Pope Francis answers: Part inspiration, part frustration, so how can we grow spiritually?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 12, 2019

On the whole, I recommend to pope-watchers a close reading of Francis’ responses to questions raised by journalists on his flight from the capital of Madagascar back to Rome. These informal exchanges often present challenges, because Pope Francis has great difficulty speaking precisely. But they also shed light on the broad issues that concern him and the Christian attitudes that are closest to his heart. In this case, our source is the Vatican News service, and not some third-party journalist.

In responding to these questions, the Pope said much about peace in the interactions among the various peoples of the world, about care for the environment, about the difference between evangelization and proselytism, and about the closely-related issues of personal criticism, ideology, schism, and rigidity. In his typical manner, he said far more about offenses against what we might call warmth and flexibility than about the role of truth in directing our loves properly. As a rule, this is the chief difficulty presented by Pope Francis’ witness to the Gospel: That he refuses to clarify the importance of truth in productive human exchanges.

This, of course, is symptomatic of the modern spirit. We moderns tend to be far more concerned with getting along than with getting things right, forgetting that getting things wrong almost always makes it either impossible or fruitless to get along. Nonetheless—as I have often said in commenting on this pope’s constant themes—it can also be a very beneficial exercise to take up and apply the points he makes to whatever aspects of our own outlook might need correction, and also to more clearly identify truths that cry out for reaffirmation. Why bother? Because this is the best way to grow spiritually in response to the ministry of imperfect pastors, especially when they are poor teachers.

To do this with Pope Francis, one thing we need to recognize at the outset—despite many papal comments which suggest the contrary—is that “commitment to truth” and “rigidity” are not the same thing. If they were, the One who said “I am the way, the truth and the life” was not a witness to His Father but a sanctimonious fool.

Socio-political reflections

In any case, there are several portions of the interview which admirably demonstrate Pope Francis’ highly personal style. Let us begin with the political, with affairs of the public order. In response to Julio Mateus Manjate (Noticias, Mozambique), who asked about the peace process in his country, Francis responded in part:

I would like to thank all those who helped in this…starting with the first, with a cup of coffee… We must not be triumphalistic in these areas. Triumph is peace. We do not have the right to be triumphalistic because peace is still fragile in your country, just as it is fragile in the world. It needs to be treated in the same way that newly born things are treated, like children, with much, much tenderness, with delicacy, with forgiveness, with patience, in order to make it grow and make it strong.

Here the Pope was referring to a cultural and political progress embraced by rival parties and even rival peoples within Mozambique, and not about any decisive conflict between right and wrong. His remarks should be taken to heart in communities—and within families—around the world. In fact, when asked about both xenophobia and the problem of youth, he addressed the personal selfishness which lies at the heart of a refusal to act in peace toward others. And he did so by citing what he clearly regards as a parallel problem, namely, the demographic winter in Europe:

I think that well-being is at the root. Being attached to well-being—“We are comfortable, I am not having children because I need to buy a villa, I want to go on holiday, I’m fine like this”…. But this well-being and tranquility is something that will age you…. Children are the treasure of the poor. But they are the treasure of a homeland, of a country….

In this context, he emphasized the priority of making education freely available for all, and he called attention to the pervasive problem of xenophobia (which might better be called simply prejudice), which sets one group against another. He continued:

[B]ut in Africa, you, too, have a cultural problem…. There you must educate in order to bring together different tribes, to create a nation…. We must fight against this: both the xenophobia of one country towards another, and the internal xenophobia, which in the case of some places in Africa and along with tribalism, leads to tragedies such as that of Rwanda.

In response to a related question from Maria Fredeline Ratovarivelo (Radio Don Bosco, Madagascar), Francis linked the problem of the family with the problem of poverty in Africa and insisted that the State must take responsibility for fostering a common good which can sustain the family and young people:

I repeat, for a family, having a child is a treasure. And you have this awareness, you have awareness of treasure. But now it is necessary that all of society have the awareness to make this treasure grow, to make the country grow, to make the homeland grow, to make the values that give sovereignty to the country grow.

Here the Pope’s thoughts—however many debates there may be over the precise methods and priorities of the State in securing the common good—are clearly rooted in the natural law, which is the primary way God reveals to us the difference between right and wrong.

There followed a question from Jean Luc Mootoosamy (Radio One, Mauritius) about the return of the Chagossians to their Archipelago, which they had been forced to abandon by the United Kingdom. The United Nations issued a resolution on this which has (according to the correspondent) been rendered void by the UK and the USA. In response, the Pope insisted on the importance of international bodies, and of the need to abide by their prudential decisions, and then made the following observations about various forms of imperialism:

When…the occupying State has to leave…there is always the temptation to leave with something in the pocket. Yes, I give freedom to this people…but from the ground up, what’s underneath remains mine…. There is always this temptation…. But there are [also] ideological colonializations that want to enter into the popular culture and change those cultures and homogenize humanity…. True globalization is not a sphere, it is a polyhedron where each people preserves their own identity but is united to all of humanity…. The identity of peoples needs to be respected.

To close this section I will treat very lightly here a question raised later about the exploitation of the environment, by Cristina Cabrejas (from the Spanish Agencia EFE). In response, Pope Francis spoke eloquently not only of the need to avoid an exploitative mentality (“How much am I getting out of it?”) but to recall how frequently people are exploited along with nature. He stated: “This happens in Africa, in Latin America and also in Europe”, through such abuses as oppressively low wages, human trafficking, and prostitution. “[T]here is this type of exploitation,” the Pope said, “not only environmental, but also human. And this is corrupt. And when corruption is within the heart, get ready, because anything is possible.”

Evangelization, proselytism and truth

In this context, the Holy Father immediately proceeded to address the problem of evangelization, which sheds light on his frequent attempt to distinguish true evangelization from a selfish proselytism:

That is, to evangelize is what we read about in the book of the Acts of the Apostles: testifying. And that testimony provokes the question: “But why do you live like this? Why do you do this?” And then I explain: “Because of the Gospel.” ...First, live like a Christian and if they ask you, speak. Testifying is the first step and the protagonist of evangelization is not the missionary but the Holy Spirit who leads Christians and missionaries to bear witness. Then questions will come or won’t come, but what counts is the witness of life.

In contrast, Francis said, “It is important to avoid proselytism. When you see religious proposals that follow the path of proselytism, they are not Christian. They are looking for converts, not worshippers of God in truth.” Despite a certain (again typical) lack of clarity, it is possible to grasp the Holy Father’s point and take it to heart. At the same time, “witness” necessarily involves not just actions, but words, lest we identify salvation with works, and then fall into the trap of doing only those “good things” that are welcomed by the dominant culture. When that happens, we fail to serve as living instruments of grace.

We also need to remember that the Gospel is first if all Good News, a message from God to be announced to everyone. Our Lord Himself insisted that his disciples proclaim that the Kingdom of God has drawn near, with all the hope and joy it offers. In his own emphasis, clearly, Pope Francis has most often provided only one piece of a much larger puzzle, and so has frequently distorted the picture, as he did here.

But he recognized the importance of speaking the truth elsewhere in the Q&A session. In his next response, to a different question from Cristina Cabrejas—a question about the nature and role of the dissemination of information in the future—Pope Francis emphasized that, whatever the forms, the key constant for communication must be faithfulness to reality:

[T]he capacity to transmit a fact, and to distinguish it from the story, from the report…. The fact is important, and always to be close to the fact. Even in the Curia, I see it: there is a fact and then everyone embellishes it with something that is their own…. So the communicator’s discipline is always to return to the fact, to report the fact, and then to give my interpretation…, distinguishing the fact from what is reported…. Whatever the means of communications, the guarantee is fidelity.

Then he concluded: “Secondly, communication needs to be human, and by saying human, I mean constructive, that is, it needs to be beneficial to the other.” How often would each of us change what we say and write if we would only keep this imperative firmly in mind?

Criticism, dialogue and schism

At this point, something recently prominent in the news took center stage in the question raised by Jason Drew Horowitz (The New York Times). Horowitz alluded to Francis’ acknowledgement that he was under attack by a segment of the American Church, and noted that the Pope’s allies have spoken of a plot against him: “Is there something that these critics do not understand about your pontificate? Is there something that you have learned from your critics? Are you afraid of a schism in the American Church?”

To this Francis replied by mentioning the book which he had been given which sparked the controversy, a book “in French on how the Americans want to change the Pope.” He said he knew about the book but had not read it, and pointed out that “criticisms are not coming only from Americans, they are coming a bit from everywhere, even from the Curia.” He went on:

At least those that say them [criticisms] have the benefit of the honesty of having said them. I do not like it when criticism stays under the table: they smile at you letting you see their teeth and then they stab you in the back. That is not fair, it is not human. Criticism is a component in construction, and if your criticism is unjust, be prepared to receive a response, and get into dialogue, and arrive to the right conclusion. This is the dynamic of true criticism…[not] like throwing the stone and then hiding your hand.

For a stern analysis of this response in the context of Francis’ entire pontificate, see Phil Lawler’s commentary, “A Pope who doesn’t fear schism may cause one”. I am considering another angle here, drawn exclusively from the transcript of the inflight Q&A.

Francis affirmed that it is fair to say openly what we do not like about the Pope’s approach to problems, about his goals and policies. But “to criticize without wanting to hear a response and without getting into dialogue is not to have the good of the Church at heart, it is chasing after a fixed idea, to change the Pope or to create a schism.” Each reader will have to discern whether Pope Francis meant it when he continued: “This is clear: a fair criticism is always well received, at least by me.” I suppose it depends in part on whether we ascribe fairness only to criticisms we personally think are legitimate. But a man is a poor judge in his own case, which is probably why the saints have always welcomed even unfair criticism.

In any case, having associated some forms of criticism with schism, Francis next alluded to the constant threat of schism within the Church. As an example, he mentioned the schism following Vatican I, in which the Old Catholic Church split off when papal infallibility was defined, “so as to remain ‘true’ to the tradition of the Church.” Then, he said:

[The Old Catholics] developed differently and now they ordain women. But in that moment they were rigid, they rallied behind orthodoxy and thought that the council had erred…. Vatican II had these things among its consequences. Perhaps the most well-known post-conciliar split is that of Lefebvre. In the Church there is always the option for schism, always. But it is an option that the Lord leaves to human freedom. I am not afraid of schisms, I pray that there will be none, because what is at stake is people’s spiritual health. Let there be correction if there is an error, but the schismatic path is not Christian.

Francis concluded his response to this question by offering an example of how the Catholic faithful often ensure that the bishops take the right path. But it is an exceedingly odd example:

And when there was a discussion in the Council of Ephesus regarding Mary’s divine maternity, the people…were at the entrance of the cathedral while the bishops entered to take part in the Council. They were there with clubs. They made the bishops see them as they shouted, “Mother of God! Mother of God!”, as if to say: if you do not do this, this is what you can expect.

This may be less an example of the sensus fidelium than of mob rule, but if it does not plant an unintended seed in the minds of the faithful today, I do not know what will!

Finally, wrapping up this discussion, Francis returned to one of his favorite (and most vexing) themes:

Ideologies enter into doctrine and when doctrine slips into ideology that’s where there’s the possibility of schism. There’s the ideology of the primacy of a sterile morality regarding the morality of the people of God. The pastors must lead their flock between grace and sin, because this is evangelical morality. Instead, a morality based on such a Pelagian ideology leads you to rigidity, and today we have many schools of rigidity within the Church, which are not schisms, but pseudo-schismatic Christian developments that will end badly. When you see rigid Christians, bishops, priests, there are problems behind that, not Gospel holiness.

Well, there can be no question that heresies and schisms result when ideologies—fixed interpretive lenses which are not of God—dominate either faith or morals, and that these often manifest themselves in a false understanding of either Scripture or Tradition, of which only the Magisterium of the Church can competently judge. But despite his many excellent observations, Francis leaves us once again with no clear examples of what he could possibly mean by this sterile moral rigidity to which he so frequently refers. On this point, as usual, he leaves us only with significant misgivings.

For he is not talking about such malleable realities as liturgical preferences or even about Catholic social teaching, which admits of prudential application, but about morality itself—about the fundamental difference between good and evil. And in our time, the derisive term “rigidity” is used primarily by relativists to dismiss the life-changing demands made by the apostles, the inspired authors of the New Testament, and the Gospel itself—demands that we are all called to believe we can meet through the grace offered by Jesus Christ.

A deep awareness of reality is important to reading others in a beneficial way, despite their shortcomings. It is precisely this sort of attentive listening that enables us to grow spiritually, no matter what we hear Pope Francis say.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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