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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Many Ways of Reading Pope Francis

Pope Francis recently gave an interview that has been making the internet rounds. Conservatives & Progressives, Catholics & Protestants, and Christians & non-Christians alike have all taken note. Perhaps its "groundbreaking" nature is largely due the tone and emphasis His Holiness gives to the subjects discussed, which include everything from gay rights and women in the church to community and prayer.

Fr. James Martin, SJ is an editor at America - a national Jesuit Catholic magazine and the publisher of the full English translation of the interview - who stated last week on NPR that the Francis' interview was notable for it's "candor" and its "vulnerability." He's right. In the interview, we find a lot of very human pronouncements that admit fault, sin, and humanity, something many Evangelicals like Christianity Today's Kevin Emmert noted. summarizes the most interesting parts from their perspective from the interview, which seem to be those that admitted too much emphasis on abortion and gay marriage debates and the need for a more "balanced" and welcoming approach by the Church when it comes to social issues. (For various reactions to Pope Francis' interview by religious leaders in the LGBTQ community, click here.)

As a new poll From the Huffington Post describes (decide bias for yourself), reactions to Francis' words have been mostly positive in the general as well as religious public. But it turns out Protestants are twice as likely as Catholics to think that the pope's comments went too far.

In talking with traditional Catholics from my generation (who believe the Magisterium and official teachings of the Church), it's clear that Francis' comments even made some of them nervous. Is he reshaping Church doctrine? Is he rewriting Catholic/Christian theology?

Different Theology? Not Really.

The answer is a clear: No. Unfortunately for the high percentage of American Catholics who think the pope should adopt stances that better reflect the attitudes of the faithful, His Holiness is not reworking the Church's theology. In fact, he even recently defrocked and excommunicated an Australian priest for his overt support of women priests and gays, leading one liberal blog to lament, "Despite all due temptation, he remains a Catholic." (Oh no!...) As R. R. Reno of First Things notes, taking Francis' remarks to constitute new doctrine is "a distorted reading of what he has in mind for the Church."

But I think these conservative voices, both Evangelical and Catholic, also seem to miss the point. While the most liberal wings in these camps may not have reason to rejoice at a reworking of Catholic theology, the most conservative camps cannot simply pass off the pope's comments as a mere misinterpretation. In typical Sam-fashion, I'm choosing a middle way.

The Middle Way

Francis does say some remarkable things. He emphasizes a much more important role for women than perhaps any other pontiff has, and while it's not full and equal ordination it does speak of unique contributions needed from women in a way that doesn't relegate them to subservience, submission, or second-class status, which is something a lot of Evangelicals (and Catholics for that matter) could do with hearing.

Another lesson for Evangelicals would be Francis' emphasis on finding God in all things. There is no distinction between the secular and the holy, the profane and the sacred. Growing up Evangelical, my family's world mirrored but was distinct from the real world as if we were a holier version. We "needed" Christian music, Christian camps, Christian clubs. This left me with a very heavy sense of the fractured nature of reality into good and bad, Christian and secular, black and white. Such dualism doesn't account for the goodness of all God's creation and it doesn't make for a healthy worldview. When you're afraid of dirtying your hands by touching the "unclean," it's very difficult to be Christ's hands in the world.

The real point I want to make is that there are two dangers for those reading Pope Francis' remarks. The first is to think that the Church no longer has an opinion on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. The second is to think that Francis is not trying to fundamentally alter the way all Christians think and act in the world, especially the conservative among us.

His Holiness is making an important case: we think we are helping by advocating so vehemently for certain social issues but we are actually presenting an unbalanced and untrue view of the gospel. Do you get it? Francis is saying that we are hindering people from hearing the gospel! It's not that these issues don't matter but when the world rightly finds Christians to be overly emphasizing opposition to certain social issues, the gospel is diminished. The gospel is about living in a loving way the Divine Mystery of God's love, and that extends well beyond our current focus of a few social issues.

Francis' interview is actually a call to action. It's a call to nonjudgment, something both Catholics and Evangelicals need to internalize. It's a call to moderation so that the gospel is presented holistically. And Francis' words are a call to fundamentally change the way we love so that we're not defined by rants of what we're against but by humility and love in service to what we are for. 

The pope used the analogy of a "field hospital" for the Church. Another one might be a great ship. Francis wants us to be one full to the brim with life preservers, not cannons. And can't we all get on board with that?


  1. I have to admit when I first read the interview several nights ago I was afraid of what he was saying. As I have had time to think and reflect on them I came to many of same conclusions as you. I enjoyed this entry, keep up the good work.

  2. Ted, thanks for commenting! My personal connections with Catholics are definitely the minority of the blog's readers, so it's great to get your perspective. I'm glad it resonated with you, and thanks for the encouragement! If you have any future suggestions just send them my way.