The recent interview given by Pope Francis has garnered much headlines in both the secular and the Catholic press. The content of the interview is rich and diverse; it is also a lengthy read. Since this interview was originally conducted for Jesuit journals around the world, it is especially rich in Jesuit-related materials and it truly displays his Jesuit character. That being said, controversies often overshadow everything else and this is no different. What drew the attention of the media were his comments on issues such as abortion, contraception and especially homosexuality.
For example, the title of a commentary published in The Guardian was “Pope Francis' Stunning Blow to Conservatives”. On the other hand, a commentator for LiteSiteNews described Francis' comments as having the effect of “...rocking the Catholic world”. Is the Holy Father taking a public stance against the Catholic Church's teaching on these moral issues, thus “finally” aligning the Church with the rest of the secular world? Let us try to better understand his words.
Beyond Gay and Straight
I think that Francis' emphasis on “the person” is the key to understand his point of view. We can sort ourselves into many different categories, but we are first and foremost the adopted and loved children of God. God's love for us goes beyond the category of gay and straight. We are invited to see with the eyes of God. This provides us with the proper hermeneutic to understand Francis' vision, which is found at the beginning of the interview: “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon”, and his comment later on, “God is greater than sin”. It doesn't matter whether we are gay or straight because we are all sinners loved by God.
Since Day One
This “sinner loved by God” understanding is very important. We are neither sinners only nor loved-by-God only. Both qualities equally constitute our original identity. This sheds light onto Francis' vision of the Church as “the home of all” (or la casa di tutti in its original Italian) when he was discussing the topic of personal sanctity within the Church. We can say that it is the home of all because everyone belongs to it since day one. Many of the mainstream media such as The Guardian, Huffington Post and Washington Post took this phrase and changed it to “the home for all”. To me, the latter phrase seems to imply that some belonged to this home, but now the membership has opened up and wants to be the home for all. This is a tale of two images: between “you've always been a part of the family” and “you've been on the outside, but we are welcoming you now”.
What About Morality?
The Catholic sensibility towards sin and morality has been understood as “love the sinner, hate the sin”. This is also the Church's position on homosexuality: love the sinner (the homosexual person), hate the sin (the homosexual act). He points out the role of the priest who hears confessions: priests need to take responsibility for the person instead of being merely too rigorous or too lax. What kind of situation is this person going through at the moment? What has caused him to sin? While the object of the act is the focus of the discussion on sinful acts in Catholic moral theology, we also need to consider the person in his concrete life situations to better understand how to help him. Human lives can get very messy.
The focus on the whole person on a personal level is crucial in what Francis means by accompanying people. We cannot walk with others if we only see them as something without a subjectivity such as “sinner #9394”, and our duty is to dispense ideologies and phrases to them. When this is the case, the idea of sin and redemption remain on an intellectual level for both parties, and it can be very dehumanizing. We need to shatter the overly simplistic mentality of making others download correct doctrines as if people are merely computers. We need to consider the person as he is and be merciful, because this is what the Lord does. By taking into account the personal context, we see a better picture of his person, and how this person is to be accompanied on his journey towards the right direction that is God.
Another point of contention is when Francis says that it is not necessary to talk about issues related to abortion, gay marriage and contraception all the time. This should not be treated an attempt to trivialize. For the record, Francis himself says in the interview that the teaching of the Catholic Church on these matters “...is clear, and I am a son of the church”. In other words, why are we beating a dead horse? The very next day after the publication of the interview, he publicly denounced the evil of abortion in a meeting with Catholic gynecologists. His position is clear.
Being a Jesuit, Francis is a true missionary at heart. His approach towards the pastoral ministry of the Church reflects this. When we are proclaiming the Good News in a missionary setting, the essentials of the faith go first. These “essentials” are also the ones which others can relate to the most, ones that touch the core of their beings and make their hearts burn like the disciples at Emmaus. The person is your target audience, and the most important thing is to help him comprehend and feel the love of God for him. This is to say that some doctrines should be taught first, so that the soil can be nourished and be more receptive to further truths about the faith. Do not go in with all guns blazing about fire and brimstone, or you immediately lose your audience.
It is within this context of a missionary attitude that the “obsession” about making certain doctrines the focus is mentioned, and this is the reason why Francis brings up the topic of abortion, gay marriage and contraception. The West can be considered as missionary territory in the twenty-first century. We should talk about these issues, but let us talk about something else first. Indeed, he says in that particular section: “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.” The obsession is not on the “whats" of the moral theology, but on the “hows" of evangelizing with a missionary mindset. It is not about the obsession on abortion, gay marriage and contraception per se, as suggested by Reuters and the New York Times.
The message of Francis on these specific controversial issues is not novel in its theological content, but he is proposing a more pastoral, person-centred approach. The shepherd must know his sheep by name and values their respective context in life, because the goal is for all the sheep to have a personal and meaningful relationship with this God of love and mercy. It is true that these issues can be very complex and delicate when it involves the personal life experience of others; that being said, when it comes to a pastoral, person-centred approach, I honestly don't think that we do this very well as a church. This goes for both clergy and laypeople alike. The wake-up call from our Holy Father is both necessary and deserved.