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Reading Francis: The Furor Continues

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 02, 2013

In view of comments received, it seems I have no choice but to write something about Pope Francis’ interview with Eugenio Scalfari (or see the original Italian text), which appeared yesterday in the Italian daily La Repubblica. But I think I have to make a pact with my readers. We are under no obligation to follow the Pope’s every word; we are obliged to pay close attention only when he is exercising his Petrine ministry in relation to ourselves. On CatholicCulture.org, Phil Lawler and I have already suggested a number of keys to understanding the broader initiatives of this pope. He does give us plenty to think about. But it will not be fruitful to tie ourselves in knots every time Pope Francis makes a personal comment, or addresses himself directly to this or that person. So the pact I suggest is this: Let us take this interview in stride more rapidly than we did the last.

Full disclosure: I find Pope Francis challenging. I also thinks it is very much a part of Pope Francis’ style to be deliberately provocative. For most of us, this requires an adjustment to what we normally expect of popes. Apart from this, it bothers me just a bit that I am more or less forced by circumstances to write commentaries like this one. I have, after all, my own plans, and I have a deep (and profoundly unChristlike) attachment to my time! But God sometimes takes us out of our own plans, and when He does, it is usually wise to pay attention to the reasons. Perhaps learning to take a sensible view of Pope Francis is the most serious task we have before us today….

Note this phrase “most serious”. Pope Francis used the same words when he said that youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old were the “most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days.” That is a neuralgic point, so we will return to the phrase. But before we do, let us clear away some simpler matters.

An Initial Conversation with an Atheist

The first point to be made about this interview is that it is an initial spontaneous conversation with someone who regards himself as being at an opposite pole from Pope Francis, namely an atheist. Right away then, we must toss out our expectations for what the Pope should say if he were instructing the faithful or giving a thorough explanation of some doctrine. He can do that; he has already written an encyclical on the virtue of faith. But we need to recognize that (if we have any sense at all) we should speak to different people in different ways. And we should also be as generous as possible (again, if we have any sense at all) when discussing sensitive questions with someone who is more or less actively opposed to our religion.

We ought therefore to put on our “conversation-with-an-estranged-friend” glasses when we read this interview. We may, I suspect, presume that the Pope was mindful enough of the publicity it would receive to have undertaken it partly as an example of “Catholic dialogue” (which I will hereafter call “conversation", because “dialogue” has too much negative baggage). Now, in such a situation, which of us would not admit the unfortunate worldliness of the Church (in her members)? And which of us would not consider it a first step to acknowledge the importance for each person of attempting to pursue the good, even if his understanding of it is still quite limited? “That would be enough to make the world a better place,” the Pope observed, and there can be no question that he is right—even if much more will have to be said in the future conversations he told Eugenio Scalfari he hoped to have.

When we consider the interplay between the two men on the question of “conversion”, we see more of the proper method of effective conversation, which is to limit one’s immediate intentions to the opportunities of the moment. It is typically unwise to state our ultimate hopes at the outset. Enemies of the Church would call this recognition “Jesuitical”!

You’ll note, for example, that it is the Pope who introduces the question of conversion. From the start he wants this thought in Scalfari’s mind. Francis also wants Scalfari to know that the Pope regards proselytism as wrong (proselytism is undue or unfair pressure in making converts, and it is very wrong), and that he is content first to get to know Scalfari and to understand him. Yet the hook is clearly being set; there are little tugs throughout the conversation. They are very sensitive tugs, only slightly out of rhythm with the fish. (Strike too quickly, and the fish gets away!) The Pope assures Scalfari that grace is at work in his soul, even though he does not believe he has a soul. So Scalfari returns to the question of conversion and says “I do not think you would succeed.” Pope Francis does not press, but his response is still significant. He says: “We cannot know that.”

There is a human drama being played out here, and it is clearly the Pope’s intention that it be the human drama of Eugenio Scalfari. When enough time has been spent on the issue of “the Church”, Pope Francis makes an important move: “But now let me ask you a question: you, a secular non-believer in God, what do you believe in?” It is important for Eugenio Scalfari to explore the Church, Pope Francis seems to say, but it is also important for Eugenio Scalfari to explore Eugenio Scalfari—and for the Church to accompany him in that exploration.

A “Conservative” Translation

If an understanding of the “genre” of the text is important, so is a willingness to translate the Pope’s own modes of expression into modes with which some of us may be more comfortable. Let us assume here that most of my readers have what we call “conservative” tendencies. I already commented in an earlier essay that Pope Francis does not express himself in conservative categories: “He doesn’t seem to know the partisan shorthand; he refuses to speak in the secret code.” And why should he?

Sometimes we are so set in our own ways of expressing things that we begin to assume our ways are the only right ways, the ways essential to God Himself. This being the case, let me take three examples and translate them into “conservatese” in order to demonstrate how important it is to transcend the mere sound of words, to penetrate the heart of what is being said:

The first example: Scalfari suggests that it has been relatively rare in the history of the Church that it has not entangled political considerations in its mission, and the Pope says: “It has almost never been the case. Often the Church as an institution has been dominated by temporalism and many members and senior Catholic leaders still feel that way.”

Now, if we look back over the course of history, it is actually very hard to argue with this assessment. Let me also point out that even in our own lifetimes, as Catholic “conservatives” have complained again and again, bishops throughout the West (at least) have preoccupied themselves with politics to the detriment of the Church’s mission. How would a “conservative” express this? Like so:

Bishops have simply got to stop trying to be ‘players’ in the corridors of power. They also have to stop using the episcopal conferences to take prudential positions on everything under the sun. They need to preach the Gospel and teach moral principles. When it comes to politics, they need to get out of the way and let the laity do their job.

The second example: This example is very close to the first. The Pope and Scalfari have been discussing love, and Scalfari states that he thinks love for temporal power is still very strong within the Vatican walls and in the institutional structures of the whole Church. “I think,” he observes, “that the institution dominates the poor, missionary Church that you would like.” Pope Francis replies generously once again: “In fact, that is the way it is, and in this area you cannot perform miracles.”

How would a “conservative” Catholic say the very same thing? Like this: “The essential nature of the Church as bride and body of Christ is constantly obscured by the worldliness of her members, including her leaders. It is as St. John Chrysostom said: ‘The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.’”

The third example: Scalfari observes that Jesus taught that love for others is the only way to love God. Pope Francis replies: “Agape, the love of each one of us for the other, from the closest to the furthest, is in fact the only way that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes.”

Now a “conservative” Catholic is not going to like this very much. He is going to speak of the importance of forming conscience properly, of fulfilling our obligation to worship God, of prayer, and at least nominally of letting God work within us so that we can actually love with His love. All of these, of course, are essential if we are going to learn how to love and develop the capacity to love well. As Francis hinted in another place, “Someone who is not touched by grace may be a person without blemish and without fear, as they say, but he will never be like a person who has touched grace.”

But while the “conservative” Catholic may make a thousand distinctions (most of which will be nothing to the purpose for an atheist), he will in the end be forced grudgingly to cite the fourth letter of John: “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). He will also reflect on Our Lord’s vision of the Judgment in Mt 25:31-46: “As long as you did not do it to the least of these….”

What Is Most Important to Authentic Renewal?

Finally, we need to give serious consideration to Pope Francis’ vision of what is required for the authentic renewal of the Church, for what he says must be understood in light of this vision. The need for Church leaders (not to mention those of us who read Francis) to avoid “narcissism” and the need to eliminate servile flatterers (“courtiers”, “the court”) from the retinues of popes and bishops are definitely part of it. The need to have a Church administration that “is not just top-down but also horizontal”, including a greater use of “synods”, is also part of it. But for Francis such improvements are to be placed in the service of a Church characterized by humility, solidarity, mercy and service. These are transformational, and this theme recurs in almost everything Pope Francis says and writes, not just the interviews.

So now we return to the question of what is “most serious”, the consideration with which Eugenio Scalfari opened the published interview. Here is what he quotes Pope Francis as saying:

The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.

Of course Scalfari jumps on this, insisting that “it is largely a political and economic problem for states, governments, political parties, trade unions.” (And here any conservative would rightly fault Scalfari for being the leftist that he is, restricting human flourishing to politics, suggesting that trade unions can solve the problem of unemployment, and leaving out all other intermediary institutions as well as the need for virtue in all human systems.) But Pope Francis replies in his usual way, affirming but clarifying and adjusting the other’s initial perception: “Yes, you are right, but it is also concerns the Church, in fact, particularly the Church because this situation does not hurt only bodies but also souls. The Church must feel responsible for both souls and bodies.”

Now we can grant, I think, that any of us, including the pope, might stress one aspect of a thing as the most pressing problem at one moment, and another aspect of a thing as the most pressing problem at another, especially in informal speech. But in the context of the Church, we must ask what central thing is being viewed under these various aspects? The central thing envisioned in this opening text is, in fact, a direct challenge to Scalfari’s atheism:

[T]he problem is that they don’t even look for them [work and hope] any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this?

Can people go on as materialists, coming from nowhere and going nowhere? Can you, Eugenio Scalfari, live crushed under the weight of the present moment when it is all you have or will ever have? This, then, “is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.”

For Pope Francis, this problem is situated within a profoundly Catholic view of man, which is to say an incarnational view, a sacramental view, a view which embraces the whole person, body and soul, and insists that purpose and mercy are necessary for both if man is to avoid despair.

Conclusion

I know, I know. It is easy to make jokes about the Pope thinking unemployment is the most important problem in the world. If this were a quiz show, very few readers of CatholicCulture.org would guess that answer! But for Francis this is just an angle of vision into a far deeper problem, which also applies to the elderly, who are no longer looking for work, no longer useful, and are isolated and neglected, often without either faith or hope, with no Christian solidarity through which they can experience the Presence of the Living God.

If we have eyes, then let us see. And please, please, let us also learn to read. For Pope Francis, the way to renewed strength for the mission of the Catholic Church is for Catholics at every level to identify with all those in need, to live in genuine solidarity with them, and to invite them as friends into the rich life of faith, hope and love offered by the Mystical Body of Christ. This idea should not be completely new to our readers. CatholicCulture.org has stressed repeatedly, especially over the past few years, that they key to cultural renewal is for Catholics to depoliticize and “begin again to provide the kind of generous and deeply personal service to those in need that turns heads and changes hearts” (see, most recently, Public Life and Godly Mission: What Are the First Things Today?).

We are not talking here of merely secular service, the service of the body, according to whatever cultural and political fashions are current year by year, and neither is Pope Francis. He is talking about a deeply incarnational commitment of the members of the Church of Christ—a commitment that seeks genuine solidarity first and foremost with those who are both materially and spiritually deprived. We ought to ask what the Church might look like a generation or two from now if her members could transform themselves in a truly incarnational vision such as this. What if the Church could live her essential identity more effectively both horizontally and vertically, fully responsible and fully engaged in every diocese and parish, responsive to but not generally dependent upon specific instructions from Rome? Do we assume this would weaken the Church? Might it not instead reverse a progressive weakening that has been going on now for centuries?

I suppose there are other aspects of the interview which might raise eyebrows. I suppose also that we will remain anxious about the number of people, including too many within the Church, who are so eager to cite the Pope superficially to justify their own worldliness. But it must not be so with us; therefore, to use Pope Benedict’s term, I am trying to provide the right “hermeneutic”, the right framework for interpretation of a pope who not only gives interviews but preaches very pointed homilies; who not only insists on the full gospel message but condemns abortion; who not only embraces all men and women but upholds the importance of sound and patient catechesis; who not only insists that every level of the Church live up to its mission but is willing to excommunicate Catholic leaders who deny that this Catholic mission is, in fact, the mission of Christ.

In closing, let me say again that I would not insist that Pope Francis always identify exactly the same specific symptom as the “most serious”; indeed, I would expect his way of talking about the larger problems we face to vary significantly in different settings and at different times. This pope is not primarily a scholar, and he seldom employs the scholar’s academic precision. Neither does Scripture. Do not expect, then, to hear me laughing at anything he may say about particular symptoms, considering the vision and grace which animate his selections. We all have many things to learn, and many ways to grow. The more deeply we go, the more surely we recognize that everything leads back to Christ. Sometimes, unfortunately, we can make this leading to Christ more difficult than it needs to be.

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Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 08, 2013 5:33 PM ET USA

    To Randal Mandock: Here it is necessary to recognize from the context that what the Pope intended to convey is not properly represented by the words used in English. It is unthinkable that he was trying to discredit Pope John Paul II. As soon as I read it, I realized that the sense of what he was trying to convey was that the Pope highlighted the political aspect (which aspect was erroneous) but that some of the theologians were nonetheless sincere Christians, which is true.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 08, 2013 2:57 PM ET USA

    You did not comment in this article about the Pope's reply to the two questions about liberation theology. The topic I chose for the research presentation of the social justice phase of my training for the diaconate was liberation theology in the Caribbean Basin. Most everything I read that was written by liberation theologians and their critics made it plain that it was the liberation theologians who "gave a political aspect to their theology," not Pope John Paul II's fight against them.

  • Posted by: penitentis13036 - Oct. 05, 2013 8:29 AM ET USA

    I deeply appreciate your analysis and insight into the Pope's handling of Scalfari. To me, this is Christ personally addressing the woman at the well, as well as every sinner he ever met, exactly where they are at that moment: "Can you, Eugenio Scalfari, live crushed under the weight of the present moment when it is all you have or will ever have?" This is truly the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Oct. 05, 2013 5:45 AM ET USA

    Thank you Jeff. I am old Aussie "Mick" who grew up during the time when the local Church put emphasis on social justice issues (1950s-60s). I was a YCW leader and became very much involved in the community as a whole and have remained so most of my life. To me Pope Francis talks a language I understand and identify with. I was a great admirer of PJ2 and respected B16 but PF is in many ways going back to basics of Jesus and his message I learnt in the 50s and early 60s as applied in society.

  • Posted by: ramonantonio3455448 - Oct. 04, 2013 10:17 PM ET USA

    Very good reflection. I think it is time to put in context some basic premises about Pope Francis that the American public and specially some Catholic leaders have to acknowledge. Pope Francis is an Argentinian Jesuit bishop. He is not from Europe nor from Italy less. So he is totally alien in customs and style. Then he is also Hispanic which also marks an oceanic difference in social exchange. Simply put, Francis is a talker, a conversation oriented prelate and now Pope. As Jesus was...

  • Posted by: jjanaro7324 - Oct. 04, 2013 8:11 PM ET USA

    Jeff, you have been a voice of faith and reason, common sense and love for the Church for almost 40 years in many different forms of Catholic media. Thank you, Jeff. May Our Lord continue to give you the wisdom and the strength to do His will. THANK YOU, JEFF!

  • Posted by: meor2day8658 - Oct. 04, 2013 7:54 PM ET USA

    We should not have to be interpreting what the Poep says week in & week out. Clear, concise & articulate speaking so the flock can understand & not be confused is what the good Lord intended for all of us on how to communicate. "Let your yes be yes & your no be no." God is not the author of confusion.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 03, 2013 11:08 PM ET USA

    Perhaps we should "accuse" Jesus of "being deceptive" because He was "so human?" I think not. The Trinity had every right to veil "Power" in flesh...Let him who has the grace, like the "good thief." puzzle out what is behind the curtain.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Oct. 03, 2013 12:34 PM ET USA

    This is as thoughtful an example of doing the difficult objective and subjective work of reading well as one is likely to find in these days of instant comment. The example it sets goes beyond the present topic, though I do commend this particular discussion for everyone's reflections.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 03, 2013 8:20 AM ET USA

    This from one who has been willing to criticize Francis: what he's up to IS dangerous, but maybe it's what has to be done. We see the spiritual devastation all around us. Our tactics to date haven't worked well. Remember the old Korean war movie? Our guys on a hill outnumbered by Chinese? The US commander places an M-1 rifle inside a bazooka and fires a few rounds. The Chinese flee thinking the GIs have a cannon. West Point doctrine? No, but it works. Maybe Francis knows it's time to improvise.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Oct. 02, 2013 5:22 PM ET USA

    Francis is playing a dangerous game. He is, as you note, deliberately provocative in order to get the "world" to look at the Church again. However, he is deceiving his secular audience. He wants them to think something other than what he really believes. This is a bait and switch approach. As someone on this site observed, his pontificate is heading down the path of Pius IX's which started out as a darling of the dominant culture but ended a detested enemy of it.

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