Some thoughts on Pope Francis
It’s another week and thus another interview with Pope Francis. This one, I’m sorry to say, is more than just confusing. It’s a theological wreck.
In an interview with La Repubblica, in response to a question about whether there is a “single vision of good,” the Pope said, “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place,” and “The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood.” When the reporter commented, “Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me,” the Pope also said “Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us.”
From Augustine’s Confessions to “Well, everyone has his own ideas about good and bad…” is a mighty long path.
First of all, I am a Protestant so, of course, I do not accept the church’s claims about the papal chair as Vicar of Christ. But though I protest; I don’t throw rocks (no Petrine pun intended). My mother’s side of the family was and is Roman Catholic, and some of the most significant influences in my life personally and intellectually are Roman Catholics.
Second, I don’t dislike Pope Francis. I think he is quite right about the primacy of the gospel over culture wars. In my much smaller pool and from my much smaller perch, I’ve tried to say that outrage itself isn’t a Christian virtue. Our mission ought to be toward reconciliation, not the vaporization of our perceived enemies.
If Pope Francis wishes to reclaim the primacy of the gospel, he must simultaneously speak with kindness to those outside of its reach and speak of the need for good news. What these interviews seem continually to do is what evangelical theologian Carl Henry warned Protestants of in the 20th century, of severing the love of God from the holiness of God. God is, Henry said against both the liberal Social Gospel and obscurantist and angry fundamentalism, the God of both justice and justification.
Without speaking to the conscience, and addressing what the sinner already knows to be true about the day of giving an account, there is not love, only the consigning of the guilty conscience to accusation and condemnation. If the church is right about the personhood of unborn children (and I think it is), then why would we not be “obsessed” about speaking for them, and for the women and men whose consciences are tyrannized by their past sins?
It is not good news to say to such consciences, “Well, we’re all brothers and sisters,” if what they feel in their psyches and read in their Bibles (and in their Catholic catechisms) is that those who commit such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. We must speak with tenderness and gentleness, but with an authoritative word from God, that there is a means of reconciliation. The burdened conscience doesn’t wish to hear “It’s all okay.” The burdened conscience is freed by “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1).
There’s little purpose in refighting the Protestant Reformation here, but we do, in some sense, return to Martin Luther’s problem. With a guilty conscience, he could find no way to reconciliation in himself or by the purported economy of grace. In the church, he saw rules and rituals but felt in that only condemnation.
But opposite a harsh, rule-oriented Christianity is a way that is just as condemning, a way that we’ve seen often in hyper-Protestant communions: the tendency to downplay sin at all. This leaves sinners like us in a kind of earthly purgatory that never purges, and leads us to hide from the face of God because, like our first parents, we know who we are and what we’ve done.
I’m in no position to advise the Bishop of Rome, but I hope we’ll see a fuller-orbed message from him. I’m with Pope Francis on the need for kindness, but I pray it will be a convictional kindness that addresses both the reality of God’s holy justice and his reconciling love.