Thirty years ago, when I first entered the Catholic Church, I frequently had conversations with folks who liked to characterize themselves as "progressive Catholics". As a convert who had chosen to enter the Church precisely because I found her teachings attractive, I was sometimes mystified at their willingness to remain connected to an institution with which they seemed (to me, at least) to have so little in common, especially when one considers the fact that there are over 30,000 Protestant sects in the United States alone, and surely some one of them (or perhaps some combination of them--in some cases it may not require an exclusive membership) could have met their needs better. John Paul II had been elected Pope prior to my conversion (indeed, I was not even a Christian in 1978, let alone a Catholic one), but I found him and his style very congenial, so I was also a little mystified when these same folks would insist on referring to him only as "the present pope", never as "the pope" or "the Holy Father" or what have you. Based on the context and contents of these conversations it was very clear to me that by "present pope" they intended to suggest that, as far as they were concerned, this rather conservative little fellow from Eastern Europe was just an anomaly, a bump on the otherwise smooth road from Vatican II to a more liberal and progressive Catholic church that would meet all of their needs, hence their willingness to stick it out and remain in the Church.
John Paul II's lengthy and serene reign as Supreme Pontiff managed to cool their jets somewhat over the years, and in spite of feeling intense sympathy for his sufferings I couldn't help but rejoice in his longevity. When his successor proved to be the very person whom I myself would have nominated to take his place, I couldn't help but feel just a tiny bit of Schadenfreude, though I no longer knew anyone who used the expression "the present pope" by that time--it seemed they had just given up on that.
Well. Today, the Jesuit magazine America published an interview with the present pope that has caused something of a stir among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, even though Francis said nothing extraordinary or unusual in the interview, at least with respect to what the Catholic Church teaches. This fact may come as a surprise to anyone who relies for their information about the interview on such sources as CBS News, the New York Times, or the editor of the Jesuit magazine America, all portraying the content of this interview as "unprecedented" and "revolutionary".
To cut to the chase, the part of the interview that is supposed to be so extraordinary is the pope's declaration that the Church has, in recent years, been "obsessed" with certain "technical" and "minor" issues and has thereby missed out on certain opportunities to be more welcoming, compassionate, and forgiving. These minor technical issues are, at least to judge from what CBS News and the New York Times have to say about it, such things as abortion, homosexuality, and contraception. I did not catch any reference to the whole pedophilia thing, so I don't know whether that sort of sexual peccadillo is going to count, from now on, as just minor and technical, or whether it's still something we should worry about. Apparently, the Church is not really able to walk and chew gum at the same time, because somehow, in preaching against abortion, we are neglecting to be compassionate and welcoming, so this is a Big Problem. Indeed, the whole of the Church's moral authority is in danger of falling like a "house of cards", because there is no way that we can continue to obsess over these minor technical issues and still preach love, forgiveness, and compassion. To say that we can do both of these things is like saying that a quarterback has to be able to run and pass the ball, and we all know that you can't really be good at doing both of those things. Certainly any quarterback who chooses to pass the ball when he needs to is basically showing the whole world that he's not interested in running with it. Ever.
Now, let's be perfectly clear about what Francis is not saying. Everyone, including the otherwise Catholic-blind New York Times, is reporting that Francis is not changing any of the Church's teachings, that he is a "son of the Church" (which, for you progressives out there, means that he actually accepts those teachings about abortion, homosexuality, and contraception). So, even the New York Times is willing to admit (probably with some reluctance) that these teachings are not going to change; they may even understand (though I doubt it) that they are not going to change because they cannot be changed. But we should certainly see this as a "change of emphasis", a kind of "new direction"--after the Dark Ages of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we are finally in the time of the New Enlightenment. Those other popes are dead (one of them literally, the other metaphorically), long live the pope!
So since the Church is not going to be ordaining women, marrying homosexuals, or sending money to Planned Parenthood just what, precisely, is this "change of emphasis" supposed to consist in that is so different from what Those Other Gloomy Popes were up to with all of their reactionary skulduggery? Benedict XVI, in particular, has said precisely the same things about welcoming homosexuals that Francis is now being praised for, so there is no change of emphasis there. John Paul II, rather famously, said precisely the same sorts of things about having a preferential option for the poor that Francis is now being praised for saying, so there is no change of emphasis there either. And the world itself --in the form of scientific studies--has said precisely the same sorts of things about HIV, contraception, and other such issues, as Benedict XVI has said, so if there is change of emphasis here it is in a direction away from both the traditional teaching and modern science, so congratulations: if it is a change of emphasis, it's a stupid one.
But is it really even a change of emphasis? This, unfortunately, is a question that has two aspects. On the one hand, there is the question of whether it is, in fact, a change of emphasis; on the other hand, there is the question of whether Francis believes that it is a change of emphasis. I say this double aspect is "unfortunate" because the fact of the matter is clear: it is not. Which means that if Francis really believes that it is, he is mistaken. But that's OK--although popes are protected from error in faith and morals, nobody said their methodological orientations were always spot-on. So Francis thinks this is all new--well, welcome aboard, Holy Father, but we've been on this train for quite some time already; glad you could join us.
Hold on there, Carson, you're thinking. Why is everyone saying that this is a new emphasis if it isn't? Why aren't you the one who is mistaken in saying that it is not a new emphasis? What do you know that the pope himself doesn't even know?
Fortunately, my assessment of the situation doesn't depend upon any secret or arcane knowledge that only I have access to. In fact, never having been to Argentina, I have no idea what it's like there. For all I know, abortion is not a problem at all in that country, and homosexuals are not pressing for marriage rights there, and contraception isn't being forced on Catholic health care providers there. So from the point of view of your average Argentinian, it may well seem mysterious to discover that there are elements in the Church that are concerned with these issues because they are really important issues in other places. Like here, for example. Are these issues more important than being compassionate, welcoming and forgiving? Duh. Have you stopped beating your wife yet?
In the increasingly secular world of Europe and North America, we have witnessed incredible social changes in the last fifty years, and many of these social changes revolve around the minor, technical issues of sexual morality. Just to take one of these minor technical issues as an example, abortion is fully legal almost everywhere in these areas, and if we bear in mind that abortion is the unjustifiable killing of an innocent human being it might be a little easier to regard it as somewhat less minor and technical than, say, whether kids should be allowed to purchase cigarettes. One way to help reduce the number of abortions, of course, is to provide lots of helpful resources to women who are tempted to have them, and that means exercising--you guessed it--compassion, forgiveness, and charitable acceptance. In fact, I don't see how it would even be possible to preach against abortion without making it very clear that the Church is the place to turn to when you are tempted to have one, precisely because the Church is the place that welcomes you with compassion and forgiveness. The problem is not that the Church in American neglects to be compassionate, welcoming, and forgiving--the problem is that in America people would rather turn to the government for help than to the Church, and the government says there's nothing wrong with killing your own child in the womb. A similar story can be told, of course, tying the Church's teachings on homosexual marriage, contraception, and women's ordination to the need for welcoming, compassionate forgiveness, but that story gets drowned out in media accounts that are one sided because the folks who write those accounts are already predisposed to see the Church's teachings on these sexual issues as misguided if not outright wrong. So when someone comes along talking about the flip side of that same coin they see it as revolutionary, as though the coin really only has one side and the Church has finally discovered it after looking too long for the non-existent other side.
The present pope has blundered. He did not blunder by saying something false, he blundered by not saying what is true: that the Church has always emphasized the Gospel of love, and that the teachings on abortion and the rest flow from that very Gospel. It is simply a mistake to interpret the preaching of the last 30 years in any other way. This is not to say that a pope ought not to call for even more compassion, forgiveness, and welcoming. To make that kind of call would be salutary. But the right way to call for that is to say something like "The Church should always reach out to the dispossessed, to the poor, to the oppressed, to the suffering, to the excluded, to the other: the Church should welcome all with love and compassion." If you say something like that, you are saying pretty much what every pope has always said, including Francis, and you are not implying that the Church has ever acted otherwise. But Francis prefaced it by saying that the Church has also been obsessed with minor technical issues, and then he specifically mentioned several issues that are neither minor nor merely technical, and so of course anyone listening to him is going to think that he sees these things as standing in some sort of contrast, some sort of tension, rather than as two things that flow logically from each other.
This blunder is a purely rhetorical one. He did not say anything that will bring about any actual changes in what the Church does or teaches, but he opened a real can of worms in terms of what some people are going to start looking forward to and expecting from the Church. In this sense he has invited misunderstanding and misinterpretation, which may not cause much harm in the long run but it certainly cannot bring about any good. Francis said that the Church should not be reduced to a tiny core of True Believers, and many are contrasting this with Benedict XVI's famous remark that a smaller Church would not necessarily be a poorer Church. It seems to me, however, that one can agree with Francis that the Church ought to welcome all while not agreeing with his implication that the Church does not already welcome all with open arms. The sad fact of the matter is that people are not turning away from the Church because the Church is not welcoming them, they are turning away from the Church because they don't agree with what the Church teaches and expects of them. As any true Son of the Church knows very well, accepting the Church's teachings is not simply a matter of mere rule-following, it is an inner conversion of one's very self, a turning away from one's own needs and desires toward absolute self-negation as the only authentic form of genuine love. Self-negation entails very many things that the secular West cannot abide, and that the secular West always interprets as Mean Old Rules That Make Life Less Fun. To act as though this characterization of self-negation is correct or fair, even if only for rhetorical purposes, is to do a real disservice to the Church.