The Call for Prudence, Balance and MercyOctober 1st, 2013
News media both secular and Catholic have been abuzz with news about Pope Francis’s recent interview. The Jesuit editor of the America magazine published this interview and Father Matt Malone suggests that Pope Francis personally reviewed the article and approved its publication. To say the least, both the Catholic and secular world are still trying to comprehend implications of his statements. The statements that got most attention were: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
As we can guess, there are people who have been waiting to hear these words for a very long time and there are others who have termed the Pope a “flaming liberal.” How should we understand these and other statements from Pope Francis? First, I think it is important to say that Pope Francis is not changing church teaching. What Pope Francis surely is changing is the emphasis and the meaning of ‘being church.’ Second, I think we need to avoid both triumphalism and irrational criticism. Rather, perhaps we can try to discern where God is leading us as a people. May be we should evaluate the Pope’s words in light of the gospel readings about stewardship and, prudence. May be there is a connection between the readings and the statement from Pope Francis. Let me highlight just three areas.
The parable of the prudent steward that we heard in the Gospel reading a few weeks ago is certainly not an easy parable to understand. It seems strange that the steward or manager who underwrote the amount owed by debtors was praised by his master. What we would term cheating, the master called prudence. Jesus does not contradict the master’s evaluation of his steward. Rather, Jesus says, “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” In other words, Jesus praised the manager for having the qualities of a manager. Just as the manager was good at what he did (even though it was wrong), Jesus’ disciples (children of the light) should be good at doing what they are meant to do. And this, in my opinion, is the point the Pope Francis is trying to make. The church must be good in what it is called to be! The Pope is calling the church to first and foremost be good in being followers of Jesus Christ. So In the six months he has been in office he has constituted three commissions to clean up the Vatican and its administration. He is also focusing on what the church should be focused on – the person, the life and the message of Jesus Christ. I think he is saying that there needs to be a “new balance” between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrines that have evolved over the centuries. If our doctrines become more important that Jesus Christ and his simple, fresh, and compassionate gospel, then the moral edifice of the church will fall like a pack of cards. And even among the doctrines we cannot take a few moral doctrines (abortion, gay marriage and contraception) and make them the defining characteristics of the Church. God, the Kingdom of God, Jesus and the gospel are bigger than a few hand-picked moral demands. The gospel first and foremost is about love, compassion and mercy. When we meet a sinner we do not first throw doctrines, discipline and judgment on them. We first embrace them with the mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ. This is the new balance he is talking about. He is asking us to be good like the prudent servant – we need to be good at what Jesus was good at.
There is another kind of balance that the Pope is looking at – balance in the kind of Church that we are. He is juxtaposing a few way or models of understanding the church. One is the institutional model. In this model of the church doctrines are of paramount importance. The church’s identity is well defined and there are there are clearer boundaries of who can be in and who is out. In the institutional model the bishop and clergy play a paramount role and decisions are made top down. I think the Pope sees that in the past decades this institutional model has been over emphasized. And so he is drawing the church’s attention to another way of being church – of being a missionary and a pilgrim church. He says “Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things.” What are the necessary things, according to Pope Francis? He says, “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.” He says, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” The Pope defines the church not primarily as an institution but rather as the “people of God,” on a journey. The church is not a static body with static doctrine. Rather it is a pilgrim church in which he sees himself not as an authoritarian leader but as a consultative leader who walks with the people. As the Pope, he is trying to be the best steward of the gospel and of the church to which the gospel has been entrusted.
Christ at the Center
The third area where the Pope is striking a balance is drawing out the difference between religion as something simple, profound and radiant, and religion as an ideology. So he says, “Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists — they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.” In other words, faith becomes an ideology when we offer cookie-cutter solutions to complex human problems like abortion, homosexuality and contraception. But there is another way of looking at religion – where Christ rather than “doctrinal security” is at the center. That is why the Pope says, “The most important thing is the proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” The Pope understands religion first and foremost to be about Christ and the human person. Only then is it about doctrines. Does not Jesus say that all other commandments come under two commandments – love of God and love of neighbor? Pope Francis is saying something similar.
We should remember that as Pope Francis says, Christ is at the center and not his successor. Let us remember that Christ has promised his Holy Spirit to us. To acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is with us now and will continue to do so till the end of the world is a matter of faith. Let us have faith in Christ’s promise. Amen.