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“Best. Pope. Ever.” raved MSNBC last week. “World’s Greatest Father,” echoed Jon Stewart. It’s almost as if liberal talk-show hosts knew that the world’s major Jesuit publications, led by America magazine and Italy’s La Civilt Cattolica, were about to stun the world.
Ever since the election of Pope Francis, Catholics had been wondering whether his dramatic changes in style—from turning down the papal apartment to phoning unsuspecting Italians—augured any changes in substance. Would this reform-minded pontiff fulfill liberal Catholic dreams for the church?
With the wide-ranging interview published on Thursday, we have outlines of an answer. While Pope Francis does not share all the convictions of liberal Catholics, he is temperamentally as liberal as any pope could reasonably be.
From the beginning, the dichotomy of style vs. substance was ill-founded. We often associate style with superficiality, as in electoral politics or consumer marketing. But in personal encounters, we instinctively know that style is the heart of leadership. A great teacher cannot be reduced to the substance of a textbook, nor a coach to the charts in a playbook.
In spiritual leadership, changes in style, tone, and emphasis are real changes. Recently Pope Francis phoned a 35-year-old Italian woman, who had written to him because the man who had gotten her pregnant was advising her to get an abortion. She didn’t want to, but she was frightened and alone. The pope encouraged her not let anyone rob her of her hope and assured her that, if necessary, he would perform the child’s baptism himself.
No doctrine was discussed, much less changed. But the encounter’s style was the substance. First, compassion. First, mercy. First, hope. “Heal the wounds, heal the wounds,” he says, like a mantra, when answering an interview question about his dreams for the church.
Francis claims in the interview to prefer such one-on-one encounters, but his style has been no less compelling on the global stage. During his intense and publicly ritualized denunciations of the proposed American-led attack on Syria, for example, he blurred the traditional lines between priestly rhetoric and prophetic rhetoric. Though inhabiting the Chair of Peter, he sounded more like the leader of an anti-war sit-in. In the interview he further defends the role of prophets to make “noise, uproar, some say ‘a mess.’”
With respect to doctrine, Francis’s vivid disdain for formulas is as striking as it is refreshing. He speaks rarely of truth or error, but repeatedly of “discernment,” something which only occurs in “narrative” and “not in a philosophical or theological explanation.” God is “in history, in the processes,” and a Jesuit must be “a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking.” He is a lover of traditional prayers and books, to be sure, but the old Q-and-A Baltimore Catechism is not among them. “If one has the answers to all the questions,” he quips, “that is the proof that God is not with him.”
Some of Francis’s strongest antipathy is reserved for timid, doctrinaire attitudes. Those who “want everything clear and safe,” who “always look for disciplinarian solutions,” who “stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists” will “find nothing.” He prefers the kind of catholicity encapsulated by James Joyce as “Here comes everybody!” and denounces the notion of a smaller, purer church, which would be only “a nest protecting our mediocrity.”
Francis does have one “dogmatic certainty,” though. “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life.” This was the witness of the ministry of Jesus as well, deemphasizing rules but intensifying holiness through personal encounter. And bringing that message to the dinner table with whoever lacked hope.
This pope also resembles Jesus in that every theological expression comes wrapped in metaphor. Francis’s church is on a pilgrimage to “find new roads” at the “frontiers, margins, and horizons.” Leaders must meet the poor there, and not try to “tame” the problems of the world, as if in a “laboratory.” Francis’s cardinal virtues of dialogue and encounter only happen in the wild.
Not all American Catholics are pleased with this pope. Some have wanted him to be more of a culture warrior, fighting the battles that right-wing Americans have chosen. This interview will further disappoint. Francis does deploy the metaphor of a battle, but he’s not fighting. “I see the church,” he says, “as a field hospital.” What the church needs most is “to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.”
One of the most famous Buddhist teachings mocks someone who, though shot with a poisoned arrow, demands to find out everything about the assailant and the weapon before dealing with the arrow—the direct cause of his suffering. Pope Francis applies the same logic to his parable and cries out, “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”
After over a decade of scandal and trauma in the Catholic Church, Francis offers triage and sanctuary for those suffering on its margins, those still afraid even to walk in its doors. Then, and only then, will anyone be able to discuss “everything else.” First, heal the wounds.
Michael Peppard is assistant professor of theology at Fordham University in New York.