Over at The Jericho Tree, Fr Stephen Wang has posted a piece by Austen Ivereigh (hereafter AI ... well, why not?) about the pope's interview. I like Fr Stephen very much. His sister is godmother to one of my boys. So what I say here is by no means intended as a criticism of him personally.
I do fear, however, that AI's explanation and defence of Pope Francis's interview is, if anything, even more alarming than the interview itself! I shall confine my remarks to briefly summarizing AI's arguments before stating where I think they fall down. I will then set out two key errors that I believe underpin AI's thinking, although he's not unique in making them. He's only following what is tragically a party line.
1) AI'S ARGUMENT: The key moment in the interview for AI is when Pope Francis says he views the Church as a field hospital. People must feel themselves healed first, for example, from the social exclusion imposed on homosexuals. Then they can hear God's message.
CHES'S COMMENT: Like anyone, gay people want to feel loved and accepted as persons. The problem is that in our tolerant age, it is nearly impossible to get people to understand that you still like them when you condemn what they do. To speak against the act of homosexuality is, in their view, to speak against the homosexual person, so unless we are prepared to stop saying that homosexual acts are wrong, we will never win this battle. In other words, the Catholic definition of homophobia is considerably narrower than the world’s definition. And, how can you square that circle?
Moreover, there is a problem with the metaphor in the first place. The Church is not just dealing with the wounded: if it were, it might have time to deal with them more gently. It is dealing with hostile and aggressive enemies as well: the world, the flesh and (Pope Francis's favourite topic) the devil. So, the language of mercy is needed, but so too is the language of truth and clarity. No doubt Pope Francis thinks no differently, but in the way he parses this mercy strategy, he sounds oddly like he is pretending the field hospital is not being constantly bombarded by satanic ordnance. And that is why every liberal newspaper from here to the Moon interpreted his talk of mercy like a Neville Chamberlain speech.
2) AI'S ARGUMENT: Francis is turning down the volume on moral issues because the autonomous individuals of the modern world are offended by them. Because of this, everyone is now paying attention to his prophetic gestures, like when he talks about migrants or joblessness. So, now the world can hear the most important part of the Christian message about love.
CHES'S COMMENT: Yes, but the world is not hearing that message about love, or at least not remotely understanding it, except in its own terms. Instead, the media is picking up only the papal messages that sound like statements by the religious department of the UN (note AI's examples are all issues of social justice). In other words, turning down the doctrinal volume is making the Church sound like the Catholic NGO that Francis is afraid of us becoming. How very ironic!
3) AI's ARGUMENT Francis wants to reorder the ends and the means of the Christian message, so that the reason for being good (love of God) comes before the means of being good (ethics). Focusing on morality is the height of insanity, say the supporters of this policy.
CHES'S ANSWER: There are two problems here, the first being that people are getting the message about love but not the prophetic dimension that it contains. Curiously, AI quotes from Vanity Fair which published a piece headlined ‘Blissed Out Hipster Pope Has Favorite Fellini Movie’. Therein, the author claimed that Pope Francis's message was: “let’s stop worrying what other people do with their genitals and uteri, and start spreading God’s love”.
Yes, read it again! Vanity Fair got the love message. But love in contemporary discourse is not the tough love of the crucifixion. So, where do we go from there?
The fundamental communications problem here is that Pope Francis, and AI with him, are trying to grapple with a caricature according to which the Church is obsessed with law before love. But AI is a shrewd enough operator to know that you cannot correct a caricature; at best, you can only ham it up so much that people realise that it is not true (like, I dare say, Boris Johnson ... but that does not mean I want Boris Johnson for pope!). There is a kind of utopianism underlying this reasoning according to which if people really understand the Church, they will convert. That might be true of some people. But by no means all, and probably least true of those who work to sustain this caricature of the Church in the public square.
4) AI's ARGUMENT: All the liberals' hopes are now pinned on changes that Pope Francis will never make. He is not going to buckle to reformist pressure or the ideology of the avant garde. Those who think Francis is that kind of a reformer are making a category error.
CHES'S COMMENTS: I agree that Francis is not in agreement with those who are advocating a revolutionary agenda in the Church. But the genie is out of the bottle again, and for that he must take responsibility. You cannot excuse him: Francis has put heart into the reformers' fight once more.
Moreover, he has talked about devolving responsibility for doctrinal policing to bishops' conferences, and accused parts of the Curia of being in danger - come on, that is code for being guilty - of being instruments of censorship. If he wants the doctrinal chaos of the 1960s and 1970s to descend on us once more, then by all means let him so devolve the CDF. Francis's view that such devolution is even a possibility in our age of doctrinal decadence speaks volumes about the naivety he himself admits to in the interview.
5) AI'S ARGUMENT: Francis promotes the idea of the Church as the people of God, and thus talks of infallibilitas inhering in the whole Church, the mechanism for the Church's development being the dialogue between pope, bishops and people.
CHES'S COMMENTS: This itself is a travesty of what Francis said: the pope was careful enough to say 'infallibiltas in credendo' (infallibility in the things to be believed); that is counter-distinguished from the 'infallibilitas in docendo' (infallibility in the things to be taught) which is enjoyed by the bishops teaching in union with the Pope. So, AI scores something of an own goal on this one.
But, as I argued in my post yesterday, the problem here is this:
In an age of dogmatic decadence in which this populism has not been a minor issue but a major one, - an age in which vast numbers of Catholics have lost the link between right belief and love of God - his emphasis is on the dialogue between the believing and the teaching Church. This is a bit like vaunting the benefits of jogging to a man in a wheelchair.
The problem is not that the people do not have the infallibilitas in credendo. The problem is that religious education is in a state of utter decadence in many Catholic institutions. I and many people see that as a matter of fact. If the pope wants to heal wounds, he is going to have to start with the massive wound of ignorance among the Catholic people because of which they are largely inept to join in any kind of doctrinal dialogue. We are in an age of religious illiteracy!
I suggest AI makes these errors for two reasons which are lurking beneath his reasoning:
1. He actually accepts as true the caricature of the Church obsessed with certain doctrines. I'd love to know where he goes to Mass. In this country at least, the Church has been singularly silent or rather muffled on many issues like abortion, contraception and gay marriage. The Church has not been obsessed with talking about them; it has been obsessed with NOT talking about them. Catholic Voices has been a very recent initiative and I'm sure AI would be the last to accept that they have been obsessed!
But, let's face the truth: the English Church has tried out the Franciscan strategy of turning the doctrinal volume down! We have been one of its laboratories! And where has it got us? The eve of Benedict's visit here was a high point of anti-Catholic caricature.
2. AI also makes these errors because I think, like many in the Church since Vatican II, he has forgotten the concept of the moral obex (obstacle) He thinks that if people just hear the truth which has been sufficiently well expressed, they will be able to see our point. This is the same mentality which wants to see other denominations and religions only in the light of the fragments of truth they contain, rather than taking into account their lacunae; indeed, never in the light of the errors they propagate. This radically optimistic view of religious difference is utterly naive about the influence of sin, and totally forgetful of the intellectual and moral effects of error. We no longer talk in these categories because we want to be merciful And look where it has brought us...
And what of dear Pope Francis? I just saw a clip of him talking during his interview with the press on the plane back from Brazil when he made this remark (I paraphrase but this is the essence):
Gay lobby in the Vatican? Nobody has ever come up to me with a gay ID card in the Vatican.
In that phrase lies all the flippant naivety - I'm sorry but the remark is both flippant and naive - of a man who is already proving a fine tool in the hands of those he thinks he is fighting.
Outrageous conclusion? Well, dear reader, just think about that Vanity Fair article:
“Let’s stop worrying what other people do with their genitals and uteri, and start spreading God’s love”
Ooh, just feel the kerygma!