
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.
I am unhappy that Francis included abortion in his list, but what is important here is to first read the entire interview and interpret these sentences in their proper context.
So what is the pope actually saying? Here’s my take: the first and principal task of the Church is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. It is this gospel that is the hope of a broken, suffering, and sinful world. “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.” Absolutely!
Let’s be honest. The established Churches, including the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, are not very good at evangelism (or as Catholics prefer to say, evangelization [apparently, the Catholic Bible reports the Great Commission in these words: “Go out and evangelizationize the nations of the world”]). The Catholic Church has an exemplary record at social ministry; but when it comes to actually converting unbelievers to Jesus Christ, it usually lets the Protestants do that and then picks them up ten or twenty years later.
The Orthodox Churches in the U.S. aren’t any better at evangelizing pagans either, preferring to tell and re-tell the story of how in the tenth century Vladimir the Great sent out envoys to research the religions of the neighboring nations, who subsequently returned with glowing reports of the liturgy celebrated in Constantinople: “We knew not whether we were in Heaven or on Earth. … We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” Now there is something to be said for this: the beauty, grace, and holiness of the Orthodox liturgy is incomparable; but it may be a tad unrealistic to hope that the pagan multitudes will begin stumbling into Orthodox parishes on Sunday mornings at precisely 10:00. And let’s not forget that too often Orthodox parishes celebrate the Eucharist in languages incomprehensible to most Americans. But at least the Orthodox do not use the word evangelization.
But back to Pope Francis. His major point is, in my judgment, unassailable. Few people are converted to the Christian faith because they read about the Catholic Church’s repeated denunciations of _____. Before unbelievers will give the Church any hearing at all on ethics and morals, they must first hear and receive the good news of the generous love of God revealed in Jesus Christ:
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.
Wonderful and true. Every practicing Catholic should be rejoicing. Clearly this is a bishop who has actually evangelizationized people on a one-to-one basis.
Christendom died long ago. The post-Christian and pagan world has little interest in the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. It doesn’t matter how loud its bishops, priests, and internet bloggers raise the volume. Only the gospel itself, proclaimed with loving care and zeal, can restore the integrity and power of the Catholic Church’s moral witness. And this goes for the Orthodox Church, too.
Morality is the world’s business. One does not have to be a disciple of Jesus to recognize and prophetically speak against evil and wickedness. But only the Church can proclaim the good news of the resurrection of the Nazarene.
Pope Francis may be just the pope the Catholic Church, and perhaps the world, needs. We shall see.