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This image shows Pope Francis conversing with a woman in an elegantly decorated room. Pope Francis, dressed in his traditional white papal attire, appears to be speaking while gesturing with his hand. The woman, wearing a black dress adorned with golden buttons and puff shoulders, is smiling warmly as she listens. Behind them, a large painting featuring a religious scene enhances the formal setting. The image has a watermark of “CBS News” in the bottom right corner.Pope Francis greets Norah O'Donnell before an exclusive interview with the "CBS Evening News" anchor at the Vatican April 24, 2024, for an interview ahead of the Vatican's inaugural World Children's Day. (OSV News photo/courtesy CBS NEWS)

It was the story that wasn’t.

After initial excerpts from the Holy Father’s interview with “60 Minutes” circulated, commentators online objected that Pope Francis denigrated conservatives in a radical way.

Except he didn’t.

Now that we have the full interview, it is worth citing the question posed to Pope Francis—and his answer  in full—to correct the record:

Norah O'Donnell: There are conservative bishops in the United States that oppose your new efforts to revisit teachings and traditions. How do you address their criticism?
Pope Francis [English translation]: You used an adjective, “conservative.” That is, conservative is one who clings to something and does not want to see beyond that. It is a suicidal attitude. Because one thing is to take tradition into account, to consider situations from the past, but quite another is to be closed up inside a dogmatic box.

Pope Francis’ comments are clearly far more nuanced than many initial reactions suggested. He distinguishes between those trapped in a “dogmatic box” and those with a reverence for tradition and the past. It is the former group that he criticizes. There is no rejection of conservatism tout court.

What follows in the interview only underlines this distinction, where CBS notes that Pope Francis has not changed doctrine on a host of issues. If the pope has criticisms for some conservatives, it does not keep him from seeing the value of protecting what is good and true in the deposit of faith. Indeed, he has frequently quoted St. Vincent de Lérins: “We hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by everyone.”

The pope’s invitation to conservatives

None of this means that the pope did not offer conservatives an opportunity for growth. Another of his favorite quotes from Vincent de Lérins clearly offers a program for development in line with Cardinal John Henry Newman, one that can be challenging for some traditionalists, if not conservatives: “Christian doctrine also follows this law of progress. It is consolidated through the years, developed over time, refined by age.”

This underlines a point Pope Francis makes in “Evangelii Gaudiumthat church institutions, however venerable, should be judged for their missionary orientation. All of the church’s activities must include “new life and an authentic evangelical spirit,” or the church’s “fidelity to her own calling” (No. 26).

It is in light of such considerations that we can understand Pope Francis’ comments to members of the Society of Jesus in Portugal last summer, in which he cautioned conservatives against a certain “backward-looking” disposition.

Clearly the reverence for the past and for tradition that Pope Francis urges cannot be one that fixates on the past to the exclusion of the present and future. The pope’s message for conservatives: To preserve something, you have to be willing to let go of what is not of God. To be truly conservative, you have to be willing to allow for change and development that preserves and develops the best of God’s gifts to us. In other words, conservatives might be better inclined toward ressourcement than aggiornamento, but they cannot be entirely closed to the latter.

This kind of fidelity might also bring to mind the Gospel of John and the parable of the vintner who prunes the branches of the vine. Pope Francis spoke movingly of this passage at a Mass during his trip to Brazil for World Youth Day 2013:

Called by God—I believe that it is important to rekindle constantly an awareness of our divine vocation, which we often take for granted in the midst of our many daily responsibilities: as Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15,16). This means returning to the source of our calling. In reality, this living, this abiding in Christ marks all that we are and all that we do. It is precisely this “life in Christ” that ensures our apostolate is effective, that our service is fruitful: “I appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit be authentic ” (cf. Jn 15,16). It is not creativity, however pastoral it may be, or meetings or planning that ensure our fruitfulness, even if these are greatly helpful. But what assures our fruitfulness is our being faithful to Jesus, who says insistently: “Abide in me and I in you” (Jn 15,4). And we know well what that means: to contemplate him, to worship him, to embrace him, in our daily encounter with him in the Eucharist, in our life of prayer, in our moments of adoration; it means to recognize him present and to embrace him in those most in need.

Ultimately, the goal of conservatism is perfection—in the literal meaning of the Latin root—not stagnation or ossification. It requires a ressourcement or recovery of what is best in the tradition in light of God’s continued call to us today.

In the United States, some Christian conservatives have recently been accused of a kind of “Christian nationalism” that confuses their American way of life with God’s revelation. Well, Francis is holding them to their own standard. What of the creed is really of God? What is of the city of man?

Can U.S. Catholics become more responsible consumers of media?

In the United States, our conventional notions of liberal and conservative routinely fail to capture what Pope Francis is up to. Not only is he not an American whose thinking is constrained by the liberal/conservative binary, but he does a better job than most of us in being open to finding truth wherever it is to be found.

And yet those are exactly the kind of labels that many of both his most ardent supporters and strident critics rush to adopt, whether to claim him or shame him.

If we are to benefit from Pope Francis’ wisdom, we have to continue to seek to cultivate a healthy skepticism about how we consume media.

That includes taking stock of the incentives different stakeholders have in presenting one-sided images of the pope, including commentators and talking heads whose opinions we respect and tend to believe more easily. We also must be honest in naming the one-sided images of the pope we find attractive.

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