Ten Bullets on Francis’ Recalibration of Church Engagement

A few loosely organized thoughts on Francis’ recent interview with America magazine, “A Big Heart Open to God.”

Francis did not speak about changes to Church doctrine.

This point has been made by most conservative Catholic commentators in response to Francis’ interview.  And it’s true.  Francis did not imply there are any doctrinal shifts forthcoming on issues such as gay marriage or women priests.  He also strongly condemned abortion while speaking to a group of gynecologists the day after the interview was published.  Catholics hoping for swift changes to the Church’s official policies on these issues should temper their enthusiasm.

But that doesn’t mean nothing has changed.

Although Francis did not announce any modifications of core Church principles, the tone and content of his interview suggests a change of direction in how the Church approaches culture war issues.  This new focus underscores a potentially transformative shift in the Church’s ability to engage in dialogue with a broader scope of peoples and cultures.  Francis is placing a greater emphasis on how the Church can act as a steward to help people find “daily sanctity” as they navigate the confusing, painful, and disappointing annals of daily life.  He is also focusing more on the pastoral role of the Church and placing greater importance on helping the poor and afflicted.

We can see a recalibration of sorts taking shape in Pope Francis’ commentary.  The central themes he discusses of love and helping the poor have always been a part of Church teaching, but he makes a point to contrast these against how the Church has recently (fairly or unfairly) been perceived as focusing on things like homosexuality and contraception.  Perhaps this contrast will be a continuing element of Francis’ papacy.  “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” he tells interviewer Antonio Sparado, S.J.  Inclusiveness is the order of the day, with a heightened focus on “the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more.”

I found the Pope’s anecdote about the mother who had an abortion to be a particularly tender manifestation of this idea:

I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

The quote indicates a refreshingly realistic look (from the highest post of the Church!) at the realities and consequences of living in an imperfect world.  The Pope’s story focuses on helping the woman reconcile her decisions in order to find greater peace in her spiritual life.  A great deal of Catholic commentary on abortion in the U.S. centers on why women are forbidden to have them, but Francis is hinting at an approach that gives deeper consideration to the effects of extremely difficult and painful decisions.  Making a conscious effort to expand the discussion in this manner, even if the core of the discussion is unchanged, is a crucially important step both in helping those in need and demonstrating the rationality of the core.  Again, this does not entail any shifts in doctrine, but simply looking at contentious issues more broadly will go a very long way in revitalizing how most people view the Church.

The concepts might not be revolutionary, but the proclamation of them is.

Last May, Francis made headlines when he said that atheists could be redeemed.  James Martin, S.J., reflected on the Pope’s sermon by noting:

Pope Francis is saying, more clearly than ever before, that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for everyone. That’s always been a Christian belief. You can find St. Paul saying in the First Letter to Timothy that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for all.” But rarely do you hear it said by Catholics so forcefully, and with such evident joy.

This same forcefulness seems to be a recurring hallmark of Francis’ papacy thus far.  Beyond shifting the conversation on how the Church engages with the public, Francis is also articulating little-known beliefs with greater clarity and compassion.  This was evident in his recent letter to an Italian newspaper responding to an atheist’s columns about the Church, and it’s on full display in “A Big Heart Open to God.”  Francis’ commentary on uncertainty is particularly important for finding common ground with unbelievers:

…in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

Hearing the Pope say that uncertainty is an integral part of faith is revelatory, not because it’s an unheard of theological principle but because the point has been made rather poorly of late.  That so many people are reacting so well to the Francis’ words is proof positive of how the Church hasn’t effectively conveyed core principles to nonbelievers (and, often, the laity) in the recent past.  Spreading this kind of testimony that makes faith a more relatable proposition to so many people will hopefully be a constant throughout Francis’ papacy.  This is how the Church wins back the credibility it squandered in the child abuse scandal (in conjunction with a renewed focus on helping those in need and emphasizing grace and love).  “The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return,” he says.  Better engagement with these people by actually addressing their concerns is crucial and it’s wonderful to see Francis acknowledging this.

Spaces vs. Processes

I found the following to be the most interesting part of this extraordinary interview:

…there is a temptation to seek God in the past or in a possible future. God is certainly in the past because we can see the footprints. And God is also in the future as a promise. But the ‘concrete’ God, so to speak, is today. For this reason, complaining never helps us find God. The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is—these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today.

“God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes.

“We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.

Francis is positing a model for how the Church should act in order to achieve meaningful, lasting, and adaptive change.  He argues that there is a strong temptation to react against new challenges with a reversion to traditional solutions and established rules.  But to more fully engage with God, new frameworks, new methods of solving these new problems, must be established.

Francis’ characterization of how God is “in the processes” of history successfully captures how the amalgamation of our individual strivings for the ideal and the perpetual disappointments that result are one way the divine is manifested in our world.  He’s correct that we need reconsider how our most powerful organizations and institutions (including the Church) influence the moral constructs that govern our coexistence.  It’s a logical philosophy, too.  Trying to affix theological bandages on new barbarisms doesn’t necessarily solve their root causes, but establishing clearer moral paradigms might help reduce some of those problems altogether.

This is a difficult process that will take a great deal of time, and it’s fair to argue this rhetoric of enacting new processes is an ambiguous gambit that could result in negligible moral enhancement.  But it’s exciting to hear Francis discuss the necessity of reevaluating the core bases behind how the Church can be an influence for the good.  Power is not a meaningful tool unless aligned with (and not forced upon) the systems through which people live.  Working to restructure these systems and the actors which shape them is a goal most worthy of the Church’s full engagement.

It’s important that we initiate the historical process of a new theology of women.  But how?

One particular example of a system that warrants reconsideration is the role of women in the Church.  Francis had previously stressed the importance of this question and he revisits it once again in the interview.  “We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman,” he says.  But he has also spoken out against the ordination of female priests.  So what is to be done?

This is admittedly wild speculation on my part, but I wonder if Francis was hinting at the creation of an entirely new role for women in the Church, something that would parallel the position of a priest or bishop.  “Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops,” he says, and also notes that “the feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”  If women are this critical to the future of the Church, it follows that they need a role with equal power and influence as clergymen.  I’m not sure there is any doctrinal basis on which this new position could be developed and it would likely be met with immense scrutiny and questioning.  But it would essentially end the debate about “women priests” by simply creating an entirely new religious branch of the hierarchy in which women could wield substantial power.

Again, Pope Francis did not say that such a revolution is on the horizon, and this idea is merely an extrapolation of how the Church could best give women such influence without changing core doctrine.  But his words do hint that change is coming.  The question is- when?  And what will that change entail?

Our fear of eventual disappointment in Francis is all the more acute after this interview.

In our original debate series about Francis, Matt had the following cautionary note regarding initial excitement over the Pope’s rhetoric:

I worry that some of the early enthusiasm about Pope Francis has led to unrealistic expectations about his ability to heal the divisions in the Church. I also worry that over time, should Francis fail to deal with the problems of corruption in the Vatican and to burnish the tarnished public image of the Church, his oratorical style will come to be judged much more harshly than it has been thus far. No longer will it be a “most welcome approach to the papacy,” as Chris puts it, but a feeble substitute for action.

Matt expressed the same concern when we spoke recently about this new interview.  I share his concerns now with a greater degree of apprehension than from earlier this summer.  Francis’ words have earned him accolades across the political and social spectrum, but they hinted at few specifics for any potential policy shifts.  The role of women in the Church was addressed, for example, but what will actually be done?  One has to worry that continual soaring rhetoric without tangible change will lead to claims that Francis is all hot air and no action.

Fortunately, Francis has bought himself a good amount of time, especially through his emphasis on discernment.

If we created a word cloud of the most frequent terms used in the Pope’s interview, I’d guess that “discernment” would be at or very close to the top of the list.  Francis hammered home the importance of critical reflection on both a macro and micro level in order to make the wisest, most prudent decisions for both himself and his flock.  He speaks at length about discernment in the interview; for brevity, I’ll cite his reference to John XXIII: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.”  The idea of seeing and reflecting on everything but not trying to overhaul the status quo suggests Francis will be a proponent of humble discernment going forward.

It’s important to emphasize that Francis realizes the requisite discernment for overseeing 1 billion Catholics, along with the process of enacting new historical processes, will take time.  He notes that this initiative “requires patience, waiting.”  “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment,” he says.  This is an important clause that, if repeated often enough, actually gives additional weight to the Pope’s pronouncements.  Let’s tackle these issues as quickly as we can, but let’s make sure we’re trying to solve them correctly before we jump, he seems to be saying.  In conjunction with the amount of goodwill he seems to have earned so far, I think Francis has bought himself a good amount of time before people start criticizing him for a lack of substantial change.

The translators did a wonderful job.

Much credit is due to the translators of the original Italian interview for crafting an easy-to-read yet engaging and beautiful piece.  Lines like the following are almost poetic in their depth and diction: “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”  Truly fantastic work.

Francis’ literature anecdote provides a model for artistic engagement that the Church should follow.

In speaking about his musical and artistic preferences, Francis shares an enlightening anecdote about when he taught young school boys:

Of course, young people wanted to read more ‘racy’ literary works, like the contemporary La Casada Infiel or classics like La Celestina, by Fernando de Rojas. But by reading these things they acquired a taste in literature, poetry, and we went on to other authors. And that was for me a great experience. I completed the program, but in an unstructured way—that is, not ordered according to what we expected in the beginning, but in an order that came naturally by reading these authors.

Is it possible for the Church to extrapolate this model in how it engages with popular culture and contemporary art?  I hope so.  The idea of using familiar material as a jumping point into the divine seems like such a logical way to show people the joy of both faith and art.  More on how this could be accomplished in a future post.

Above all, faith is love made manifest, and this transcends dogma.

“But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

I did a double take when I first read that line in the interview.  We’ve already established that Francis did not suggest forthcoming alterations to core doctrine, but this is a succinctly shocking mission statement for the Church in the twenty-first century.  To hear him say that proclaiming God’s love transcends any religious edicts almost seems like subversion of Church authority- and from the Bishop of Rome, no less!

But it’s not, and it reminds us of what the Church’s ultimate goal is: to encourage the love of Jesus and to provide scalable systems that facilitate the transmission of this love.  Its edicts are ultimately ways that are, or were, thought to best encourage this process.  Francis seems to realize the danger of letting these edicts become hardened dogma and get in the way of actually spreading love: “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing,” he says.

This is why I think it’s appropriate to call “A Big Heart Open to God” a kind of recalibration in how the Church engages with the world.  It’s not that Francis is proclaiming new ideas or concepts, but rather that he’s trying to reframe the discussion (especially that of nonbelievers) around deep connections and agapic love.

A reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog wrote in with a positive impression of the Pope’s interview but ultimately focused on how he “can never return to Christianity because it is, in a phenomenological sense, meaningless.”  I’ve only had limited theological training in my academic career, but it seems to me that Pope Francis is making the absolute strongest argument in this interview why Christianity has as much meaning and importance in contemporary life as any other accepted religious belief or secular principle.  It’s not based on worshipping a big hairy man in the sky; it’s about achieving a divine connection through love, in the hope that we can make these broken things glow and burn a little bit more.  It’s about “common sanctity,” as Francis says- seeing holiness “in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity.”

Simply making sure that people know this is the core of the Church instead of strict proclamations against contentious issues is an important task.  Despite the myriad of praise, criticism, and commentary it’s received so far, “A Big Heart Open to God” ultimately succeeds because it initiates this process of renewed engagement.  This will be a primary component of Francis’ papacy, and it certainly seems that he’s off to a good start.

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