Monday, September 23, 2013

Pope Francis and the “issues trap”

Joanne McPortland’s amusing “Parable of the Papal Interview” expressed a simple truth: orthodox Catholics who have actually read the interview Pope Francis gave Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ have mostly loved it. Forget what you’ve read elsewhere: Pope Francis may be unorthodox in his style, but his substance is by no means heterodox.

So I had to chuckle when a troll popped up in the combox to say, “Not at all a good parable because it is so predictable. Right wing cognitive dissonance over the Pope’s interview prevents them from really hearing what he said.”

You see, this piece of complacent snottiness popped up after the rest of the progressive world was gobsmacked by what the AP’s Nicole Winfield, in her original lede, called Francis’ “bizarre U-turn”: a speech given Thursday to Italian gynecologists, in which he slammed abortion and euthanasia as parts of a “throwaway culture”. Talk about cognitive dissonance — Matthew Balan of NewsBusters observes that Winfield’s new lede still tries to preserve the “progressive” box in which media liberals have put Papa Bergoglio by calling it an “olive branch” offered to the “more doctrine-minded, conservative wing”.

This is what comes of not paying close attention to what the Pope is saying, of trying to pigeonhole any pope — hell, any major player. My buddy Frank Weathers, for instance, points us to a 2006 speech in which Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also spoke of the “issues trap” to Swiss bishops on their ad limina visit. And Marcel LeJeune of Aggie Catholics includes other quotes that, taken by themselves, would lead one to conclude that B16 is a liberal. Quoth the wise man Thomas L. McDonald, “There is not a hairsbreadth of difference between the theology of Francis and Benedict.” Different styles, same substance.

So what is the “issues trap”?

The “issues trap” is the common perception both Francis and Benedict spoke of, that Catholics are inordinately focused on sex and the political controversies arising from it. I call it a trap because we’re often led into that “Johnny One-Note on the kazoo” position by people who demand that the Church change her moral precepts and discipline regarding these issues … very often the same people who accuse us of being “obsessed” with gays, abortion, etc.

First, Papa Bergoglio’s words shouldn’t be taken to demean or degrade the work of people who have been on the front lines of the pro-life and pro-family movements. Philip Lawler points out in CatholicCulture.org that Francis said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” [italics in Lawler], and adds, “He did not say that we should be silent [on these issues].” Nothing in the interview suggests that we have to rescind the rights of our citizenship and stand quietly by while the “culture of death” overwhelms us.

Father Dwight Longenecker quite rightly reminds us that “Pope Francis is from a generation and a culture which is [mostly] Catholic. ... They understand the basics of Christian morality and the fundamentals of the Christian story and the basic elements of the Catholic faith.” Pope Francis’ call for a more “missionary style” evangelization which “focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things,” Fr. Dwight believes, makes sense in the context of South American culture and history, but in el Norte “simply comes across as him being a real nice guy who doesn’t judge anybody — like everybody else in our relativistic society.”

In this much, I don’t disagree with Fr. Dwight’s qualm. While some of this perception of nice-guy indifferentism is due to the MSM’s “‘progressive pope’ filter”, the rest is directly attributable to Francis himself, whose off-the-cuff way of speaking and writing easily lends itself to progressive spin. However, Papa Bergoglio isn’t calling for more “Catholic Lite” superficial preaching. Simply by pointing out the difference between his cultural context and ours, which is foundationally non-Catholic and increasingly non-Christian, Fr. Dwight (I believe) unconsciously illustrates the need for a return to the basics in our evangelization.

In the interview, Francis said, “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.” Put another way, the moral precepts of the Catholic Church are derivatives of the Gospel message, and are only made a coherent whole by the Gospel message. While it’s possible to arrive at those precepts separately, it’s the Gospel which gives them their heft, their trenchancy, their liberating force; otherwise, they’re just a set of rules. The Gospel message comes first.

Given the priority of the Gospel, then, our task is not so much to change people’s minds as it is to remind them of human truths that have been forgotten or deliberately obscured. God’s forgiveness is no source of joy unless we realize that there’s something wanting forgiveness, that we have done things which require repentance. Reconciliation with God becomes desirable only when we come to recognize that we’ve separated ourselves from Him.

As Catholics, we’re disciples of Jesus Christ first, citizens second, and our actions as citizens must always reflect that priority. Continue the fight against the culture of death, by all means good and true, but remember that our priority is creating the culture of life by bringing others to Christ. Laws can only go so far: Disraeli’s maxim, “When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken,” is a truism only because it is self-evidently true.

… [The] law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient (1 Timothy 1:9) ….
… [If] you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:18-24).

The only way to avoid the “issues trap” is to keep focused on the Gospel message, first by living it ourselves — “walking the talk” — and second by preaching as though this nation had never heard the name of Christ before. The more converts we can bring to the foot of the Cross, the less demand there will be for the elements of the culture of death. For the culture of death carries the seeds of its own destruction with it: Moloch eats his own.