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A handy primer on Pope Francis

The Zenit news agency summarizes a La Repubblica interview (that secular daily is rocking the Vatican beat) with Archbishop Victor Fernandez, director of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and a theologian said to be "very close to the Holy Father." Many are trying to find a lens to communicate Francis to the world, and the church, and this seems as spot on as any effort I have seen:

The main point, said the theologian, is that “Francis thinks that a Church that wishes to come out of herself and reach everyone must adapt her way of preaching.” That is why “he applies a criterion that was proposed by Vatican II, which is often forgotten: the hierarchy of truth.” Because the problem is that often “the precepts of the moral doctrine of the Church are proposed outside the context that give them meaning,” which results in their “not manifesting wholly the heart of the message itself.”

And the archbishop specified: “For instance, if a parish priest speaks 10 times in a year about sexual morality and only two or three times about fraternal love or justice, there is evidently a disproportion.” And the same is true “if he speaks a lot against homosexual marriage and little of the beauty of matrimony.” Because if the invitation “does not shine with force and attraction, the morality of the Church runs the risk of falling like a pack of cards. And herein lies the greatest danger.”

About Pope Francis’ particularity, the archbishop said: “He is beyond the theological discussions of the Council,” because he is interested in continuing with the spirit of renewal and reform of the Church that comes from the Council itself. “That is why he is outside any ideological obsession” and has the intention to “lead the Church outside of herself to be able to reach everyone.”

The theologian also talked about the Pope’s preaching on poverty. “It is not love of sacrifice for itself or an obsession with austerity” but of interior stripping, “to put God and others at the center of one’s life.”

That makes sense to me, and may also explain why Francis is like a breath of fresh air to so many, and suspect to some others.

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Timothy Dolan was baffled a year or so ago when the Pew report showed that Catholics believed in Jesus but not in the hierarchy. Rather than see it as a call to change Dolan lamented that the People's ecclesiology was misdirected. Francis takes the challenge and knows that people are seeking Jesus, not oligarchy. The response to Francis proves the Pew findings. Dolan said recently that Francis is making him rethink the perks of the way of life of bishops. 

Well, the Church in the US must be doing great since in almost a quarter of a century I literally never heard an homily on sexual morality, while I heard hundreds of vague sentimental homilies on fraternal love and justice.

Disclaimer: I am perfectly fine with the Pope's priorities, I just think that the interpretation by the good Archbishop is a bit simplisitc, and certainly completely irrelevant ot the situation I have experienced in US parishes.

You are so right Carlo! I think that these perceptions are fed through representations in the media, particularly the so called culture wars which have been played out in politics all across the Western world. Most "conservatives" in the culture wars tend to be practicing Catholics open about their affiliation and quoting texts from the church to mobilize fellow Catholics. 

But this is not the situation in most parish and Catholic institutions.

The net effect therefore is that "liberals" in the political culture wars have feel that they might have the wind at their back now as far as institutional backing for their politics.



David-- Thank you for this excellent post - I think archbishop's comments really do sum up the path forward very well. Indeed, they are so simple that one wonders how we could possibly have lost our way on this. I think we have to be careful (but also very direct) in identifying where the problems have been. Take JP2's theology of the body - while I as a moral theologian would not wholesale endorse the approach here, I can't deny that the pope spent a great deal of time talking about "the beauty of matrimony." And I do agree that, overall, I have not heard a lot of pastors give endless denunciations of sexual sin as their homiletic approach. They are out there, for sure, but they are very much in the minority. And yet I agree that there is a problem. So where's the problem? I actually think the central problem may lie with the extensive non-parish-based discourse, pushed strongly by certain media voices, which in the "public sphere" has effectively offered a portrait of the Church as totally centered on these isolated issues as the sine qua non of Catholic identity. What I often hear from Catholics is a sense of frustration that, on the one hand, they are enriched by their local parish, by priests, by various Catholic authors, etc., but that the face of the Church they experience in the larger media, in diocesan campaigns, in speakers and catechectical materials - this latter is dominated by these issues in an "unbalanced" way. What is refreshing about Pope Francis is that, suddenly, the public face of the Church has regained balance.

The Davids have it. 

A  30-year-old, non-Catholic  friend said to me today, "It used to be that when you saw a pope's name in a headline you knew it was going to be bad news.  Now when you see Pope Francis' name you know it will be good news".


I am not sure what is meant by "certain media voices" or by "the larger media voices." The mainstream media are rarely set up to follow life at the parish level, but they do follow national episcopal-sponsored initiatives, such as the Fortnight for Freedom (I and II), the January Right to Life March in Washington, the contention over the HHS mandate, USCCB plenary meetings, the row caused by a number of  US bishops objecting, at times stridently, to Notre Dame University's granting of an honorary degree to President Obama. As well as various state and diocesan protests, including letter-writing campaigns, and these at times urged at the parish level, sponsored by local bishops, individually or regionally.

No, the hierarchy is not the Church. But can the  media be faulted for thinking so when a number of weekly Mass-goers may think the same?

But again, perhaps I have misunderstood the references to "media" above. The rest I agree with fully, and especially Pope Francis's dramatic shift in emphasis. 

--- --- ---

As a junior staff member at ICEL, I was given the task of responding to criticisms of the 1973/1974 (depending on the conference) English translation of the Vatican II-mandated Missale Romanum. A frequent complaint focused on the translation of the opening of the Nicene Creed, "Credo." The ICEL translators, working with the ecumenical body, ICET, had opted, with ample warrant, for "We believe" rather than "I believe." Some of the unhappy letter writers stated their grievance more or less along these lines: "How can I in conscience say 'We believe' when I don't know what the person next to me in the pew believes?" Without precisely addressing the "I believe"/ "We believe" question, Pope Francis, has, i think. amply responded, more than once, to this claustrophobic attitude.

(I still say "We believe,"  but fairly softly.)





John Page:

the problem with the media is exemplified by their coverage of Benedict XVI. Anybody who followed his preaching was presented with a strongly Christocentric, non-moralistic, very balanced teaching. The media ignored that altogether because it did not match their own prejudices about what makes news (which is usually tinted by by ideological biases about sexual liberation etc).

Now the media are still obsessed with the same issues (modernization, sexuality, authority etc.). Hence, it is perfectly possible (perhaps even likely) that one or two years from now their story line will be that Francis was the Pope who "failed to deliver" on making the break with the past that (supposedly) he promised at the beginning of his pontificate, because he did not change Church teaching on this or that of their fixations.

Which, obviously, is nonsense. But Catholics should understand the Pope better. He is calling the Church to be missionary in the only possible way: not by developing outreach programs, but by witnessing to the beauty of Christ present in the concrete circumstances of life. Unfortunately, anybody anybody who thinks that the media will understand that and be happy with it in the long run is probably seriously deluded.  Historically, a stronger Christian witness always called for a stronger persecution.

Maybe because I was one once, I get a little tired of seeing the media misunderstood. If you start with the assumption that they're going to be superficial, you will see the explanation for much that is usually identified as bias. In the America interview, for example, I was fascinated by the early comments on discernment -- all that live Ignatius. But, holy smoke, no reporter would ever have expected many people in New Hampshire, Nebraska or New Mexico to read 20 inches on the subject.

Still, that part told me, as a Catholic, more than the section the media latched on to for its man-bites-dog qualities.

So I think it's a waste of time to worry about what the media are saying about Pope Francis. The question is, what is his flock saying? How often is he being quoted or referred to in homilies? Are the diocesan papers presenting him as a world figure or treating Vatican news as ordinary page five fodder? Do the people on your left and right with whom you exchange the kiss of peace know any more about the pope than what they saw on NBC last night?

Or is Pope Francis going to remain our own little secret?

Wow - a lot of good comments here, from various perspectives.  A lot to agree with on all sides.

FWIW - I agree completely with David Cloutier's distinction between what is preached in the parishes vs what is reported nationally/secularly as "Catholic affairs".  I'd add that, as fewer Catholics attend mass from week to week, fewer are exposed to what is proclaimed directly from the parish ambo.  Perhaps social media can help fill that gap, but I've never found reading a homily on-line (or in a book) to be as edifying as having it preached.  And unfortunately, the fewer-and-fewer-attending syndrome seems more pronounced among young adults.  Consequently, perceptions of what the church teaches are ever more mediated by the media.

The wonder of Francis is that somehow he is able to leverage that mediation in such a way that the Good News is still proclaimed.


It seems as if some Catholics are obsessed over what the media says. To a large degree, who cares? Presenting the Catholic faith isn't about PR. It's not about making a big splash in the media. And good thing too. Yesterday Miley Cyrus. Today Pope Francis. Tomorrow the next person in line for 15 minutes. That's not to say Catholics shouldn't take pains to present a good public face on the Church. But the graces that spring from it pale in comparison to the real relationships formed by authentic evangelization. Jesus as superstar: that fits the world media, the cult of celebrity, including the hero-of-the-month from some corners of the Catholic blogosphere. Jesus as a caring God with whom we have a relationship: that's what's demonstrated by washing feet, by careful listening, by simple and humble presence.

Jim P., My point exactly: If people aren't coming to church every Sunday, maybe they would come back if they were hearing the kind of thing Francis is getting people excited about. One way to do it, of course, would be to quote him in context. And that can be done in the context of a homily (if you are worried about that) because, for instance, what he says at his weekday Masses is based on readings that usually are tracking fairly well with the Sunday readings of the cycle.

Of course, our homilists can trod their well-beaten paths and let people discover Pope Francis through the secular media. But none of us thinks that is a particularly good idea.

Carlo wrote apropos Pope Benedict:

Anybody who followed his preaching was presented with a strongly Christocentric, non-moralistic, very balanced teaching.

That's certainly the case. And had Benedict said what Pope Francis lamented in his homily this morning about "Christians at half-speed," "lukewarm Christians," "rosewater Christians," (or in his homily at Assisi: "Pastry shop Christians") he would have been dismissed as a Teutonic scold.

Carlo, were you out of the country for the week-long valentine the national media delivered to Benedict when he visited New York?

And Robert: Who, pray tell, might you be talking about?

Pope Francis says:

A little touch here and there, of Christian paint, a little ‘paint catechesis’ - but inside there is no true conversion, there is no such conviction as that of St.Paul: ‘Everything I gave up and I consider garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him.’”

No cafeteria Catholic, he.

And if you can't profess the Creed loudly, why profess it at all?

When I say the Creed,  instead  of saying "for us men" I say- softly- "for us people".   I say  it softly and not loudly so as not to embarrass my daughters who are usually at Mass with me.  (My daughters are easily embarrassed by their parents :-)

Can't say "us men" because in our case "us" wouldn't be a  "men"

I don't compare what Pope Francis says to other Popes. I just find what he says to be consistently inspirational and I'm really grateful for it.

Irene, there may be a translation problem. For me in French the primary meaning of "homme" is "human", but in English the primary meaning of "man" is "adult male". In French I don't have a problem with it, but in English I do.

Even in English, I note that older people seem to have less of a problem with "man" as "human being". I think that the meaning of "man" in English has changed over the last few decades.

If at one point every one understands "man" to first mean "human", then a few people, for some reason, start reserving the word exclusively to males, then it becomes a bit more associated with gender and more people become attuned to it and therefore make an effort to reserve it to males, then there is a snowballing effect, until  the remaining few who still insist on saying "men" when they mean "men and women" show their tone-deafness (or sexism, or lack of adaptability). I think we have reached that point in the US.

One question for me is: was it a good idea to start this change? What was the initial rationale that caused people to make a conscious effort to change the meaning of the term?

In any case, given the current meaning of words in contemporary English, the authors of the new missal, in my opinion, suffer from all three faults: tone-deaf, sexist, and rigid.



what's your point? I have been in this country 23 years and I always read the newspapers. The overwhelming concern in the media is what Popes say about sex, and on possible scandals. Am I offended by that? Not particularly, we live in a shallow culture.

But a positive coverage of a papal visit (which was also due to the fact that BXVI is a nice and holy man when you see him closely) does not mean much. At the end of the day, the media will not help us understand Francis any better than they helped us understand Benedict. So be it...

Hence, it is perfectly possible (perhaps even likely) that one or two years from now their story line will be that Francis was the Pope who "failed to deliver" on making the break with the past that (supposedly) he promised at the beginning of his pontificate, because he did not change Church teaching on this or that of their fixations.

Boy, I wish I had said that, because I think it is so true.   And history shows that the left is not at all kind to those who they see as betraying the cause.   It will not be pretty.

Irene & Claire: "for us" is perfectly sufficient and solves the problem.

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