Pope Francis has his own way of doing things: but that doesn’t mean he is reinventing the Catholic religion. If you’re worried, you should calm down: all is well

Pope Francis (CNS)

Many traditionalist Catholics (and I would argue that you can’t actually be a Catholic with an authentically functioning faith UNLESS you are a traditionalist) continue to be seriously worried by Pope Francis and the way he has so far handled his relationships not only with the secular world, but also with his fellow Catholics.

He is, they seem to think, blundering around, sentimentally ceding territory defended to the end by nearly all previous popes, and certainly by Popes John Paul and Benedict XVI. His continuing popularity with the secular press has been bought, so they think, by a large scale abandonment — or at least, the appearance of willingness to countenance such a thing —of Catholic teaching on faith and morals.

Well, either he IS just blundering around, a papal loose cannon, who has no coherent strategy for his conduct of the papacy (or if he does, it’s to get back to the bad old days of that intensely destructive entity the “Spirit” – rather than the reality — “of Vatican II”) — OR he does have a strategy which doesn’t at all entail abandoning wholesale what the Catholic Church has always believed, but which does involve concentrating more on the Church’s positive teachings.

I would certainly argue that that’s what he is actually doing: and so did Conrad Black in this week’s issue of the paper in an article entitled “How Pope Francis fooled the Guardianistas”, published with the stand-first “Despite the enthusiasm of the left wing media, the Pope is not abandoning the traditional battlements of Catholicism” (which appears currently as a blog on this site).

“If the most militantly outspoken of the Church’s critics had understood what Pope Francis was saying,” Lord Black says, “they would be less (self-) satisfied. He [Pope Francis] said that the ‘Church is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people… a nest protecting our mediocrity. The Church needs most … the ability to heal wounds… nearness, proximity’. It is ‘sometimes locked up in small things, in small-minded rules … [and must be] merciful, and take responsibility for the people, like the Good Samaritan… If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge… When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person, the mystery of the human being. God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, with mercy’.”

“What the Pope was really saying,” says Lord Black, “was that the Catholic Church must not allow its critics to continue to portray it successfully and falsely as obsessed with the vagaries of people’s sex lives, and as fanatically and principally preoccupied with such matters; that it must be clear that all human life is sacred, that all people are souls to be cared for and respected, and that it is a reasonable surmise that any plausible characterisation of God would not be a deity who approved the creation of life that was condemned to be irredeemably evil from the start and would not be deserving of any consideration.”

But this, as Fr Z points out, is not a papal stance that Pope Francis invented at all. Who would you have thought said this: “I remember, when I used go to Germany in the 1980s and ’90s, that I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems. If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith – a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.”

That sounds like Pope Francis: but actually, it’s Benedict XVI, early in his reign, in an address he gave in November 2006. If you are wondering, comments Fr Z, “what Pope Francis is doing, this is what he is doing. He has taken a page from Benedict XVI’s play book. Francis, however, is giving this strategy far more energy than his predecessor. But make no mistake: What Francis is doing is original in the extent of the application of the strategy, not in the strategy itself.”

The way he does it is to avoid personal rhetorical contact with particular issues and with the endless wrangling about them which allowed the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict to be traduced and distorted by the media and by liberals within the Church. Do not mistake me: the wrangling had to be done. The objective and binding character of Catholic teaching about faith and morals had to be reestablished: and that included all those prohibitions the secular world recoils from. But we don’t need to carry on with that particular strategy forever. Ratzinger locuta est: causa finita est. And the reason the Catholic Church says “no” to a particular belief or moral choice has to be understood: it is to clear the ground so we can say “yes” to a much better alternative. Pope Francis has judged that it is now time to start saying “yes”.

Pope Francis, like every other Pope, has his own personal style. In an interesting article on Sandro Magister’s site about the recent much pondered-over interview with Pope Francis in the Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, “An ongoing conversation: Additional questions for Pope Francis”, Robert P Imbell draws attention to the comments by Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit who conducted it, which accompanied the interview and which were omitted in the English translation. “I think it important to recall these comments”, says Imbell, “because placing the Pope’s remarks in the genre of conversation may serve as a better guide for their ongoing interpretation. The conversation transpired between two believers, two fellow Jesuits, who share a commitment, vision and common language. However, it is being overheard by a world avid to detect any hint of change in church teaching, but that is often deaf to the deeper language of faith. Thus, we see the predictable fixation by the secular media upon the issues of abortion and gay marriage — the very subjects that they charge portions of the hierarchy with obsessing over.”

However, continues Imbell, “As many have already noted, Pope Francis does not dispute what has become settled magisterial teaching in this regard. ‘The teaching of the church,’ he insists, ‘is clear; and I am a son of the Church.’ Significant, however, is his repositioning of these moral teachings in relation to the heart of the matter, which is the Church’s proclamation of the good news that ‘Jesus Christ has saved you!’ Though he does not use the term here, it seems evident that what Francis discerns to be the pressing need of our time is a new evangelisation, a renewed proclamation of the love and mercy of God embodied and made available in Jesus Christ.”

THAT is the “Yes”, which can be proclaimed with confidence once the boundaries have been established, and the foundations set in concrete. And the “noes” continue quietly to be reaffirmed. “May I remind you”, Father Z concludes, “that we are only six months into Francis’ papacy and we already have: an excommunication of the priest who supports ‘gay’ marriage and women’s ordination; an extemporaneous jaunt into the streets of Rome to meet an anti-abortion march; an explicit affirmation of the impossibility of women’s ordination; a public endorsement of Summorum Pontificum; a speech to Catholic physicians not to perform or cooperate in abortions; a call for a ‘profound’ theology about women (read: a good theology that isn’t, as he put it ‘female machismo’).”

And for good measure, to show that Pope Francis didn’t invent all the fluffy crowd-pleasing stuff that he goes in for, Father Z ends with a photo of Benedict XVI kissing a baby’s head.

Just like Popes have always done: I bet that if photography had got beyond the time exposure stage (hold it, Holy Father, don’t move, one, two, three…) we would have photos of Pio Nono, (a warm and pastorally inclined Pope) doing it, too. Now, THERE was a Pope who knew how to say “No”.

But it wasn’t all HE said, either…