“Distinguishing the indispensable”

pope francis

My Door is Always Open, Pope Francis with Antonio Spadaro, Bloomsbury.

Pope Francis has been described as a fresh breeze blowing through the Vatican, and although he is complimentary of Benedict XVI, the contrast with his predecessor is marked, particularly as Francis, as scholarly as he is, is not an abstract thinker, but is grounded in life experience, and in people. He emphasises relationships, openness, realism, and feeling over theory, ideology, and certainty. His leadership is indicative of a wider trend in Christendom identified by historians such as Harvey Cox and Phyllis Tickle, who see a new age dawning that is moving from doctrine to spirituality.

Francis has also been keen to prioritise. The Church’s voice is being lost in a floundering world, he says, and we need to present the Gospel. The world needs to hear first that God loves all people, not that He disapproves of this or that. At times Francis sounds more Protestant than Protestants, who have much to learn, or at least much to be reminded of. Do we proclaim everyone valued by God? Or is our first message that only certain people are of value to the Church? The danger is that we want everyone in the Church to be like us – to conform to our particular version of morality. It is not that moral issues or doctrine don’t matter, but we need to go by the example of Jesus who welcomed and was welcomed by “sinners”. We should be, as Francis says, “distinguishing the indispensable from what comes next”. For example, he says, the (Catholic) Church’s position on gay marriage is well known; we Christians should instead be voicing the surprising nature of grace and the life Jesus gives.

Francis is also critical of fundamentalist and nostalgic attitudes. We should forget about recovering an unrecoverable past. There is always the temptation to think that things were better in the past, but in doing so we forget that God has the power to surprise us with good in our future. Similarly, we must not assume that Christianity will be at the centre of our culture, as indeed it no longer is. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Like theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who takes a somewhat Lutheran stance, Francis suggests that Christianity speaks best to our culture from the margins.

Francis summarises his vision with three words: dialogue, frontier and discernment. He insists that an open mind will help rather than hinder our faith. Here his Jesuit background is on display. Jesuits have historically been criticised for their cultural accommodation. They are certainly comfortable with education and the arts. Francis says they are naturally creative people.  Their, and Francis’s, love of literature and music, has the potential to make them seem aloof – intelligentsia who look down somewhat on the poor uneducated. But in Francis’ case, as one reads his elaboration on the literature and music that inspires his passion, it can only add to his ability to connect with the outside world.

Contrary, he says, to his natural inclination, he is trying to consult and to prayerfully and patiently consider. This veiled reference to change coming slowly may ring alarm bells for critics hungry for change. And the words are all well and good, but we can only wait and see if others in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy follow suit. But at least the centrality he gives to inclusion rather than dogmatism can prove inspiring.

(A version of this review appeared in the June edition of The Lutheran.)

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