Pope Francis and a Very Challenging Message

Two interviews in barely two weeks! Francis is taking every opportunity to engage in conversation. The second is an interview he granted Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist, in the same setting as the three day interview with his fellow Jesuit, Antonio Spadaro. I find it amusing that the Pope, who makes good use of his own cell phone, called to offer Scalfari an appointment, but had to wait to be "put through" to the journalist by the newspaper man's nervous secretary.

There are things in that conversation that will raise questions. I have seen so much anxiety and so many misinterpretations of the Pope's remarks that I am a bit concerned to respond to the ones that seem to be the most widespread.

I'm not going to dismiss the questions and say that the whole interview was badly translated; it's mostly reliable. In some places (really, I only noticed two so far), where the Pope is using philosophical/theological language, the translator found herself on shaky ground and her usual approach simply didn't convey the meaning. That still leaves us with a very challenging message from Pope Francis, and some Catholics are feeling pretty shaky about what it all means.

Is he serious that "The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old"? (Yes, that's pretty much what the Italian says, too, though "solitude in which the elderly are left" is a bit stronger than just "loneliness.")  Apparently, this is his pastoral assessment of things.

But this is the same Pope Francis who--just a week ago--in a much more formal setting, declared: "A widespread utilitarian mentality, the 'throwaway culture', which now enslaves the hearts and minds of many, has a very high cost: it requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker."  So we are challenged to read his informal, conversational words (about unemployment and the loneliness of the old) in the light of his earlier, very thorough and passionate pronouncement.

That broader reading we are called to do is not easy. And the secular media won't make it any easier, because we have to go looking for the things the mainstream is not interested in covering. Like papal addresses given to Catholic Medical Associations. ("Ho, hum," the headline-writers say, "Nothing exciting in this one.")

Is the Pope, by highlighting the immediate pastoral problems of unemployment, hopelessness and alienation, diminishing the importance of life issues? Or is he hinting at one of the reasons we have such a disrespect for unborn human life in the first place: unemployment (including inadequate housing, unlikely prospects for meeting one's own basic needs) that feeds hopelessness, and contributes to a self-focused life that has no time for the weak, whether unborn, newborn, or aged? In fact, as the Pope continued his thought, you can see that he finds that people who give up hope of finding work also give up the hope of forming a family. I have heard people defend abortion because the parents "can't afford a child" right now (or maybe ever). Pope Francis spent time getting to know the poor of Argentina. How many times did he hear the confession of a woman who aborted her child because the father was out of work and could not provide for them? He probably has a much clearer picture of things on the ground than most middle-class Catholics. I'm going to trust his take, because I know how limited my awareness of human suffering is.

What about his seeming dismissal of Church leaders as self-seeking narcissists? "Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy." Is that an accusation? Is the Pope being judgmental? I think he offering a generalization (that could surely be verified at numerous points throughout Church history), and maybe also sending a signal flare out to anyone who still cherishes ambitious dreams of worldly influence in a Church setting under a Franciscan pontificate. My own experience of working at the Vatican (during the Jubilee Year) brought me in touch with one or two persons who may have been lightly infected with this form of leprosy. (It was not edifying.)

Pope Francis, as I suggested in one of my comments to the first post, seems to be deliberately "making a mess," as he urged the young Catholics of the world to do while in Brazil. He is rocking the boat so that all hands will show up on deck and not leave everything up to the captain--a peculiar temptation of Catholics. Francis is not giving us that luxury.

If we are going to each take our oar and row, perhaps the most important thing we can do right now is learn to follow the captain's signals. He has already given us the interpretive key: everything he says is "just what you find in the Catechism".  The founder of his Jesuit Order, who knew from experience what it meant to have one's teachings held suspect, teaches that we are obliged (under pain of sin!) to make an effort to interpret what we hear or read from another member of the Church in the most orthodox manner possible. Further, St Ignatius of Loyola says, if we fail to come up with an orthodox interpretation, we are to assume that the fault lies with us. Ignatius had more than once been denounced to the Inquisition--over his Spiritual Exercises, one of the treasures of Catholic spirituality. I wouldn't have wanted to be one of the guardians of orthodoxy who denounced a saint to the Inquisition, but it did happen. To me, these episodes in Ignatius' life (and his insistent teaching later in life) are an invitation to trust more in the Holy Spirit than in my own way of figuring things out. I need to go beyond the usual way things are said, the typical contexts, and listen to what Pope Francis really means.

Again, the mainstream media will not make things easy. The headlines will take the Pope's most banal comment and make it seem like a radical departure from every Tradition the Church has ever known. That means that each one of us is challenged here to go behind the text, to find the basic Catholic teaching the Pope's words presume, to deepen our own understanding of how those teachings are being applied, and then to "go and do likewise," taking our Catholic faith places we did not know it could go.

by Sr. Anne Joan Flanagan, FSP
First appeared on NunBlog





life issues, sanctity of human life, self-giving


Living the Faith Today, Pope Francis School of Life, Inspiration