Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Post-Authoritarian Pope

If you listen to the news, you have surely wondered just why Pope Francis insists on picking fights with the traditionalist wing of his church.  Don't judge the gays!  Give women a voice!  Skip the ermine cape!  It is a miracle, one mutters half in jest, that the guy has not yet gone the way of John Paul I.

Quite a bit of what is being reported this week now has its origin in a single source, an interview in the Jesuit magazine America, conducted by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J.  The interview is long, but well worth reading in its entirety.  The image of the Pope that emerges is better balanced, although not much less charming, than the caricature in the headlines.

As you might expect from one Jesuit talking to another, there is a lot of inside baseball.  One of the Pope's great heroes is a guy named Peter Faber, a companion of Loyola; he makes many offhand references to the Jesuit Constitution, the Institutes, and things like that.  These are the ordinary background of life in a particular order, like Lutherans talking about Samuel Simon Schmucker or the Smalcald Articles.  To outsiders, of course, it means a lot of googling.

But there are parts of the interview which have not yet attracted much attention, but ought to.  In particular, Francis talks about his own leadership style, and how it has changed through the years.

He became a Jesuit provincial at the remarkably young age of 36,   Here is how he describes himself in those days:

That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself.  ...
My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.

This is quite a contrast to the Pope we have seen recently, with his emphasis upon episcopal collegiality and the authority of regional bishops' conferences.  Nor, these days, is anybody accusing Francis of ultraconservatism.  (And that's an understatement).  The implication is that he has learned from his mistakes, and in fact been transformed by what he has learned.  This is an impressive quality, if genuine.

One image from the interview that has already attracted a lot of attention sis "the Church as a field hospital."  It is a brilliant and compelling picture, which deserves to be considered in context:

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “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. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! 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."

It is immediately after this, though -- and in this context -- that he says something rather complicated, but worth hearing.  First comes the part that we love to hear:
“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all." 
Then the part that we don't, really, but which he needs to say:
"The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds."
This last remark helps to explain his recent defense of the Church's teaching on abortion, which has no doubt disappointed some of his most starry-eyed admirers on the left.  (Those, that is, who somehow imagine that the Pope is not Catholic).  Neither rigorism nor laxity, according to Francis, is a genuine proclamation of the Gospel.

Anyway, it's a great read, and we recomend it highly.

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