The Pope’s Priorities: An Opportunity for Evangelical Clarity

America Magazine | Published on September 26, 2013

By Stephen P. White

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In his interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro—the interview—Pope Francis emphasized one point above all others. “The most important thing,” Pope Francis insists, “is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” For one who encounters this improbable, earth-shattering reality—the unfathomable gratuity of God’s mercy—everything changes. It is the Good News that all Christians are to proclaim to the world.

This is the key to understanding Pope Francis. And it is the key for reading an interview that has, obviously, elicited a flood of commentary, but which has also produced a lot of confusion. That the interview sparked a wide-ranging discussion is a very good thing; the confusion we could do without. Much of the commentary, and virtually all of the confusion, arose from Pope Francis’ remarks about the church’s moral doctrine, particularly, this sentence: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” The fact that so much attention has been paid to the pope’s remarks about these very issues is itself an indication that “the most important thing” the church has to say to the world is not being heard.

The obvious question is, “Why not?”

Christ promised His followers that the world would reject them as it had rejected Him. One reason the world doesn’t hear the Good News, as Pope Francis is intent on reminding us, is that the Father of Lies never ceases to so sow discord and confusion. Sometimes the confusion arises because the world is obstinate, sinful and full of pride. Sometimes it is because the world is simply ignorant of the truth. And sometimes the world’s ignorance and sin is compounded by the impatience, pride and ignorance of Christians like us.

In the case of the recent interview, some of the confusion can be traced to Christians who, in rushing to spin the interview as a decisive victory for this or that political faction, shoe-horned the pope’s words to fit narrow partisan categories, distorting them in the process. This unfortunate, if all-too-predictable, distraction found a counterpart in a hyper-defensiveness that in some cases, frankly, demonstrated an insecurity unbecoming for Christian adults—as though the pope’s professing to having “never been a right-winger” (by the standards of 1980s Argentina, no less!) was somehow cause for legitimate anxiety about the integrity of Catholic doctrine.

Such food fights, often arising along the old fault between Catholics who identify with left and right wing politics, were magnified by the secular media whose reporting on the interview, on the whole, showed a certain credulity toward some of the more unhinged readings of pope’s words. (One example: the day after the interview was published here in America, the Associated Press reported Pope Francis’ pro-life exhortations to a group of Catholic physicians as a “bizarre U-turn” that “directly contradict[ed]” the position the pope had laid out in the interview.)

There were other grumblings, too, coming from both the port and starboard berths on Peter’s Barque; each side’s grumblings reinforcing the suspicions of the other. Coming from the “right” these grumblings served to reinforce the suspicions of the “left” that the grumblers suffer from precisely those unsavory, “self-referential” tendencies Pope Francis has been imploring Catholics to avoid. Coming from the “left” these grumblings gave a different impression—buttressing the suspicions of the “right” that a mere change in tone or shift in emphasis was simply not enough; what the “left” really desired was a wholesale referendum on sacred teaching. Neither suspicion was wholly unfounded.

In light of all the confusion, respectful suggestions that the pope might do well to be more judicious in his choice of words were not without merit. The pope himself anticipated a critique along these lines, admitting, in perhaps the most unintentionally humorous part of the interview, that he can be “a bit naïve,” and is a “really, really undisciplined person.”

But all of the confusion that has arisen in the aftermath of the interview, while not particularly edifying in itself, does present an opportunity for some evangelical clarity. (As Pope Francis has said, we shouldn’t be afraid of creating a bit of a mess from time to time.)

It should be perfectly clear to all of us that the church is seen to be concerned primarily with certain moral doctrines and that these doctrines are often seen to be arbitrary or “disjointed,” as the pope put it.

To a Catholic in the pew, who rarely, if ever, hears a homily about abortion, contraception or gay-marriage, it may not seem like the church is preoccupied with such issues. And rooted as they are in the truth about man, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, these teachings are anything but disjointed and arbitrary.

But would anyone deny that “a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently” is precisely how the world (and far too many Catholics, for that matter) perceives the church’s moral teachings? And can anyone deny—given the overwhelming evidence all over this “battlefield” on which we find ourselves—that, unmoored from their unifying foundations, the church’s moral teachings are “like a house of cards?” This is true, not just for the church’s teachings on “those issues,” but also for her solicitude for the poor, the immigrant, the sick and all the least of these. As Pope Francis pointed out in his first homily as bishop of Rome, unless we proclaim Christ, “We may be a compassionate NGO, but we are not the Church, the Bride of the Lord.”

Those who would defend the church’s moral teachings—on “those issues” and all the rest—would do well to proclaim, first and above all else, the love of God in the person of Jesus Christ. “The proposal of the Gospel,” Pope Francis said, “must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

As a different bishop of Rome wrote, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.” Peter’s successor is now asking us to do the same. It’s an old idea, true, but a very good one.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.