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Feeling more Catholic than the pope? I find your lack of faith disturbing

By now, most have read that last week’s “interview” between La Repubblica’s Eugenio Scalfari, 89, and Pope Francis, was really more of the former’s recollection of a friendly conversation between the two.

It was obvious from day one that this interview, and its translation, was not on the same par as that published by the Jesuit journals of the world less than two weeks before. That fact has just been underlined, and the gulf of quality widened, by recent revelations. Both remain important, illustrative of the Holy Father’s basic ecclesiological paradigm, his personality, and his vision for the mission of the Church, but not in the same degree. As you would expect.

Scalfari used neither a notepad or a recorder, and while I am sure that any one-on-one with the pope will be memorable enough that you are not likely to forget that much of it, even at such a venerable age, it seems like a journalistic mortal sin to publish conversation as if these are recorded quotes during a professional interview.

Given that, I do not find it surprising that a couple of the details get mixed up. Scalfari is not a theologian, in fact, not even a practicing Catholic. So, the fact that he misremembers whether Pope Francis had his mystical moment before or after accepting the office, or whether he or the translator captured all the nuance of the primacy of conscience  is neither surprising nor shocking.

The Vatican confirmed that the basic tone and tenor of the interview was accurate and trustworthy. The thoughts expressed are the pope’s thoughts, technical and translation glitches aside. It is a “reconstruction and not a transcript” and “should be considered faithful on the whole to the mind of the pope, but not necessarily in its particular words and the accuracy of its details.”

One merely needs to read the interview with a basic understanding of Christian teaching and knowledge of the fact that not only is the pope Catholic but that he is, in fact, a bishop of the Church, and there are no theological or doctrinal problems to be found. A little benefit of the doubt is sufficient, to say nothing of thinking with the Church here.

By far, then, the most disturbing news of the week is the vitriolic and unabashed criticism of the bishop of Rome from some voices on what is often called the far right – though there are many self-described conservative Catholics who find this reaction appalling. And well they should.

(Some other rebuttals to this hysteria, and conservative clarifications to calm the nerves, can be found on The Dish, The Deacon’s Bench, National Catholic Register,  and even the godfather of ‘far right’ Catholic bloggers, Fr. Z!)

–I suspect there would not have been so much confusion if we had not had such a recent long streak of obsessing with literal translations and verbatim fidelity of words themselves, rather than focusing on the message being conveyed by the words. But I digress —

To be clear, I have no problem with the criticism of any religious leader, including the bishop of Rome. In fact, a healthy Church, one committed to the principle on ongoing reform, is made evident by those that love the Church are the first willing to openly recommend improvements. A culture of fear and thought-control, wherein everyone simply has to toe the party line, is detrimental to the overall wellbeing of any institution, especially the Body of Christ.

But criticism demands responsibility. It is one thing to not like the color of the pope’s shoes as a matter of personal taste, and anyone can express such an opinion. It is something else to claim the pope is a heretic, a relativist, a modernist, or confused about the role of the bishop of Rome without some kind of theological legwork to back up your claim. And when the attack is made ad hominem, it just loses all respectability.

Since the moment he appeared on the balcony in March, I have heard complaints and an unceasing stream of vitriol from either the radical traditionalist set, or the plain old neo-con clericalist set.

Not all who respect tradition are traditionalists, and not all who claim the title traditionalist are  “radical” traditionalists. The former may have greeted this latest interview with a raised eyebrow or two, but then immediately began looking through the Italian for translation errors (and there were a few) or intuitively read the pope’s words with the docility of will and humility of intellect required of all faithful , and realized what was being said.

Likewise, not all who identify with the label conservative – whether politically, morally, socially, or theologically – fall into the particular subset of neo-conservative, and not all of these somehow substitute the dogmas of unrestrained capitalism for the Christian gospel. But there are certainly those who do, and they tend also to adhere precisely to these sins of clericalism, careerism, materialism and triumphalism that Pope Francis has been warning us about. No wonder they are upset.

I am happy to be in a Church with traditionalists and conservatives, innovators and liberals, even if (as a reform-minded, ecumenically devoted centrist), we do not agree on everything, because that is the nature of a universal Church. All I expect from all sides is that you think with the Church, you at least give your local bishop or that of Rome the benefit of the doubt, and when that is not sufficient, try harder to employ a hermeneutic of charity.

For my entire lifetime, we have had two popes who were considered conservative even by general Catholic standards, at least concerning matters ad intra. Pope Benedict bent over backwards to accommodate the traditionalist wing, like the Good Shepherd, giving disproportionate attention to a very small minority in the Church that had wandered far from the flock. He was the bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, and tasked with making hard choices for the sake of unity; this is what he did.

Now we have a pope who nobody could seriously describe as liberal: He will not be changing Church doctrine on abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, or war anytime soon. Neither is the question of women in the presbyterate, nor gay marriage, suddenly on the fore of the Church’s agenda. Relieved or disappointed, you can take that to the bank.

Call him a reformer, a moderate, a centrist, creative orthodox or just plain Catholic: He will bring change, but only the change that the gospel demands and that which only hubris and fear have withheld. Some will find it too much too fast, others will find it too little too late.

He may not cater to the particular agenda of the parties that have been in ascendancy for an entire generation, if you want to think in those terms, but is instead fixated on the timeless Gospel of Jesus Christ, and willing to free the Church from self-imposed bondage where necessary, to promote that central message and mission. It is about time someone did.

pope francis thumbsup

NB to the liberal and progressive set: “This is the Church. If you don’t like it, leave!” is exactly the kind of thinking that such über-conservative dissidents have had for the last 35 years for everyone that did not agree with them. Now we come, perhaps, to the turn of the tide, and there is temptation in some quarters to respond in kind. Don’t. The Church needs them, and what they need is conversion and healing, which is unlikely to be found in the outer darkness. Treat them as you wish they had treated you over these last decades: with charity.

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1 Comment

  1. Eloquent and reasonable, A.J. I would only add that many of us Protestants find the Bishop of Rome to be a breath of fresh air. We do also hear from our ranks some of the same “harrumphs” that show he has startled doctrinaire conservatives. But he has an oddly faithful following among people like me who are looking for a genuinely spiritual leader to lead us into a more faithful future.

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