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Maybe Francis will turn out to be the Earl Warren of popes – significantly more liberal than expected, to the enduring alarm of those who chose him, just as Eisenhower’s pick for chief justice was.
Yet I’m sorry that some of the first responses to our new pontiff’s deep, layered interview with the Jesuit journal Civilit Cattolica have been so partisan and predictable.
At the American Conservative, Rod Dreher is right when he says that Francis’ warning that the church has become “obsessed” with abortion, birth control and sexual orientation has itself been taken out of context by reporters obsessed with those very topics. But Dreher also says that “the liberal pope has been very, very naive” in speaking in a way so open to misinterpretation. “For traditionalists and conservatives in the Catholic Church,” he predicts, “it’s going to be a long winter. This papacy is going to be a time of trial for them.”
And on the other end of the spectrum, there is some unseemly crowing about that. “Yesterday was not a good day for right-wing Catholics,’’ writes Mark Silk at the Religion News Service. “To the great delight of their opponents, Pope Francis declared himself outside that fold. ‘I have never been a right-winger,’ he said. Roll over, Benedict, and tell JPII the news.”
No, no, no: What Francis is saying is not that liberals are up in Rome right now and conservatives are down, but on the contrary that labels and tiny little boxes have no place in a faith that is so much bigger than that. Francis is not a ‘right-winger,’ but he’s not a winger at all.
Some more progressive Catholics are actually annoyed that some prominent conservatives like what the pope had to say, but is it really so important that we extract an admission from them that the emphasis in recent decades has been all wrong?
The headline news in the interview published Thursday was indeed in what he said about social issues. (You were expecting maybe to read, ‘This pope is one humble hombre’?) Friday’s news is that after suggesting we talk too much about abortion, he talked about abortion.
We will be dissecting and digesting his interview with Father Antonio Spadaro for a long time. But the most stunning thing that came through from the man my friend Tom Roberts calls our ‘surprise-a-day pope’ really was his humility. He sees himself first and foremost as a sinner, and as one of those people who need people who Barbra Streisand sang about.
He loves the mystics and in another time of his life spent hours with Caravaggio. He knows his own heart enough to trust the voice that tells him the Apostolic Palace is too cold and formal a place for him to live.
Yet he also knows his own, and all of our human limitations, enough to know that his first reaction might not always be the right one, and that reform that’s built to last isn’t accomplished overnight: “I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time. The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”
He is speaking to all of us when he says that the Catholic Church “is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”
And I think he is saying that we have to be willing to take ‘yes’ for an answer from those with whom we have not always agreed in the past.