Friday, December 13, 2013

Rhetorical Questions: In Defense of Pope Francis

I read an article from the Washington Post yesterday called 'Like Pope Francis? You'll love Jesus.' Basically, it's a tongue in cheek notation of the way in which so many left-leaning politicians, celebrities, etc, are all enthused over Pope Francis for what they perceive as a shift in Church policies and attitudes.  The author of the article points out that all Francis is really doing is reiterating ideas that have been innate in the Catholic Church since its founding by Christ.  So, to all those non-Catholics or fallen-away Catholics who are suddenly finding this papacy a reason to be invigorated by their Faith again--this isn't new. Your Faith has always been this invigorating!

I think the article makes an excellent point, and it's nice to see it somewhere like the Washington Post.  More importantly, however, it offers already-faithful Catholics, who probably love Francis because he is renewing and living the tenets of Faith given to us by Christ, some rich food for thought.

Obviously, Catholics aren't out to please the entire world. But there is something to be said for the interest Francis has sparked from so many diametrically-opposed groups.  Nor has he garnered such support by somehow compromising Catholic morality or Catholic teaching.  So what has he done that has suddenly made the Catholic Church and its Faith more palatable to people who wouldn't have touched us with a 15 foot pole before?

First, I think there's something to be said for his demeanor on the most superficial level.

From the very beginning of his papacy, when he stopped by his hotel to pick up his bags personally, or when he called the newspaper vendor from his former diocese, Francis has impressed the world with his affability, his humility, and his humanity.  Not that all our other popes have been stiff or vain--but Francis has such an air of approachability.  We must imagine that Christ had this same air; people from all groups felt able to approach Him without fear of judgment or exclusion, and, upon approaching Him, to feel that He was truly looking at them, listening and speaking to them.  This is the impression people have gotten from Pope Francis.

Secondly, it's his method of delivery when speaking, preaching, or writing.  Having fostered with his manner an openness to dialogue in many people who might otherwise have ignored him, he next tends to demonstrate a corresponding gentleness in how he says what he says. That is not to say that he is weak, ambiguous, or abstract (he's been accused of all three).  But everything he says is uttered simply, logically, and charitably.  He sets an example of the things he talks about, especially in regards to love of neighbor, and is so unassuming that you find yourself listening, I think, even when you don't intend to.

But that brings us to the third aspect of Francis' appeal, which is the content of his message. I find it interesting that Francis has been frequently called 'naive', cast by Catholic and secular media alike as though he stumbled into the papacy an inexperienced Diocesan official, and hasn't quite caught the hang of using precise language to express himself on a global scale, or hasn't noticed that what he says off the cuff is broadcasted and can be twisted by the media.

On the contrary, I think Pope Francis is very savvy indeed.  In the new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel) he emphasizes the importance of evangelizing the culture on its own terms, not by compromising our values to fit the times, but rather, by speaking a language that the times can comprehend and will gravitate towards.  

It is obvious that he does not have a problem being extremely explicit when he wants to be; take, for example, this quote from the Exhortation: "A preacher who does not prepare is not “spiritual”; he is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received." (Paragraph 145). He has spoken clearly and firmly on moral issues like abortion, homosexual 'marriage', and the challenges facing the family.  When he talks about female roles in the Church in Evangelii gaudium, he says "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion" (Paragraph 104). Boom. End of story. Pope Francis is not afraid to be clear, nor is he incapable.

So why is he accused of naivete, or why do left-leaning individuals think, at least at first, that he might be on the brink of an overhaul of Catholic morality?

I see it in terms of a song by M. Ward, one of my favorite artists.  The song "Fisher of Men" says:
"He tied a feather to the hook for to get you to look
And by the time you know what took you, you already took
He's got a line in the water, he's a fisher of men

And he put the thorns on the rose for to get you to bleed
And by the time you know what stuck you, the pain's in deep
He's got a line in the water, he's a fisher of men
He's got a lot on the line, he's a fisher of men"
Similarly, Francis' 'feather on the hook' is his tendency to begin speaking on common, general topic.  He uses the buzzwords to get the attention, like a teaser trailer for a movie, then reiterates the pith of Catholic teaching in a careful, gentle way that highlights its freshness and appropriateness for our time and culture.

For example, let's look briefly (very briefly) at the portion of Evangelii gaudium on multiculturalism.

Francis' method of dealing with this topic is not the accident of an inexperienced Pontiff.  Rather, it is conscious rhetoric.  Aware of "our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape" (Paragraph 70), Pope Francis quotes John Paul II in calling for "the faith and the life of the Church [to] be expressed in legitimate forms appropriate for each culture" (Paragraph 118).  He doesn't merely dump this in the middle of the Exhortation, to form an ambiguous glob of multiculturalism that can be applied at the whim of the reader--that would be the result of inexperience or naivete, or even of misdirected good intentions.  Instead, he qualifies his statement with the understanding that cultural diversity must be "properly understood" (Paragraph 117) in order to be useful to the Church's work of evangelization, and develops the idea that "We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous" (117).    (This may potentially yield a post soon on the complex issue of Pope Francis and the Extraordinary Form)  This might seem radical, but it is actually only an old tenet of Catholicism phrased anew.

St. Paul puts it this way
“What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you," (Acts 17:23)
while Francis says
"As part of his mysterious love for humanity, God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith – sensus fidei – which helps them to discern what is truly of God" (Paragraph 119).
What I'm getting at (without getting further carried away breaking down specifics from the Exhortation) is that Francis is clearly very intelligent, very well educated, and very methodical.  He knows the Truth, he wants to speak the Truth, and he has discerned the best possible way for him to do so in a way that will bear the most fruit in this time and place.  Sometimes his words may come across a little jarring to Catholics--perhaps because we are used to what he would call "fixed formulations learned by heart or by specific words which express an absolutely invariable content" (Paragraph 129), but given the clear and courageous way in which he delineates our morals and tells the world that 'they are not open to discussion', I don't think we need fear (not that we need to anyway, since of course the Holy Spirit protects the Papacy).  Rather, perhaps these jarring moments are an invitation to look closely at what the Pope is saying, and to learn from his example in how he is saying it.
"He's a fisher of men, he's as wise as a prizefighter"

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