Conservatives are disappointed and even angered that he did not speak more openly against abortion and homosexual marriage. Liberals are flummoxed and upset that he would be so “political” as to meet with Kim Davis. Others are just scratching their heads, trying to figure out what is going on: “Is this Pope liberal or conservative?”
I propose that trying to shove the Pope into either category is the wrong approach. The Pope is not a politician, but rather a shepherd of souls with a very pastoral heart who wants nothing more than to bring people to experience God’s love and mercy as he himself has experienced it. Just as Christ ate with both Pharisees and tax collectors, sinners and righteous, so the current Bishop of Rome is striving to reach out to everyone to bring them into the fold.
It’s very important that we use the right paradigm for understanding Pope Francis and analyzing his recent actions in the US. To this end, I would like to offer three points that will help in understanding where he is coming from.
1. He is following Christ’s example of gentleness.
Although there are moments in the Gospels when Christ’s temper flares and he yells at Pharisees or whips merchants out of the Temple, this only happens when the circumstances require such action. His usual mode of dealing with sinners is one of gentleness and compassion. One need to think only of how he dealt with the adulteress and of how he freely associated with tax-collectors and other sinners. He did not prematurely confront them about their sins, but rather opened their hearts by showing them his unconditional love.
Christ’s usual modus operandi with sinners can help us understand Pope Francis’ approach to his pastoral visit to the US. He chose not to come in “cleansing-the-Temple mode” but rather in “eating-with-tax-collectors mode.” If he avoided speaking directly about abortion and homosexual marriage before Congress, I think that it was only to keep ears open for further dialogue. The Pope is not stupid: he knew that speaking on certain hot-button issues would cause many people to shut down automatically. As exciting as it would have been to watch him decry the sins of the American people in front of a joint session of Congress, he simply judged that it was not the time to do so. Instead, he chose to use the unprecedented opportunity to focus on issues that are common to all.
In focusing on the common ground topics such as immigration and climate change, the Pope kept the dialogue going with the secular world, and in doing so he followed the example of Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well. Initially, the Samaritan woman was not ready to dialogue with Christ, so he did not go for the tough issues in her life right away. Rather, he began the conversation by referring to what had brought them together in the first place: the well and its water. He asked her for a drink and gradually drew her into a conversation by appealing first to her desire for water but then to her deeper desire for God. Only when the moment was right did he directly address the sins of her promiscuous lifestyle.
2. He is engaging in pre-evangelization.
The New Evangelization is taking place within the context of the most secular society to exist in the West since the Edict of Milan. We are faced with quasi-pagan world that is spiritually ignorant and morally confused. Our world is so aggressively secular and poorly catechized that we are faced with a situation similar to that of the early Christians in pagan Rome. Consequently, before we can even begin to evangelize, we have to pre-evangelize. This means that even before we begin teaching the Gospel, we have to “remove new barriers by deconstructing false notions”, as a friend of mine wrote.
People get frustrated with Pope Francis because they interpret his pre-evangelization as non-evangelization, but such an interpretation is unfair to the Pontiff who is simply trying to prime the world for a renewal of Christianity. The Pope sees that if we are to have any chance at getting the Western world back to the Gospel, we have to dedicate time and energy to de-constructing false notions about the Church. He is de-constructing false notions by emphasizing the positive aspects of our faith and appealing to what we hold in common with the secular world.
In other words, he has chosen an indirect approach rather than full-on frontal assault. Many people are so rationally confused and intellectually immature that they are incapable of thoughtfully listening to a negative formulation of Church teaching such as “Abortion is murder,” or “Homosexual activity is intrinsically evil.” For that reason, the Pope is choosing to present the same truth with a more positive formulations: he preaches against abortion by calling for a more loving, non-consumeristic approach to all of creation (the unborn included), and he preaches against homosexual unions by praising the beauty of traditional family life.
3. He is not neglecting his flock.
Recently, I was speaking with a good friend, who is an exemplary Catholic, about the difficulties of understanding Pope Francis. We both agreed that the Pope’s lack of clarity on certain issues is probably a side-effect of his more subtle mode of engaging the secular world. My friend acknowledged that being direct and blunt could compromise his attempt to come in through the back door, but he also exclaimed, “I wish that he would at least give the rest of us a nudge and a wink!”
I agree with my friend that this is the big challenge that the Pope is facing: keeping the dialogue going with the secular world while at the same time encouraging and guiding those who have remained faithful. But I suggest that if one looks closely enough at what he says and does, one will see that he is indeed giving us nudges and winks. For example, in front of the President on the White House lawn he clearly cited the US bishops’ call for the defense of religious liberty (which can be found in a letter written in response to the HHS mandate) . Then, later in the day, he visited the Little Sisters of the Poor to encourage them in their fight to live their faith freely. On top of that, he visited with Kim Davis in the nunciature, and later he spoke up on the need for the freedom of conscientious objection on the flight back to Rome.
Pope Francis’ style does not fit many of our pre-conceived notions of the papacy, so it is disconcerting. While the Pope is not perfect and is susceptible to legitimate critique, I think that it is important for us to remember that at the end of the day the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church with and in spite of any shortcomings that he may have. It is also important to remember that while he must protect and guide the sheep within the fold, he is also called to bring back those who are outside it. Some may not like the way that he does it, but at the end of the day, his method is his choice. He is the Supreme Pontiff – not us.