Opinionista Russell Pollitt 27 September 2013

The tug-of-war for Pope Francis

Since the release of an exclusive interview last week in which Pope Francis spoke at length on a number of issues including his own life, the vision he has for the Catholic Church, tricky moral issues, the art and movies he enjoys, and his own struggle in prayer, I cautiously claim that a tug-of-war seems to have erupted over the Pope.

Those on the conservative side of the church are slightly unnerved and picking away at words to prove that nothing has changed. Some on the right have gone as far as suggesting he ceases to talk as he is sowing confusion. Catholics with a more liberal outlook, on the other hand, are claiming victory over the more austere, dogmatic, rigorous and uncompromising church they perceive the conservatives desire. The interview has been used by both sides to sharpen their swords. Have both missed the point?

Psychologist Janet L. Surrey describes “authentic connection” as “the core of psychological wellbeing and is the essential quality of a growth-fostering and healing relationships. In moments of deep connection in relationship, we break out of isolation and contraction and move into a more spacious state of mind and heart.” Surrey suggests that without an authentic connection nothing can grow and no healing can take place. It is no secret that growth is needed in the Catholic Church and, more than growth, healing. Both will be painful. Both require confrontation. The widespread sex-abuse scandal, the abuse of power, the reported power struggles in the heart of the Vatican and recent revelations of money laundering at the Vatican Bank are all indicative of the desperate need for reform, or perhaps more succinctly, growth and healing. To argue whose “side” the Pope is actually on is rather irrelevant given the mammoth task that faces his governance of the Catholic Church.

The Pope said nothing new. There have been no changes in doctrine and he has affirmed his own fidelity to the church. Yet, there is something undeniably new. He is the first pope from the Americas, he is a Jesuit, has plenty of experience “in the trenches” (which was not the case for both Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II) and is the first pope to choose the name Francis. Since the moment Pope Francis was elected the world (not just Catholics) have watched him closely. He has done things differently, his actions have spoken louder than his words; yet his words have been as effective as a lance.

The Catholic Church had become so accustomed to a top-down paternal approach by popes and bishops that Francis’ new fraternal way of talking and acting has indeed been unusual, transformational. His willingness to admit that he had messed up (as Jesuit Provincial of Argentina) and is a companion on the journey who does not have all the answers, heralds the advent of a humility which, sadly, had become less noteworthy in the modern papacy. He is the first pope, in 50 years, who did not participate in the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) which was historically significant as the Church tried to navigate its way into the modern world. He has a different perspective of the Council. Both Benedict XVI and John Paul II seemed to be embattled in its interpretation and the politics that accompanied it through both their pontificates.

His lack of participation certainly does not mean he has no understanding of the Council. The language he uses, calling the church “the people of God”, and placing himself as “part of this people” reveals his deep assimilation of and appreciation for the Council. Vatican II envisioned a much more dialogical sense of governance, a church unafraid of consultation and closer collaboration between the lay faithful, priests, bishops and the pope. Unfortunately this mode of proceeding was neglected and a much more magisterial or institutional form emerged in the papacy of John Paul II.

Pope Francis resonates with the vision of the Council: “We should not even think, therefore, that ’thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.” He goes on to say that “The church is the totality of God’s people.” For many, they precipitously hear that they have a role to play, a contribution to make that goes beyond simply obeying – which has become the perceived modus operandi. There is space for different voices, and these voices should be heard. In the long history of the church different voices have always spoken, whether they have all been given equal hearing is another question. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine did not always speak with the same voice and yet we are still listening to both of them. Francis is a leader who clearly wants to listen to the whole church. He encourages the church to work hard “to develop a profound theology of the woman.” He says that the feminine genius is needed wherever important decisions are made. Many woman feel excluded, Francis not only wants to hear their voices but have them offer their genius in decision making.

The Jesuit Pope does not see the church primarily as the moral watchdog of the world. He does not focus on acts but on people. He reveals a profound respect for people where they are (not where it is considered best for them to be). He says “… it is no possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.” “We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.” He sees the primary role of the church as one that proclaims the mercy, love and hope of Jesus Christ. He wants the ministers of the church to be people who “walk through the dark night” with others and who know how to “dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.” People get lost (we all get lost) but how much more traumatic it is when you constantly have a finger wagged in your face telling you that you have not made the grade? “Dialogue” and “descend” mean walking with and never losing sight of the mercy, love and hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This, for Francis, is the opposite of being locked up in small things: “in small minded rules.”

The pope does not change the moral teaching of the church but certainly sees things through a different lens, from a different perspective. He cautions against tunnel vision by saying that we cannot insist only on issues like abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraception. “…it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Francis is a man with broad vision who recognises that not all the moral and dogmatic teachings of the church are equivalent. He warns against the obsessive transmission of disjointed doctrine which are “imposed insistently.” It is interesting to note that he gives no examples of what he considers to be “imposed insistently” but emphasises the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives for those who are divorced, remarried, in same sex relationships and other difficult situations. Francis knows that most people live their lives in the “grey” and he is not afraid to enter that grey and meet people there. His view is overwhelmingly incarnational and a good antidote to, at times, creeping monophysitism (the view that Jesus is one single nature – divine – and therefore does not really enter into human experience).

The most evocative image the pope uses is that of the church as a “field hospital after battle”. He says that it is useless to ask a seriously injured person if they have high cholesterol and about their blood sugar levels. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

To interpret Pope Francis as backing either the right or the left horse is to miss the point and play a frustrating and futile game of tug-of-war. He is not telling us what to see but how to see – through the lens of mercy. He makes no new moral or doctrinal assertions but radically changes the conversation within and outside the church offering many people the hope he speaks of. What is new is the style and the emphasis coupled with a deep honesty, humility and patience. This model, his model, lacks in so many leadership positions and in our political spectrum: put the person first, above all else.

He understands the all too often messy human world and does not fire answers and solutions but rather seeks (and invites us to do the same) to enter into and make an authentic connection within ourselves and with others. This journey, navigating our individual and collective mess, will lead us from contraction and isolation into a more spacious state of mind and heart where growth can happen and healing take place. Maybe it’s the old thesis-antithesis-synthesis which all life needs for there to be dynamism. That’s the point of it all: step back and drop the rope so that the new horizons and hope become clear. DM

Russell Pollitt SJ is a South African Jesuit Priest currently doing a course in Portland, Oregon, USA. Until July 2013 he was parish priest of Holy Trinity in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, and chaplain to the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg.

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