1st Oct 2013

Missing the Evangelical Point: Our Impoverished Reception of the Pope’s Words

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Was anyone else disturbed not by Pope Francis’ widely covered interview published this month but by the hard polarization in the air in response to it? Politics is how we process things — “left” and “right,” my guy, your guy. I get it. But the Holy Father is pleading with us to go deeper, live deeper — in imitation of Christ. I’m sorry, but I’m not spending my life trying to fit into a Democrat or Republican paradigm, even as I have to vote one way or another and absolutely have an obligation to civil engagement.

Catching up on some of the commentary, I saw that in the midst of news analysis reflecting “conservative” and “liberal” enthusiasm for the first extended interview by Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope and the first pontiff from the Americas, my own response was interpreted by some as a bitter clinging to “culture wars.” One commentator responding to my take offered as evidence my citation of George Weigel’s latest book. My initial reaction to the interview, on National Review Online, was taken as “my side,” so to speak, trying to stake claim to this pope. Some of the commentaries and even some of the news pieces depicted conservatives as being on the defensive after the papal interview, suggesting they were trying to tell the world what the pope meant to say. Other editorialists pointedly claimed that conservatives and anyone with a heart for marriage and pro-life activism were being admonished and might want to get with a more Progressive program.

I assume the pope said what he meant to say, of course, and as his words exist in multiple languages now (after what was reported as rigorous translating), there’s no point to trying to invent words he didn’t say — even as I listened to and read news coverage that outright misled people about what the pope was saying, probably because those reporting the news had never actually read the interview.

For my part, I simply was reading the interview, always linking to the same interview, hoping to entice people to do what I did: Read it! Don’t take my word for it! Just like I pray you don’t take my word for what Catholicism is: Experience it. Encounter Christ! Let Him encounter you. My quoting Weigel (who would share his own response to the interview with NRO readers shortly thereafter) was an honest reaction in response to what I read from the pope. (And, frankly, it presented an opportunity to link to an interview I did with Weigel when his book first came out about what Evangelical Catholicism is all about, which I happen to think is quite rich, for anyone wanting to know more. Another evangelical opportunity in linkage! )

As it happens, in Evangelical Catholicism, Weigel writes that “all Catholics are, as it were, in the same boat.” Think Sea of Galilee on a stormy night. “As it was then, so it is now: the Church — all of those ‘in the boat’ — must depend completely on the Christ of the outstretched hand in order to come safely to shore and get on with the mission of the Redeemer, the preaching of the Gospel.”

He writes:

The Church of the twenty-first century must reach out and be grasped by the outstretched and pierced hand of the Risen Lord if all of the people of the Church are to live lives of radical fidelity and supernatural charity, help effect genuinely Catholic reform, and be witnesses ‘to all the nations’ that the Risen Lord has commanded us to be.

You don’t have to buy Evangelical Catholicism; you can open a Bible. That command comes via the Gospel According to St. Matthew. Christ is the model of evangelization. He is the model to which Pope Francis is witnessing.

“Matthew’s gospel constantly reminds the Church that, for all our cleverness and skill, we are impotent in matters of salvation,” Weigel comments. “[W]e are the saved, not the saviors… the Church is Christ’s Church, not ours, and we start sinking when we try to make it ours.”

We and all we touch are hurt if we start thinking of ourselves as the saviors. Just look at the political parties.

What was it that allowed the Democratic Party to become the party of abortion-on-demand? Catholics failing to give witness. The Democratic Party is where Catholics here in the U.S. once largely found themselves at home. As everyone knows, it was the home of the first Catholic president, flaws and all.

Something similar may be happening right now on immigration. How is it that some seem content with doing nothing on immigration? It may be because Catholics aren’t taking this seriously enough. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to vote for one bill or another. But as Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles puts it in his book, Immigration and the Next America, St. Peter urges us to “practice hospitality ungrudgingly.” What that looks like as a matter of public policy is up for debate. At the same time, we can’t sit out the debate, nor can we forget that we must proceed with “love and faith in God’s promises and commands.”

We cannot afford to be indifferent. In the interview, Pope Francis talks about how “no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.” There are many implications to this. At the heart of it — and at the heart of everything, always — is Christ and our obligation to love him and serve him by loving and serving one another. We cannot ignore the people at the 10:30 a.m. Spanish Mass and be content that we are doing our moral duty.

In the book-length interview published as El Jesuita while he was still cardinal of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis talked about forgiveness. He talks intimately about how he has come to being more forgiving, even when it is quite frustrating:

I’ve experienced … moments of intense internal enlightenment when I realized the extent of the failings in my life and the sins for which I hadn’t atoned. I observed my actions with different eyes, and I was terrified. If I felt panic in these instances of bright light between one period of darkness and another, when I became aware of the social consequences of what I’d done, or stopped doing, I can easily imagine that there are people who, when faced with massive mistakes, employ a mechanism of denial of all kinds of arguments so as not to die of distress.

Heaven knows the pain of a sister or brother.

I realize that some feel reprimanded by the pope — pro-life activists, for instance, who are active in the public square and run or support crisis-pregnancy centers. Their whole motivation is love! Does such activity constitute the kind of “obsession” with the issue of abortion that so many people (even beyond the media) interpreted the pope’s remarks as criticizing? Or is simply that because they tend to be the first responders when there are assaults on life and the common good it looks like it’s all they do, crucial as it is? 

The pope’s previous words on enlightenment and atonement are, I think, helpful to understanding what he said in the interview published last week. We live in a culture that is so far beyond common language, never mind common ground, when it comes to what amounts to the most contentious and most personal issues. The defense and uplifting of the dignity of human life — at the beginning and end of life, as well as every day of our lives — is of utmost importance to the call of the Christian Catholic. Pope Francis’s subsequent remarks a little over a week ago on abortion were no mere “olive branch,” as it has been described, to folks who may have felt hurt by the interview. It was what he has been preaching all along — at a Vatican Evangelium Vitae event this summer, for example, and during his morning homilies. It’s the whole Gospel, the whole person, letting people see the face of Christ, being the face of Christ. If you see the dignity of the unborn child and her inviolable God-given right to life, he doesn’t have to win you over there. He wants to bring you deeper. And in the heat of political debate, he wants you to see how we can sometimes appear to others, to those who haven’t yet seen the humanity of the unborn child or can’t seem to fathom the many available alternatives to what they sometimes call the “necessary evil” of abortion.

In everything we do, we must be stewards of the Gospel that has been entrusted to us. We must love it and share it. When I read the pope’s interview, this was my favorite section:

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. 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. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

Much of the media stopped reading after the sentence that preceded that section: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” To stop there is to miss the evangelical point.

I pointed to Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism because he writes about the Beatitudes. He writes about digging “deeply into the sources of sanctification, in Word and Sacrament.” He says that we must put out into the deep… for a catch.” That’s Luke.

He says: “The Evangelical Catholicism of the third millennium must live the truth of its spousal relationship to Christ the Bridegroom by inviting the world, through mission, to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.”

Weigel ends it with:

There are still Emmaus roads to be walked. And along them the evangelical Catholics of the future, having met the Risen One in Word and Sacrament, will still proclaim, to those with ears to hear, “We have seen the Lord.” [Jn 20:25].

You do see why I thought of Evangelical Catholicism immediately after reading the pope’s interview in America! In some of the reaction to the pope’s interview we are reminded that there is more to life than politics and even more to politics than politics.

On MSNBC, the pope has been declared “awesome.” And yet in receiving his interview, a multi-layered attempt to do what he’s been doing — trying to let us all know that we are loved in spite of our sinfulness, giving us tools, sharing experiences, helping us see with the heart of Christ — divisions remain. We’ll keep debating issues, as well we should, as we seek to know the Truth and make it known throughout the world, in charity and humility.

As Catholics in the world, we, too, are doctors, nurses, and volunteers at the “field hospital” that is the Church, even while we ourselves are also patients under her care. My side has to always be with Christ. When we comment on breaking news, on Facebook or on news shows, we need to keep that firmly in mind, even as we make necessary prudential judgments.

Christianity is not about making us feel better. It’s about something better — the Kingdom of God, eternity. Conservatives and liberals alike, if we’re truly Catholic, had better keep that the focus of our lives, whatever our call may be.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)