I have sat back a bit to observe the reaction to Pope Francis’s interview with Father Antonio Spadaro. So far, I have only mentioned it briefly in my last post where the Holy Father touched upon a topic I was already working on. I do not think anyone is surprised that pundits on the far left and right have interpreted the Holy Father’s remarks as expressing freewheeling liberalism. Neither is it surprising that those loyal to the Holy Father have dedicated most of their time to clarifying what the Holy Father actually said. Hopefully, now more time will be spent assimilating his words without fear of receiving or conveying the wrong message.
I think Pope Francis in the interview is perceived by many commentators the way he must be by the Vatican Police who are constantly challenged in their efforts to maintain a parameter of safety around this man who is of the people, and who finds it necessary to relate directly with them. The Vatican police must wonder if the Holy Father is aware of the danger, because he does not seem to show it. On the contrary, from his contact with the people as well as from his teaching and example, it seems that Pope Francis sees a greater danger in not taking such risks.
It is hard to gauge the content and tone of a conversation that is reported only from the side of the listener and presented to the public only after editing (as well as translation outside of Italy). Still, the Holy Father approved the Italian text, and in both content as well as tone the interview is fully consistent with the Pope Francis that we see and hear everyday. He does not present himself as too terribly concerned that he is risking being misunderstood.
What Pope Francis has to say is far too important and on the mark to subject to constant clarifications. What he said is dangerous, just as it is dangerous for him to push outside the safety zone created by those who job it is to protect him. But the danger is not the point, nor is it all that important relative to the mission that leads him to take risks. The exercise of discernment and prudence are both necessary to the spiritual life, and bring with them no guarantee of infallibility. Life is messy and we make mistakes. Pope Francis is not changing doctrine. He is saying more urgently what the Church has been saying for fifty years. We need to think on our feet, adhering to the deposit of faith, but with an ample measure of Catholic intellectual independence and creative intuition.
The crisis that we have been experiencing since the Vatican II has not been caused primarily by a subversive whitewash of the faith from those in positions of authority and influence, but by a shift from what Pope Francis calls an excessive reliance on “disciplinary solutions” to a “dynamic reading” of the Gospel. The immediate result of the Council was a near complete disregard for discipline and a kind of dynamism that seemed to acknowledge no law. The reactionary attempt to restore discipline has been, among some, nearly a wholesale rejection of the historical dynamics that require courageous discernment, “patience” and “waiting.” Pope Francis thus brushes aside the “mind guards” and, looking over his shoulder, wades out into the people as if to say, politely and with good humor, “Enough is enough. We all need to get the smell of the sheep on us and stop wringing our hands. Jesus Christ is in charge here. He will show us the middle way.”
One thing that would be helpful in order to move beyond the nail-biting every time Pope Francis appears to be more “adventurous” than we deem appropriate would be to stop playing what he says off of Pope Benedict, or suggesting that we must interpret everything he says in the light of Pope Benedict. It really ought to go without saying that there must be continuity, but as Francis himself points out in the interview:
Yes, there are hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity, but one thing is clear: the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today—which was typical of Vatican II—is absolutely irreversible.
I do not even think it is really all that helpful, even though it is true, to say that Pope Benedict, as a professor and head of the Holy Office, came from a theological and disciplinary background, while Pope Francis, as a Jesuit in South America and former religious provincial has more the experience of a pastor. More to the point is that providence has provided us with these two popes in succession at this time, and both of them in their own way have acted not only in the capacity of teacher, but also of prophet.
On that score, Pope Francis refers to the prophetic character of religious life which is rooted in the radical idealism of the Gospel, but which cannot remain static without becoming a caricature of primitive apostolic life. The Holy Father says that this kind of prophecy cannot include positive opposition to the hierarchy, “although the prophetic function and the hierarchical structure do not coincide.” He goes on:
Being prophets may sometimes imply making waves. I do not know how to put it…. Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say ‘a mess.’ But in reality, the charism of religious people is like yeast: prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel.
What the Holy Father says specifically about religious, applies more generally to the whole Church. As I said in my last post, the naïve utopianism of those on the left as well as the abstraction of nostalgia on the right can only offer false promises. There is no safety in the past and no certain new dawn in the future. But there is always the Church in the present that continues to live and breathe. God’s providence is found here. Everything else is a mirage. For this reason, as helpful and necessary as all the concerned commentaries and clarifications are, we also need to allow Pope Francis to speak more loudly than all this policing. We need to hear right now and without filters what the Spirit is saying Church in the present.