The Gospel and the Rest

The Lefebvrist archbishop Bernard Fellay has decried Pope Francis as “a modernist.” In Catholic circles, that is a real call to arms. Modernism was an early 20th century heresy, condemned by Pius X, hunted down by the integristi and the target of latter-day heretic hunters.  Of course, Archbishop Fellay’s Society of Pius X disowns the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, because they entail Modernist-like doctrinal developments, like religious freedom, which the Lefebvrists oppose.

Germain Grisez, the dean of traditional American moralists and a careful thinker, has disparaged the pope for giving interviews “with as little care as he might unburden himself with friends after a good dinner with plenty of wine.” Robert Royal of the Faith in Politics Institute, a reflective conservative philosopher (and a friend), told the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, “I’m not sure he cares about being accurate [in laying out the church’s teaching]... he gets into an [evangelizing] dynamic and that seems to be the most important thing.... In some ways, it makes people very anxious.”


Royal is quite right. Pope Francis is in an evangelizing mode and that upsets people, especially culture-warriors, with a strategy of offensive-defense for the church’s insertion in the world. The papal teaching document Pope Francis cites most frequently is Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (“Evangelization in the Modern World”). Just as he plunges into crowds to embrace children, the sick and the disabled, Pope Francis keeps reaching out to those who have not accepted or rejected the Gospel or have been repelled by the failures of the church.

In its forbearance, the Jesuit pope’s evangelizing style echoes the opening presupposition to the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, a kind of first principle of religious encounter. He is always ready to give others what we Jesuits tease about as a “Plus Sign.” He is poised to see the good in people and engage them there.

In his late September interview with the Jesuit journals (See America, Sept. 30), Francis responded to some of his early critics calls for greater doctrinal clarity in his public statements. There he said, “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.... The proclamation of the gospel,” he said, “must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences flow.”

For Francis, whose motto is “Mercy,” God’s forbearance is at the heart of the Gospel. As for Jesus embarrassing the elders and forgiving the woman caught in adultery, for Pope Francis communicating God’s kindness comes before all else. Not only are the so-called “non-negotiables” of Catholic identity favored by culture warriors secondary; Pope Francis seems to believe that stress on judging others interferes with people hearing the good news in the Gospel. Sometimes, he even suggests that focusing on what others must do impairs our own ability to take the Gospel to heart. He grasps the truth in Jesus maxim about withholding judgment. A moralistic agenda very easily is transmuted into “the beam in [our] own eye.”

The notion of hierarchy of truths—the idea that not all truths of the faith have the same weight—has passed out of general use. But Francis has re-introduced one fundamental distinction, the Gospel itself—and all the rest. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Pope Francis told Father Antonio Spadaro in his interview. “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.” Francis takes us back to fundamentals. If we really grasp the Gospel, in God’s time, repentance will follow.

Like Saint Augustine in his more tolerant days, Francis seems to appreciate the wisdom of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Don’t be in a hurry to judge who does or does not belong to the City of God, he is telling us. That is God’s business and will be revealed on the last day.

The partisans of a smaller, purer church seem to ignore how in ‘Without Roots’ Pope Benedict owned that “[P]erhaps the church has forgotten that the tree of the Kingdom of God reaches beyond the visible church…” “Both [seculars/nonbelievers] and Catholics, seekers and believers,” he urged, “must reach [out to] each other with new openness.”  

In his effort to bring the gospel to those who have rejected it, Pope Francis has exchanged letters and hosted a visit with Eugenio Scafari, the atheist editor of La Repubblica. He has been criticized for allowing such informal contacts to become public. His critics also overlook Pope Benedict’s record on outreach to unbelievers.

The then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s ‘Without Roots’ published an exchange of letters and speeches he had had with a prominent secularist, Michele Pera, a former president of the Italian senate. The book rejected pure secularism, but it was also the common quest of a believer and an unbeliever of good will in quest for the Truth and the common good.

Later as pope, Benedict asked nonbelieving youth gathered with young Catholics at Notre Dame in Paris, to call the Church to purify itself of aberrations and to challenge their believing contemporaries to live their faith.

Blessed John Paul II also upset the guardians of orthodoxy in similar gestures of outreach. His ministry of apology to groups offended by the church did not receive wide notice, but it was resisted for years by cardinals and curialists. Eventually, it led to the Service of Pardon at Saint Peter’s on the First Sunday of Lent in 2000.

There he asked forgiveness for “offenses committed in the service of the Truth,” like the Inquisition and the persecution of heretics. Later that year in the Jubilee of Martyrs he honored Protestant as well as Catholic martyrs, including Protestant martyrs of the Reformation. So, Francis’ strategy of evangelization is not out of line with the spiritual and evangelizing ministry of his predecessors. He has just chosen to bring it to the forefront of his service, believing it is a gospel imperative.

Pope Francis is careless about being too precise, because he grasps the great vision at the heart of the Gospel. In speaking with Fr. Spadaro about the history of Jesuit spirituality, he criticizes the phase of Jesuit history that was “instructive/ascetic rather than mystical” and led to the Epitome, a kind of handbook of rules. Jesuit life, he insists is mystical. It must be open-ended and with eyes on the horizon. Given a choice between the spirit and the letter, he is clear: he chooses the spirit.

His lesson for today’s church is similar. Catholics’ focus must be on the Gospel. If it is not on the Gospel, he seems to be saying, then everything else becomes distorted and disordered. Moral theology when it neglects the Gospel impedes men and women from encountering Christ.

Under some conditions, precision and rigor are gifts that build up the church. In other situations, they are hindrances to growth and a flourishing life.  The time has come to test whether these gifts contribute to the life of the church or not. Once they gave form and meaning to Catholic life; they may do so again. But unless they are tempered in the fire of the Spirit and beaten against the anvil of the Gospel, they will rust away as the stale repetition of worn-out ideals.

Jesus also had his critics for preaching a message of God’s forgiving Love. Many of his parables challenge the expectations of the righteous who rejected Jesus’ companionship with sinners. “To what shall I compare this generation?” he asks. “They are like children in the marketplace who call out to the other children, ‘We played the flute for you and you did not dance; you sang a dirge and you did not mourn.” Accepting Jesus and his message were primary. The critics concern for ritual and moral purity made them blind to the gospel.

"The prostitutes and tax collectors," Jesus chided his critics, "are entering the Kingdom of God before you." The people who hear and see and feel Pope Francis preaching the Gospel--those who return to the church, those who have found hope once again, those who are inspired—may we not say the same of them? Have they not understood the gospel message? May we not say that they too are entering the Kingdom ahead of those who would check their qualifications on the way in?

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