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The key to understanding Pope Francis: the 99 lost sheep

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 20, 2013

If the Pope’s main responsibility is to keep us all comfortable, then Pope Francis is failing miserably.

But that’s not really the Pope’s job, is it?

For the past several weeks—and more than ever in the past 24 hours, since the release of the Pope’s blockbuster interview in America-- friends have been complaining that the Holy Father has a tendency to say things in a way that could cause confusion. He makes statements that the media can easily distort, they say. And they’re undoubtedly right.

But there’s a precedent for that way of speaking. Jesus made people uncomfortable. The Lord’s words and gestures were often misinterpreted, and his critics found it easy to put things in an unfavorable light. Jesus ate with tax-collectors and sinners, they charged; He didn’t show sufficient respect for the Law. Now the Vicar of Christ is subject to similar accusations. Somehow it fits.

Would it be better, really, if the Pope limited himself to statements that could not possibly be distorted? Should he stop trying to make subtle distinctions, or making new observations about controversial topics? That would be a form of self-censorship: shaping the message to suit the media. Far better, I think for the Pope to speak frankly, telling the truth in and out of season, letting the chips fall where they may.

Yes, the media will distort the message. They will pretend, as far as they can, that Pope Francis has changed the fundamental message of the Church. But sooner or later that ploy will fail, because the Pope will say something directly contrary to the message the media have attributed to him.

In this case, it didn’t take too long. The ink wasn’t dry on all the stories alleging that the Pope wanted to hear less talk about abortion, when the Pope himself delivered a blistering indictment of the “throwaway culture” that denigrates the value of human life. “Every unborn child unjustly condemned to be aborted has the face of Jesus Christ,” the Pope told a group of doctors today.

Those who read the Pope’s interview carefully, rather than relying on sensational and simplistic interpretations, realize that he did not say anything terribly new. His style of speech, his approach to issues, is unfamiliar. But the content of his message is the familiar teaching of the Catholic Church.

Oddly enough, outsiders and even some of the Pope’s critics recognized that he had not endorsed the changes in doctrine that they longed for. The Washington Post acknowledged that the interview contained no new teachings. Damon Linker, writing in the New Republic, sounded forlorn as he observed: “The interview contains no sign that the Pope is willing to budge on any of the items on the progressive Catholic wish-list of reforms.”

Here we have an odd phenomenon: While the Pope is allegedly trying to downplay unpopular Church teachings, the very critics of those teachings are emphasizing them! Dissident Catholics are anxious to exploit the Pope’s words, to argue that we no longer need to oppose legal abortion and same-sex marriage. But critics of the Church are, in effect, reining in the dissenters, reminding them that the Church still does oppose abortion and homosexual activities. One way or another, as Pope Francis observed, the teachings of the Church on these issues are well known.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis said (emphasis added).” He did not say that we should be silent. Later he added that “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time (emphasis added again). The Pope’s key observation fell between those two sentences, when he said: “But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”

It is the context, then—not the controversial issues themselves—that concerns the Pontiff. He does not want the Church to hammer away on points that are already well known. He sees a problem of diminishing returns. The people who are disposed to accept the Church’s teachings are already convinced; those who are hostile to those teachings are no longer listening. We need to find new ways to reach them.

And we can reach them, the Pope promises, if we return to the fundamental truths of Christian faith. “A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation,” he told his Jesuit interviewer. Someone who accepts the essential truth of the Gospel, someone who sees the route to salvation, might then be open to hearing more about Catholic moral teaching. On the other hand, those who disregard the essentials—those who have come to see the Church as merely a political structure, imposing old rules—are unlikely to be persuaded by one more iteration of the arguments.

(By the way, some of my friends have argued, with ample justification, that the Pope is simply wrong to say that the Church has spoken out too often about abortion, homosexuality, and contraception. In fact, my friends observe, bishops and priests have been conspicuously silent on those issues. That is sadly, undeniably true. Yet still the Pope has a point. Bishops and priests do not constitute the Church. We are the Church—you and I, as well as the bishops and priests and religious. Have we, you and I, sometimes taken pleasure in denouncing an evil, when it would have been more effective, and more charitable, to say something about God’s merciful love? I, for one, plead guilty to that charge.)

Is this a radically new message? Not at all! Pope Benedict XVI frequently said that the faith is not a matter of accepting intellectual propositions, but a matter of making a commitment to Christ. Pope John Paul II admonished the faithful that our job, as missionaries in a secular world, is to help our neighbors “see the face of Christ.” This remains the fundamental challenge of evangelization: to bring people to Christ. With the help of grace, their behavior might change after they embrace the faith—not before.

So why are so many faithful Catholics upset by what the Pope has said? Because he has abandoned Church teaching? No. Because he has said something very new? No. Many of my friends, I fear, are disturbed because the Pope’s approach—his cajoling tone, his irenic line of thought—might give aid and comfort to the enemy. Yet that’s dangerous for a Christian, isn’t it—to think of people as enemies?

By now we all know people—friends, neighbors, relatives, colleagues—who have procured abortions, or who are active homosexuals, or live in irregular marital situations. How do we treat these people? Too often, I fear, we try to ignore them, or at least ignore their problems. We could do better.

But how can we help them? It will not help, in most cases, to keep telling them that their behavior is immoral. They have tuned out that message. But maybe, with patience and prayer, we can help them to recognize the grace of God, to see the power of the Gospel, to accept the message of mercy that Pope Francis emphasizes at every opportunity. A friend may be willing to confront his own sin, as soon as he realizes that a loving God is ready to forgive him.

A few weeks ago I wrote in this space to support John Allen’s suggestion that Pope Francis should be known as the “Pope of Mercy.” Let me now sharpen that suggestion, by pointing to one statement that strikes me as the hermeneutical key to understanding the pastoral approach taken by this surprising new Pontiff.

In June, in a talk to an ecclesiastical congress of the Rome diocese, Pope Francis recalled the story of the Good Shepherd, who leaves his 99 sheep to search for one that is lost. Then he suggested that in today’s secular culture, the shepherds of the Catholic Church confront a very different problem. “It’s the 99 who we’re missing!” he said. “In this culture, let’s face it, we have only 1. We are the minority!”

The pastor of a Catholic church has several challenges that he must approach simultaneously: encouraging good Catholics to become better Catholics; encouraging indifferent Catholics to become good Catholics; encouraging lapsed Catholics to become active; and encouraging non-Catholics to enter the Church. Ordinarily the pastor works first with the active Catholics—with those who are already in the pews—hoping to form a cadre that will help him evangelize others. That was certainly the approach taken by Benedict XVI, who testified to the power of a “creative minority” in the Church and in the world.

Pope Francis, however, sees a need for a more drastic approach. The sheep are leaving the fold; the 99 are already lost! So he has devoted his first attentions to the outsiders; he speaks constantly of bringing the Gospel to those “on the periphery.” As a young Jesuit, he wanted to be a missionary. As things turned out he never served in distant lands, but he brought a missionary outlook to his work in Buenos Aires, and now he has brought it to Rome.

More to the point, Pope Francis has brought his missionary outlook to you and to me. He wants us to join him in the task of bringing the Gospel to the “periphery,” telling our neighbors about God’s infinite mercy, proclaiming the joyful news of salvation. He’s asking us to do things that, frankly, we are not always comfortable doing.

Yes, the Pope makes me uncomfortable. As well he should.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: lak321 - Nov. 08, 2013 10:07 PM ET USA

    bveritas, the Pope is continuing the work begun by pope Benedict with the LCWR, and at least one dissenting priest has been laicized. But that does not make the news much.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Nov. 06, 2013 6:30 PM ET USA

    I know the Pope say much that is good, but there is, nonetheless, a disturbing imbalance in his thought. Where is there any condemnation of theologians and feminist nuns who support abortion? Where is there wisdom in his remarks that there would would be little conflict in the world were it not for the arms makers? Where or when has he apologized for his absurd remarks about Israel?

  • Posted by: - Oct. 04, 2013 8:19 PM ET USA

    It gets tiresome to keep explaining that he knows what he is doing, he has the big picture, there is a good reason for what he says, we are misinterpreting, we are upset, we are not comfortable, that these things are our problem and so forth. All these apologia are wearing thin. When you get right down to it, each sentence that is said must stand on its own. It is not about our comfort. It is about what is true. We are not subjectivists and this defense of the pope should not be necessary.

  • Posted by: AJA - Sep. 25, 2013 5:46 AM ET USA

    Another key to understanding the Popes "Big Interview" might be the parable of the Prodigal Son. We can see the lapsed as the younger son, setting off for a distant land (secularism, materialism). He ultimately realizes that this life fails to satisfy, and is aware that "even my father's servants have plenty to eat". The knowledge of the Father's love is what brings him home,not the disapproval of his older brother.The lapsed need to see joy in those who stay close to the Church

  • Posted by: impossible - Sep. 23, 2013 12:57 AM ET USA

    Consider comparing the rhetoric applied to the 1400 allegedly poisoned in Syria by one side or the other to the millions of babies killed by abortion. Our Pope seems to have a tendency of putting his foot in his mouth. The people in the pews, at least the 25% to 33% still there, could well understand basic Catholic teachings if they were presented with courage and clarity. Best to leave the nuances to the theologians.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 22, 2013 7:23 PM ET USA

    “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.’ It seems to me that Pope Francis uses language that appears to discredit the work of his predecessors.

  • Posted by: oakes.spalding7384 - Sep. 21, 2013 12:44 AM ET USA

    There are more and more "white martyrs" even in the still relatively free United States. You refuse to actively be an accessory to grave sin (baking a wedding cake for a gay couple, or whatever) and so your business is destroyed or you lose your job. But perhaps that was YOUR fault for being "insistent" on one of those "less than equal" doctrines the Pope speaks of. Perhaps you're an ideologue, guilty of not putting things in their full context. No. Christ's servants deserve the Pope's support.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 21, 2013 12:03 AM ET USA

    Thank you.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Sep. 20, 2013 5:31 PM ET USA

    If you are right, Phil, then 2 truths impose themselves: 1. The media are full of people who simply cannot understand anything, and 2. the pews are also full of people who can't understand what they are hearing. But I get suspicious when told that few on either side of a proposition really understand what a speaker meant. I rather suspect the problem is with the speaker, not with 90% of his listeners. Perhaps Francis' words could do with more balance, something he says he wants in the Church.

  • Posted by: Hal - Sep. 20, 2013 4:14 PM ET USA

    Thank you. This makes more sent to me than anything else I have read over the last two days.