Understanding Pope Francis: the focus is on process, not results

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 08, 2017

Two perceptive essays that appear on the First Things site, each offering a different sort of insight into the pastoral approach of Pope Francis, help the reader to understand this frequently puzzling papacy.

In the “Public Square” section of the magazine’s December issue, editor R. R. Reno argues: “Pope Francis and his associates want to sign a peace treaty with the sexual revolution.” At the heart of his essay (which can be found under the subhead “Bourgeois religion,” Reno provides the background for this charge:

Catholicism and other forms of establishment Christianity in the West tend to take the form of bourgeois religion. That term denotes the fusion of church culture with the moral consensus held by the good, respectable people who set the tone for society as a whole.

The views of “good respectable people” have been shifting steadily, Reno observes, and Church leaders have hustled to stay in step, trimming their principles to fit the latest fashions. With Pope Francis the retreat from principle has become unmistakable; the Pontiff regularly derides the “doctors of the law’ who upheld old truths in the face of new fads. Reno concludes this remarkable essay by remarking that it is “politically inept” for Church leaders to ally themselves with popular wisdom, particularly at a time when the liberal consensus that feeds that popular wisdom is breaking down.

In a separate piece, with the intriguing title “The Principled Ambivalence of Pope Francis,” Father Robert Imbelli takes a different approach to the Pontiff’s evident distaste for hard-and-fast moral judgments. Father Imbelli analyzes Evangelii Gaudium, concentrating on the principles that the Pope sets forth as critical to his thought, especially the koan-like maxim: “Time is greater than space.”

The meaning of that sentence is far from clear. But what it means to Pope Francis becomes a bit easier to understand, Father Imbelli notes, when one reads #223 of Evangelii Gaudium: “Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces.” [Italics in original] Here the “spaces” to which the Pope refers might be moral conclusions or doctrinal certainties, and his reference to “possessing” is a hint (if any further hint is needed) that he sees the desire for these spaces as suspect.

In other words, the consistent desire of Pope Francis is not to bring people to a particular conclusion, but—as he so often says—to accompany them on the journey. Father Imbelli’s analysis meshes neatly with Reno’s. The Pope is committed to dialogue with the secular world. In practice that means, as Reno puts it, leading a hierarchy that is ready to serve as “happy chaplains of the bourgeois,” because any direct questioning of the secular consensus might imperil the congenial dialogue. So the role of the Church, as Pope Francis sees it, is to serve the world’s people by accompanying them on their spiritual journeys. The question of where those journeys might end is not raised. The process is more important than the outcome.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Nov. 12, 2017 8:24 AM ET USA

    No process? If there is no process, there are only "states" or points of existence-good/bad, right/wrong, 'state of Grace'/'state of sin'. A digital concept of on/off. But how does one go from one state to another? How do you get the outcome without the process? And is there only one outcome or several along the path to freedom and sanctity? St. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, what did he mean by using "work out" in salvation context, "Work out your salvation in fear and trembling."?

  • Posted by: Comares - Nov. 11, 2017 6:13 PM ET USA

    There was a time when I on the European side of the Atlantic used to admire the Theology of the USA. If this website is anything to go by I no longer do so. There is a constant attack on Pope Francis. Thank God for a Pope that allows us to think and grow. Not since Paul VI have we had that.

  • Posted by: dmva9806 - Nov. 10, 2017 7:20 PM ET USA

    Marshall McLuhan (The medium is the message) proposed a similar idea many years ago. I really do not wish to accept that our Pope could be so shallow and oblivious to the clearly stated teaching of Jesus to the contrary. I hope he is just unable to express his teachings clearly or is somewhat confused. We elders do get that way, as I can personally attest.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Nov. 10, 2017 5:54 PM ET USA

    Bad news for the pope and those who follow him: God designed reality so that there are 2 eternal outcomes, and not just an existence consisting only of process. Casuistry has consequences.

  • Posted by: cchapman3385 - Nov. 08, 2017 3:15 PM ET USA

    The question then is: Who is accompanying whom?

  • Posted by: shrink - Nov. 08, 2017 3:00 PM ET USA

    Excellent summary of what we are observing. It reminded me of Carl Rogers, of humanistic psychology fame, who popularized the idea that "the process is more important than the outcome." It was this kind of thinking that ripped the concept of morality out of all discussions of sex, and replaced it with "consent".