Contra Mozilla

Thursday, September 19, 2013

What Did the Pope Really Say?

With apologies to Fr John Zuhlsdorf (whose excellent blog can only accomplish so much [1]), if I had a lot more spare time (and if I read Italian fluently), I would probably make a knock-off of his blog which focused exclusively on the Media's coverage of the pope. Specifically, I would probably have a daily article similar to this piece on the Nicene Guys' site detailing that day's biggest media botching of the pope's latest interview/open letter/homily/Weekly Address.

This time around, we have the interview (a papal-approved version of which is in America Magazine), and then the New York Times' version of what was said in the interview [2]. Notice the early bait-and-switch in the NYT ("Hell's Handbook") version: the pope says that pastorally, the Church should not just focus on abortion/homosexuality/contraception as being so incompatible with the Church that she cannot welcome a person who commits those sins; the NYT spins this into saying that the Church preaches against these too much (when was the last homily you heard which focused on any of these things?); and then goes after the bishops for holding political campaigns against these things.

Here is the relevant section of the Pope's interview, with some of my emphases:
the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... [ellipsis in original] And you have to start from the ground up.
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds....
A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: 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. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing. 

This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistentlyProclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
“I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

And here is how the NYT reports it:

Pope Francis, in the first extensive interview of his six-month-old papacy, said that the Roman Catholic church had grown “obsessed” with preaching about abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he has chosen not to speak of those issues despite recriminations from some critics...

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” the pope told the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a fellow Jesuit and editor in chief of La CiviltĂ  Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal whose content is routinely approved by the Vatican. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.  
“We have to find a new balance,” the pope continued, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”...

The new pope’s words are likely to have repercussions in a church whose bishops and priests in many countries, including the United States, often appeared to make combating abortion, gay marriage and contraception their top public policy priorities. These teachings are “clear” to him as “a son of the church,” he said, but they have to be taught in a larger context. “The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.” 

 Notice the subtle shifts here, the things which are left out, the things which are ignored. The pope is speaking as a pastor, noting that yes, abortion, homosexuality, and contraception are all evil. They are all sins, and noting that those who deny this are in fact not being merciful, either. There is a danger of being too rigorous, which is that too rigorous (frankly, focusing on the sin without pastoral care or tact) tends to drive people away. This is unfortunate, and to be blunt it is every bit as much a problem with the person who turns away from the Church and frankly from Truth as it is with the confessor (or preacher) who presents this truth tactlessly or carelessly.

The NYT ignores this fact when it focused solely on its boo-group, the conservatives. We often run the danger of being to rigorous, but that danger is no worse than the danger of being too lax ("saying, 'This is not a sin,' or something like that"). That "This is not a sin" is exactly the message which the NYT is saying.

They also ignore that the whole part here is pastoral, since much of the focus is on the sacrament of confession. There are a few key things pre-supposed by this sacrament which are roundly ignored here:
  1. That sin is a reality, and that we are do it
  2. That homosexuality (meaning the acts and not just the disordered orientation [3]), abortion, and contraception specifically are among those things which are sinful
  3. That confession requires an acknowledgement of the sin and repentance from it, meaning that the assumption is that the person in the confessional already knows that abortion, homosexual acts, and contraception are sins and is making a resolve to no commit them anymore
  4. That the purpose of confession is to grant God's mercy and forgiveness through the absolution of sins.

 Most of the rest of the interview is stuff that not only the Pope but also the bishops, even the conservative ones, have pretty much always been saying. The whole concept of a seamless garment of life, for example, is not new to this papacy. The idea that there is some context to salvation is not something invented in the last few decades, let alone the last few years. It seems to me that the pope is here saying that the fundamental thing is the Gospel ("good news") of Jesus Christ and of our salvation--which, of course, implies that there is something (sin, damnation, hell) to be saved from--and that this should be the first thing upon which we focus. But notice that he does not stop there, despite the NYT's portrayal. To quote the pope again:
"A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence."

Notice that all three of these things are necessary for a good homily, and necessary in the order listed: first the good news, then the (theological/doctrinal) catechesis, then the moral consequences. Yet, to read the media's coverage of it, it somehow becomes a clarion call to ignore catechesis and morality [4].

As for the pope, he is not ignoring the realities of sin, but rather is choosing to focus on the beauty of sanctity and of the Church, on the goodness of God's love and mercy, and on the Truth of the Gospels. The morality flows from first being drawn to the beauty of the Gospels, and then to the Truth of the Faith. There's nothing wrong with that, save what the media attempts to corrupt.

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[1] Father John Zuhlsdorf, plus Jimmy Akin, and the folks at the Get Religion blog could all dedicate their lives to this and still not be able to undo all the damage which the mainstream media has done. 

[2] To pick just one single media hack job. There will be more, and worse distortions (I'm probably looking at you, Slate, Huffington Post).

[3] Has everybody already forgotten about the whole "gay lobby" thing? Or the fact that the pope quite clearly calls it a thing from the devil:
Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that's just it’s form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God. . . . Let’s look to St. Joseph, Mary, and the Child to ask fervently that they defend the Argentine family in this moment. . . .May they support, defend, and accompany us in this war of God.

How about his statements about the importance of the family, by which he rather clearly means the Traditional Family? Or the fact that in the first few months of his papacy, he mentioned the reality of the devil in more than a few of his early homilies/other addresses.

[4] Not to mention the NYT's rather pointed (and pointless) slight against those who like the Tridentine Mass.

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