Is Francis trying to be all popes to all men?

Pope Francis (AP)

On the night of Habemus Papam, six months ago now, my editor asked me to write a snap response on The Spectator website. Something instant, he said, it only has to be a sentence or two, just get it up quick smart. So I sat down in front of the television and, as soon as I heard Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran say “Bergoglio”, I live-blogged the following into my smartphone: “Oh my God. It’s Bergoglio! This is the conservatives’ worst nightmare.”

I said it because the only thing I knew about Cardinal Bergoglio was what anybody who had read the stock media rundown of the papabili already knew: he was the man whom in 2005 the “liberal bloc” of cardinals had tried to elect instead of Cardinal Ratzinger, the conservative “enforcer”. Just as the elevation of Ratzinger had been a blow for progressives, Bergoglio was a kick in the teeth for the conservatives. The liberals had exacted their revenge!

After a few minutes I calmed down and replaced the post with something more sober. I felt ashamed, too: it’s silly and wrong to bandy about the idea of a progressive Catholicism at war with conservatism. That’s the secular media’s job. Catholic journalists ought to know that the Church is more complicated.

Looking back, though, I sometimes wonder if my initial response was really so far off the mark. There can be no denying that Pope Francis has made Catholic conservatives feel distinctly uneasy. Almost every time he opens his mouth liberals in the media fall over themselves to praise him. At last, they say, the Church is starting to see the light on condoms and abortion and women and homosexuality. Mainstream conservative Catholics, meanwhile, are left stammering that Pope Francis has in fact indicated no change in Catholic doctrine – he could not even if he wanted to! – and that anyway he was speaking off the cuff, and, er, the change Francis has ushered in is one of style, not substance.

Well, yes. But style and substance are not so easily separated. Pope Francis often seems to be deliberately using language that excites liberals and disturbs the more traditional camp. Those on the wilder fringes of the Catholic Right already feel downright persecuted by him.

Last week we saw perhaps the biggest challenge to the Francis’s orthodox defenders after the Pope’s big interview with Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ was published. “I’ve never been a Right-winger,” Pope Francis said. Catholics should not get hung up on “small-minded” rules, he argued. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraception,” he said. “Yes there are hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity,” he said, referring to the favoured phrase of the traddies interpreting the Second Vatican Council, “But one thing is clear: the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualising its message for today – which was typical of Vatican II – is absolutely irreversible.” The Church must find a “new balance” in the modern world.

Again the trendy media cheered. “If he carries on like this,” snarked Marina Hyde in the Guardian, “we may have to consider the almost unthinkable: that a good man has been made pope.” Slate, the online magazine, claimed that “the Pope is a flaming liberal”. “Francis is a progressive,” said William Saletan. “He doesn’t assume that today’s Catholic teachings are eternally true. He assumes that the lesser, disjointed, non-essential teachings will evolve toward truth over time.”

Conservatives could easily brush off such commentary as ignorant, but the substance of the interview has undoubtedly made them wince. They couldn’t console themselves with the usual excuse: Francis was simply shooting from the hip. The interview was edited and approved by the Pope. He wanted these remarks out there, even if they did not constitute a Magisterial pronouncement.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that Francis is a member of the Society of Jesus and that the interview was primarily intended for the Jesuit press. Francis was being Jesuitical above all else. Almost every statement he made was hedged to the point of seeming equivocal. It’s quite possible, in fact, to read through the text of the 12, 000-word interview and pick out quotes that make the Pontiff sound like a reactionary.

He’s no egalitarian, certainly. He tells Fr Spadaro that women have a vital role to play in the Church, one that needs to be better understood, but first warns us against “female machismo” and insists that women’s “make-up” is fundamentally different to that of men.

He repeatedly expresses his suspicion of human certainty and ideology, on Left and Right, because he believes that man can never fully answer the deepest questions. “You must leave room for the Lord,” he says, “not for our certainties. We must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment.” This reveals a conservative temperament.

Is Francis trying to be all popes to all men? Equivocation frustrates journalists and bloggers. But there’s a difference between casuistry, as anti-Catholics like to call it, and accepting that the truth is elusive. Pope Francis is inviting everyone to be unafraid of what he calls the “encounter with Christ”. But even if you meet Him, the quest never ends. “The correct attitude is that of St Augustine,” he says, “seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever.”

Right-wing Catholic pundits may sneer that it’s all very well for Pope Francis to engage in “dialogue”, to put Church doctrine in the background and to bring mercy to the fore, but the non-Catholic world will misunderstand him and the faithful will be left confused.

Such concerns are understandable; they suggest, however, a distressed lack of faith in the Holy Spirit. As Catholics, we have to believe that God can heal wounds and turn hearts. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Freddy Gray is assistant editor of The Spectator

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 27/9/13