We’ve all see the headlines or heard the newscasters say, as MPR did, “Pope urges less focus on homosexuality, abortion” Nor did he say, as The New York Times claimed, that the “church is ‘obsessed’ with gays, abortion and birth control.” I’m not surprised: the press always chooses the most sex-oriented part of anything that happens in the Church, and reports it out of context and brashly.
What lines would be headlines if the speaker were not the Pope?
Just for fun, I asked myself what it would look like if the media had taken this approach to the same interview — but if it was given by someone else. In other words, how would the type cast others, using the Pope’s words. Here’s what I came up with:
- George W. Bush: “I made my decisions abruptly and by myself. Eventually, people got tired of authoritarianism.”
- Occupy critics: “We must focus on starting long-run historical processes, not on occupying the spaces where power is exercised.”
- Anthony Weiner: “I am a really, really undisciplined person.”
- Barack Obama: “We want to verify him immediately by an empirical method.”
- Donald Rumsfeld: “It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”
- Bill Clinton: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition.”
- Alan Greenspan: “The risk is the willingness to explain too much, to speak with certainty and arrogance.”
- Miley Cyrus: “You have to live on the border and be audacious.”
Joking aside, this gives some sense of the range of topics and statements that were not picked up or presented by the media.
Doctrine or Practice?
As I read the interview, Pope Francis did not change the teaching on the subjects with which the media is obsessed (abortion, homosexuality, divorce). He said “the teaching of the Church is clear and I am a son of the Church.” In a meeting with Catholic physicians recently, he urged them not to participate in or practice abortion and turn aside from a “throwaway culture.” The media are so eager to hear that teaching has changed that their stories manufacture a perspective that simply is not there.
Pope Francis seems to be making two points, and both are about pastoral practice. In describing his hoped-for Church as a “field hospital” treating the wounded, he is referring to the spiritual devastation in modern culture: the sense of emptiness and hopelessness, the rat race of consumerism, the growth of addictions, and the like. These are big wounds, and have to be dealt with first by the big medicine of the basic Gospel message of God’s love and mercy. Until the big wounds are healed, he says, a patient can’t benefit from lowering cholesterol and blood sugar — and really can’t even be engaged in the conversation. It may not make sense even to talk about it.
His second point is similarly pastoral. For the secular world, it seems to make sense to talk about issues in isolated ways: abortion distinct from euthanasia or divorce. Not so for the Church, where the teaching on morality derives from a basic theology of the human being, our relationship to the God who created us, and the common good of humanity. Trying to make sense one issue at a time is like picking up pieces of a building without the whole, and seeing them out of proportion. For the teachings to make sense, the full context must be present — or it collapse for lack of connections.
Is this encouraging or discouraging?
I think Pope Francis will not fulfill the pre-conclave hopes of any group of Catholics. On the one hand, his less formal style and desire to always bear “the smell of his sheep” — even some of his memorable phrases — do not sit well with more conservative Catholics. On the other, his support and continuity on doctrinal issues with which they disagree disappoings liberals. If he is remarkably unfortunate, he could end up as a Pope who pleased no one.
America picked up a phrase in the interview as a the title for the article: “a big heart open to God.” This is, I think, the path that Pope Francis is trying to take out of a polarized Church: a renewal and spiritual growth that puts Catholics back into the field hospital of caring for the severe spiritual wounds of the 21st century. He seems to have the energy and the spirit to have a chance of success. May it be so.
- Cardinal George responds to Pope’s comments (cltv.com)
- The Pope Did Not Say … (fggam.org)
- Pope Francis focuses on the bigger picture in his new interview (ncregister.com)
- Pope Francis excommunicates pro-gay marriage priest. He’s not the liberal the media wants (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)