I had not planned to say much about Pope Francis. He seems to say a lot. The press pick up some of it, feed it through the same filters as the liberals and secularists do (because, by and large the press is liberal and secular on these matters), and then decide he is mounting a challenge to the teaching of the Church. Men like me then look at what he actually said, analyse it, and say that it is perfectly orthodox, and we should not get things out of proportion. Our very own Geoffrey Sales has subjected the Pope’s latest interview to a withering analysis and, unless I am reading hims wrongly, concluded that he is a well-meaning sort of chap who wants everyone to love him and be happy, or, as Geoffrey put it: ‘what the Leninists used to call a useful idiot’ – that is someone who, whilst no liberal himself, finds nothing in liberalism which is dangerous.
At the risk of joining those of a conservative hue trying to ‘read Francis through Benedict’, let me try to say something about what I see. First, I see someone not versed in the American culture wars, or indeed, even in their European equivalent. He is a pastor, and his eyes are fixed on pastoral concerns, where the quality of mercy is not strained. If we, for example, read this through that prism, we get the idea:
‘According to St. Ignatius, great principles must be embodied in the circumstances of place, time and people. In his own way, John XXIII adopted this attitude with regard to the government of the church, when he repeated the motto, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.’
From a doctrinal and teaching perspective, this is scandalous; all error needs correcting, all sin rebuking, and all that is wrong should be put right. In this world it is not so for any pastor, the battles have to be chosen and fought where you think you can win them. That does not mean you abandon your principles, and here the Pope could be clearer; but it does mean that you don’t attract people to the message of the Gospel by starting with a set of rules and regulations. You begin with the message that God loves you and has saved you -and try not to put obstacles in the way of people coming to hear that message.
He sees ‘thinking with the Church’ as himself, with the whole community of the faithful, possessing infallibility in believing:
through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.
There is nothing wrong, or new, in this from a theoretical point of view, but quite what it means in practice will be interesting to see. But there can be no doubt that ‘dialogue’ has to be had, and anyone who now imagines that a priestly caste can decide for us all is living in a bygone era; the question is, how is that dialogue to be had, and will the Pope have the courage to make decisions when, as will be the case on may things, no consensus can be reached?
I doubt any of us would disagree when the Pope says:
“that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.”
The battle, of course, is continuous, and I like the image of a ‘Field Hospital’ more than that of a Law Court. God will judge us at the Last; but the Church is our Mother, and whilst a good mother rebukes when she must, she strives, through her love, to reduce the number of rebukes necessary.
Pope Francis grasps that for a mother, the first reaction to a wounded child is not to rebuke it for being foolish enough to be hurt, but rather to bind its wounds with love. This is Jesus eating with the sinners, seeking the lost sheep, forgiving the Prodigal; this is the hard message which the older brother and those who think they are righteous find difficult to receive; until, that is, they remember that they too are the sinners to save whom Jesus came into this world.
Francis, Bishop of Rome, grasps that big message. Do we?