Column: Not ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ but ‘radical’ Catholic

Published on January 27, 2015.

To Church-watchers, the pivotal moment of Pope Francis’ five-day visit to the Philippines may have been his unscripted remarks at the Meeting with Families, on Jan. 16, at the Mall of Asia Arena. When he invoked Pope Paul VI (by name) and his predecessor’s controversial encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (by implication), it was global news—but it was news for the wrong reasons.

In particular, it was the following passage (about 140 words in all) that led many observers or commentators to speak of the Pope’s “conservative” turn, or to cite it as confirmation that the first pope named after the saint of Assisi was not as “liberal” as he was reputed to be.

The first part of the passage can be found in the original text of the speech, as prepared in the Vatican and distributed to the media.

“The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.”

And then came the Pope’s unscripted remarks:

“I think of Blessed Paul VI in the moment of that challenge of population growth, he had the strength to defend openness to life. He knew the difficulties families experience and that’s why in his encyclical he expressed compassion for specific cases and he taught confessors to be particularly compassionate for particular cases. And he went further, he looked at the people on the earth and he saw that lack [of children] and the problem it could cause families in the future. Paul VI was courageous, a good pastor and he warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching. And from the heavens he blesses us today.”

I think it is important to recognize that, without the Pope’s additional remarks, the speech would have lost an entire layer of meaning. There would have been no specific mention of population growth, of the most controversial encyclical in modern Church history, of the courage of Paul VI, or (in the confrontational Biblical language that Paul VI sometimes favored) of sheep in danger of approaching wolves. There would also have been less context with which to understand Pope Francis’ earlier comment, also spontaneous, about “the new ideological colonization that tries to destroy the family.”

Without the impromptu remarks, Pope Francis’ defense of the family would still have stood, and his embrace of the official Church position on marriage as a sacrament (only) between a man and a woman, and especially of all marital union as necessarily open to life, would have been a significant, unequivocal gesture.

Observers and commentators, thus, were only right to highlight Francis’ spontaneous remarks because they offered a more robust defense for what is usually and simplistically called the pro-life faction in the Church. But did these mark a “conservative” turn for the so-called Pope of Surprises, or offer proof that “liberal” perception was giving way to orthodox reality?

I have at least three reasons for thinking that the ad-libbed statements did no such thing, and that in fact to think of Francis (or indeed any pope since John XXIII) as liberal or conservative, orthodox or progressive, is to fundamentally misunderstand both man and position.

In the first place, he has explicitly and frequently rejected the dichotomy. In quite possibly the most important speech he has given regarding the future direction of the Church, his closing statement at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops last October, he criticized both tendencies: the “hostile inflexibility” of the “‘traditionalists’ and also of the intellectuals,” as well as the “deceptive mercy” of the “do-gooders” and “also of the so-called ‘progressives and liberals.’” In contrast, he offered the nonreducible reality of a catholic—that is, universal—Church:

“And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people.”

This, in my view, helps set the right context for his invocation of Paul VI at the MOA; it was to emphasize particular compassion for particular cases.

Secondly, Francis has spoken about recovering a truer sense of proportion regarding the Christian message. In the revealing series of interviews he gave journalists Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti when he was still cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, he described the sad reality of Catholics preferring to prescribe moral behavior rather than proclaim the Good News. “I see it in the fact that these people don’t pay attention to the kerygma but instead move straight to the catechism, preferably the section on morality.”

Thirdly, the Pope has repeatedly called attention to the need to become radical, that is, to go back to the roots of the Christian message. In August 2013, he told fellow Jesuit Antonio Spadaro: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance …” That new balance is as old as the Christian experience itself:

“The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

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