‘I Have Never Been a Right-Winger’

by Michael Potemra

So speaks one of the leading anti-abortion advocates in the world today, a fighter for a cause most people in the West would unhesitatingly label as “right-wing” or “conservative.” The quote comes, of course, from The Interview That Shook the Catholic World; and Pope Francis’s most recent denunciation of abortion came from his widely reported comments to Catholic gynecologists on Friday.

The AP story reporting the latter portrays the pope’s condemnation of abortion as “an olive branch of sorts to the doctrine-minded, conservative wing of the Catholic Church” — and thus effectively downplays it as a mere political gesture. But having finally read the whole 12,000-word America interview, I think it would be a mistake to downplay Francis’s opposition to abortion — just as it would be a mistake to downplay his view that Catholic teachers should be less “obsessed” with hot-button issues taken in isolation. The interview is a remarkable portrait of a man in full — a fascinating and complex individual who is a believer in Catholic teachings but believes that the paradigms of the culture war are not helpful. His eschewing of the label “right-winger” is an indication that he wants to transcend the political labeling that has harmed the pro-life cause and the larger project of evangelization.

This anti-political turn is rooted in Francis’s deeper worldview, which he discusses early in the interview, in the part where the topic at hand is his view of the Jesuits:

The Society of Jesus can be described only in narrative form. Only in narrative form do you discern, not in a philosophical or theological explanation, which allows you rather to discuss. The style of the Society is not shaped by discussion, but by discernment, which of course presupposes discussion as part of the process. The mystical dimension of discernment never defines its edges and does not complete the thought. The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking. There have been periods in the Society in which Jesuits have lived in an environment of closed and rigid thought, more instructive-ascetic than mystical: this distortion of Jesuit life gave birth to the Epitome Instituti.

He contrasts, here, the narrative-mystical with the rigid-ascetic. Is this not exactly the same dynamic that’s at work in his new tone on the “social issues”? Look at his phrasing here:

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: This is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.

“Obsessed” and “imposed insistently” — versus “proclamation” of “necessary . . . essentials” that “fascinate” and “attract.” What the pope is doing is putting first things first, the narrative of God’s involvement in the world ahead of political messaging on details of teaching. I should point out here, for the sake of completeness, that there are some people whose Emmaus experience has come in a different order. A couple of years ago, a prominent right-wing intellectual told me he converted to Catholicism because the Catholic Church agreed with his unpopular views on gays and abortion! Now, my temptation was to bridle, to say, How could you possibly choose a religion based on something as mundane as a secular political preference? But here, I think, Pope Francis has the right approach: If he’s seeking God in good faith, who am I to judge? The fact that more people come to religious faith through the Resurrection of Christ than through reading the Manhattan Declaration doesn’t mean nobody can do so through the Manhattan Declaration. Many paths, one God.

And that this is the pope’s view is clear in his interview comments on ecumenism: “In ecumenical relations it is important not only to know each other better, but also to recognize what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us.” The interviewer asked the pope how he “envisions the future unity of the church in light of this response.” The answer: “We must walk united with our differences: There is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”

“United in difference,” and recognizing the gift “sown [by the] Spirit” in others — that’s a pretty good summary of what ecumenism should be.

One of the pope’s central points in the interview is that many people have a false understanding of the changelessness of Catholic teaching. Here’s what he said about it:

Human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong. . . . Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.

He believes that Catholic teaching can and does change, which is an idea that scares some people. He recognizes this, and suggests that the best way to deal with it is to focus on essentials:

If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. 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. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. . . . You have to trust God.

There, yet again, is his distinction between the narrative-mystical and the rigid (static)-ascetic. Many of the pope’s conservative defenders have said, basically, Whew! at least he didn’t change any doctrines. I don’t think they’re wrong, exactly — he’s not trying to change any doctrines, in my view — but they’re still rather missing the point. He’s talking about the need to change not doctrines but attitudes, one of those attitudes being, “My doctrines — which is to say, the doctrines espoused by me! me! me! as a representative of the best religion — are the best doctrines in the whole wide world.” Remember the pope’s words, “obsessed” and “imposed insistently”? When that happens, doctrines are removed from their proper “context” (another word the pope used) and they can become an idol, and one that’s especially harmful (not least to the person espousing them).

Strangely enough, it’s some of the liberals, Catholic and non-Catholic, who are seeing most clearly that the pope isn’t going to change doctrines. Chris Hayes on MSNBC, who says he grew up Catholic but doesn’t practice, said the pope was “awesome” and “the best pope ever” – while at the same time saying he holds out little hope that the doctrines he disagrees with will be changed any time soon. Similarly, check out this panel discussion on the Huffington Post, featuring Elizabeth Scalia: In it, an openly gay Catholic guy acclaims the pope’s new emphasis, while recognizing that it’s perfectly OK for the church not to give gays a sacramental marriage in addition to the legal civil one.

Let that sink in: MSNBC hosts and openly gay Catholic men love a pope who’s opposed to gay marriage and is vocally pro-life. This is a pope who’s reaching people in a pretty remarkable way. Remember that the next time you hear somebody say either a) the attention to the pope’s comments is nothing more than New York Times/MSM spin, that “there’s nothing new, nothing to see here, folks”; or b) the pope is terribly naïve and doesn’t understand how he’s being misinterpreted by the villainous media. Don’t kid yourselves; this pope knows exactly what he’s doing. Will it work in the longer term? Who knows? But we can be sure it’s having an amazingly positive effect right now.

I’d like to highlight another part of the interview, on a subject that’s especially dear to me: the liturgy. As most people know, there have been bloody internecine wars within Catholicism over the past 50 years on this subject. And I think the new pope has perfect pitch on this, his irenic attitude being not that different from the actual policy implemented by Benedict XVI (as opposed to some of Ratzinger’s writing before his election to the papacy, which I admit had a different emphasis):

Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same Gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy. The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation. Yes, there are hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity, but one thing is clear: The dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today — which was typical of Vatican II — is absolutely irreversible. Then there are particular issues, like the liturgy according to the Vetus Ordo. I think the decision of Pope Benedict [his decision of July 7, 2007, to allow a wider use of the Tridentine Mass] was prudent and motivated by the desire to help people who have this sensitivity. What is worrying, though, is the risk of the ideologization of the Vetus Ordo, its exploitation.

Exactly right. I am a lover of the old Latin Mass — I sometimes puckishly call myself a “Tridentine Protestant” — but I recognize that there are people who turn it into a shibboleth, a sign of “true” Catholicism, as opposed to that watered-down, ersatz variety that has been practiced by billions of Catholics over the past half century. This is a variant of the old Gnostic mentality that believes in a knowledgeable “inner circle” of believers to be distinguished from the “common herd” of ordinary people. The Gnostic tendency is more often noticed among liberals, but it exists quite pronouncedly among the more extreme type of Traditionalists. Pope Francis gets it exactly right: The old Mass is a beautiful sacramental ceremony and should be made readily available to anyone who seeks it — but “ideologization” and “exploitation” of it, using it as a battering ram against the mainstream of the Church, are out of bounds. Here, again, the pope is taking something that he affirms as good, and warning people not to turn it into an idol.

Talk about openness, ecumenism, all that sort of thing, and sure as heck somebody will hurl the word “relativism” at you. I get the feeling the pope has heard this a few times, because he says the following to preempt that criticism:

God is first; God is always first and makes the first move. God is a bit like the almond flower of your Sicily, Antonio, which always blooms first. We read it in the Prophets. God is encountered walking, along the path. At this juncture, someone might say that this is relativism. Is it relativism? Yes, if it is misunderstood as a kind of indistinct pantheism. It is not relativism if it is understood in the biblical sense, that God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him. 

I feel the sting of this a little, because my own faith does indeed sometimes veer in the direction of, even if not quite into, the “indistinct pantheism” the pope disapproves. But he recognizes that religious faith is, for all of us, a journey, and a work in progress — as is the world generally — in the hands of Someone Else.

I encourage everyone with an interest in religion to read the rest of this amazing interview. And not just them, either. If you have no interest in religion at all, read the interview to get to know one of the most fascinating public figures in the world today. A religious leader who loves The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, one of the most charming and romantic books ever written: He has read it three times, and “I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much.” Who loves Mozart as performed by Clara Haskil (wow, yes); Fellini’s La Strada; and the devastating anti-Fascist film Rome—Open City. Who loves Wagner’s Parsifal — which he brings up twice in the interview, the first time as an example of his favorite music, and the second time to use the flower-maidens in Klingsor’s palace as a metaphor for how the mind of the Church can be seduced by harmful ways of thinking.

All this, from a man who prays a daily rosary, and engages in one hour of Eucharistic Adoration every day. The overall impression I get from this interview is that this pope is an updated version of Pope John XXIII — not the cardboard-liberal John XXIII of left- and right-wing caricature, but the real John XXIII: a man open to the truth in modernity while grounded in the truth of ancient piety.