The Christ-Centered Pope
The Catholic Church and the world wrestle with an evangelical papacy.


George Weigel

And how are the wounds of late-modern and postmodern humanity to be healed? Through an encounter with Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. “The most important thing, “ Francis insisted in his interview, “is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” The Church of the 21st century must offer Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life (as John Paul II liked to put it). The moral law is important, and there should be no doubt that Francis believes and professes all that the Catholic Church believes and professes to be true about the moral life, the life that leads to happiness and beatitude. But he also understands that men and women are far more likely to embrace those moral truths — about the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death; about human sexuality and how it should be lived — when they have first embraced Jesus Christ as Lord. That, it seems to me, is what the pope was saying when he told Antonio Spadaro that “proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things.” These are what make “the heart burn: as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. . . . The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

Francis underscores that “the teaching of the Church is clear” on issues like abortion, euthanasia, the nature of marriage, and chastity and that he is “a son of the Church” who accepts those teachings as true. But he also knows that “when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.” That “context” is Jesus Christ and his revelation of the truth about the human person. For as the Second Vatican Council taught in Gaudium et Spes, its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly comes clear. For Adam, the first man, was the type of him who was to come. Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” 

Thus Pope Francis, the pastor who is urging a new pastoral style on his fellow bishops and fellow priests, insists that every time the Church says “no,” it does so on the basis of a higher and more compelling “yes”: yes to the dignity and value of every human life, which the Church affirms because it has embraced Jesus as Lord and proclaims him to a world increasingly tempted to measure human beings by their utility rather than their dignity.

Francis’s radical Christocentricity — his insistence that everything in the Church begins with Jesus Christ and must lead men and women to Jesus Christ — also sheds light on his statement that there is a hierarchy of truths in Catholicism or, as he put it, that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent.” That does not mean, of course, that some of those those teachings are not really, well, true; but it does mean that some truths help us make sense of other truths. The Second Vatican Council reclaimed this notion of a “hierarchy of truths” in Unitatis Redintegratio, its Decree on Ecumenism, and it’s an important idea, the pope understands, for the Church’s evangelical mission.

If you don’t believe in Jesus Christ as Lord — if you’ve never heard the Gospel — then you aren’t going to be very interested in what the Catholic Church has to say in Jesus’s name about what makes for human happiness and what makes for decadence and unhappiness; indeed, you’re quite likely to be hostile to what the Church says about how we ought to live. By redirecting the Church’s attention and pastoral action to the Church’s most basic responsibility — the proclamation of the Gospel and the invitation to friendship with Jesus Christ — Pope Francis is underscoring that a very badly disoriented 21st century will be more likely to pay attention to evangelists than to scolds: “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. . . . The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.” The Church says “yes” before the Church says “no,” and there isn’t any “no” the Church pronounces that isn’t ultimately a reflection of the Church’s “yes” to Jesus Christ, to the Gospel, and to what Christ and the Gospel affirm about human dignity.

It’s going to take some time for both the Church and the world to grow accustomed to an evangelical papacy with distinctive priorities. Those who imagine the Catholic Church as an essentially political agency in which “policy” can change the way it changes when a new governor moves into an American statehouse will continue — as they did within minutes of the release of the America interview — to misrepresent Pope Francis as an advocate of doctrinal and moral change, of the sort that would be approved by the editorial board of the New York Times. This is nonsense. Perhaps more urgently, it is a distraction.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is determined to redirect the Church’s attention, and the world’s attention, to Jesus Christ. In this, his papacy will be in continuity with those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Francis is going to be radically Christ-centered in his own way, though, and some may find that way jarring. Those willing to take him in full, however, rather than excising 17 words from a 12,000-word interview, will find the context in which those 17 words make classic Catholic sense. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” the pope told his interviewer. Why? Because it is by insisting on conversion to Jesus Christ, on lifelong deepening of the believer’s friendship with him, and on the Church’s ministry as an instrument of the divine mercy that the Church will help others make sense of its teaching on those matters — with which the New York Times, not the Catholic Church, is obsessed — and will begin to transform a deeply wounded culture. 

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Pope Francis
Six months ago this weekend, the world met a new pope. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, now called Pope Francis, famously came out to St. Peter’s Square and asked for prayers from the gathered Catholic faithful.
Praying was the posture of the 115 cardinals who had gathered in Rome to say goodbye to one pope — something they never thought they’d do with a living pope — and elect a new one.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan explores what went down at the Vatican conclave, and provides a look at who this wildly popular new pope is, in his e-book, Praying in Rome: Reflections on the Conclave and Electing Pope Francis, from Image Catholic. Here are some excerpts from Dolan’s book.
THE CONCLAVE: “OK, Dolan, better get going. This is going to be a big day.” Cardinal Dolan, the man who has been dubbed “America’s pope,” definitely had no head’s up about Benedict's resignation; he was in the same boat as the rest of the world.
Speaking to reporters, Dolan observed: “We need a pope who reminds us of Jesus in the way we need mothers, fathers, priests, and nuns who remind us of Jesus. That’s the basic Christian call, isn’t it? And we need that in a pope.”
While in Rome, Dolan celebrated Mass at his titular Church in Rome, Our Lady of Guadalupe. There, he thought: “I am a parish priest, like I have wanted to be since my first Holy Communion.”
In pre-conclave meetings, “the cardinals spoke from the heart, very honestly, confidently, and thoughtfully. It was a time of prayer, and a time of getting to know one another better in a spirit of fraternal trust and companionship.”
Dolan found himself reflecting on St. Joseph, the baptismal name of Pope Benedict, and “Protector of the Church Universal.” “Known as the custos, which is Latin for caregiver, he was the guardian, the foster father of the Son of God.” Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass in St. Peter’s Square wound up on his feast day.
“I felt some calm in knowing that it’s actually the Holy Spirit who chooses the next pope. ... But am I going to be open to the grace of the Holy Spirit? Am I going to be able to detect the Spirit’s guidance?”
“God gets through to us best when He hints, whispers, or coaxes us to cease the almost-incessant noise in our lives and be still. This conclave provided an opportunity to do that.”
“In the late afternoon of that Tuesday, we spent an hour in prayer in the Pauline Chapel (which is in the Apostolic Palace) and then processed into the Sistine Chapel. As we did so, the choir chanted the Litany of the Saints, asking the heavens to pray with and for us.”
“No debating or conversation goes on during the conclave. The actual time we spent in the Sistine Chapel was an occasion for silence, prayer, and reflection; it is almost a liturgy, a retreat.”
“Every time I voted, I looked up at Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgment and went through an examination of conscience: ‘That’s how I’m going to be judged: how I loved and served those in need!’”
“As the magic number of seventy-seven votes was reached, we all applauded, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.”
“When Cardinal Bergoglio said, “Accetto”— that is, “I accept”— we once again broke into applause.”
“The world would soon see the white smoke, and they’d know we had done our jobs: Habemus Papam! We have a pope!”
“At one point we heard the tumultuous crowd go dead silent. I thought to myself, ‘What’s going on?’ It’s pretty tough to get a crowd of two hundred thousand Italians quiet! Only later did I find out that the silence was a response to the Pope’s simple request: ‘Pray for me.’”
THE NEW POPE: “The cardinals were looking for a man who radiated holiness — after all, we call him our Holy Father. We were looking for a man with a good track record of success as a pastor and as a bishop. We were looking for a man who is a good communicator.”
“There was a remarkable calmness and tranquility about Cardinal Bergoglio.”
At a “festive supper” later that night, the new pope said to the cardinals “’May God forgive you for what you’ve done!’ which brought the house down.”
“We later heard that he tried to call Pope Emeritus Benedict with the news, but the communications blackout was still on, so even he could not get a call to go through!” (Pictured, Pope Francis with Pope Benedict.)
At his first Mass in St. Peters's Square, Pope Francis stopped to greet a physically disabled man. Says Dolan: “That embrace wasn’t a photo op. It was a natural act of compassion, an act of love. While his actions are unscripted, they are never artless. There is grace in his spontaneity. He speaks with his actions.”
“At that Mass of Installation... [Cardinal Christoph Schönborn] was in tears throughout the homily, and during it he turned to me and whispered, ‘Listen to him. Listen to him.’ At the end, when we stood up for the Creed, he said to me, ‘Tim, he speaks like Jesus.’ I said, ‘Chris, I think that’s his job description!’”
“Visiting prisons is something I usually try to do three times a year: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. When I found out the Holy Father was going to a juvenile detention facility on Holy Thursday, I was happy to hear I was on the right track.”
“Francis is spontaneous and natural. When we went up to greet him in the audience after [his first Mass as pope] he called us each by name. That’s impressive.”
“I can’t go anywhere without people saying ‘I love this new pope!’ He’s a real shot in the arm for us as Catholics.” (Pictured, Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
“His strategy and protocol is his sincerity. He does things because that’s what he thinks he should do. He follows his pastoral heart.”
“Perhaps Francis’s greatest gift to us is this reminder that there really is nothing new in the life of the Church.”
“Francis is reenacting Jesus’s own teachings. Francis is, in effect, ushering ancient Biblical principles and essentials into the twenty-first century. None of this is new. It’s just that these images, and these teachings, may have slipped our minds.”
THE CHURCH: “As many problems as we have in the United States, and Lord knows we have a wheelbarrow full of them, when you look at some of the difficulties that the Church is experiencing in other parts of the world, not only do I pray hard for them . . . I pray in gratitude for what we’ve got.”
“Sin does abound in the members of the Church. Sin even abounds within the Vatican. But grace abounds even more.”
Dolan credits Pope Benedict with driving home the themes of the importance of a Christian’s friendship with Christ, the centrality of Jesus in their lives, theological depth, and the urgency of engaging the culture. (Pictured, Dolan with Cosmo founder Helen Gurley Brown.)
“We don’t run from the culture, hide from society, or condemn the world.” (Pictured, Dolan on The Colbert Report.)
Updated: Mar. 01, 2014