The great historian Martin E. Marty wrote an insightful response concerning statements that Pope Francis made in an interview with “America” magazine.

By Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

The headline on a Thursday (Sept. 19) news story linked the Catholic Church’s “focus on gays” and “abortion,” and, said the same headline, Pope Francis “bluntly faults” those who have focused on that focus.

What struck, or should strike, all readers who read on, is this: Pope Francis means it! His comments do not have the weight of an encyclical, a long-thought-out formal church teaching, but he knows from response to what he has said earlier, that there will be a huge response. His words are not small-print filler at the end of a Sunday church bulletin; they have to have been thought out, and he is broadcasting them.

Reaction? One can picture the most outspoken and sensationalist Catholics-on-the-right, who thought they had captured the ear and voice of modern pontiffs, jumping out of the windows — without parachutes, just as some did when Wall Street crashed in 1929. They had their innings to enjoy Schadenfreude as popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had “bluntly faulted” those who took Vatican II reforms seriously. Now the temptation will be strong for those faulted in recent decades to leap up with a “hooray for our side” shout, which they hope will be numbing to the new poor losers.

While the momentarily “up” forces might be enjoying their moment, it might be a good idea to speak some cautionary words. The Pope is only one person, though a powerful one. He is speaking through interviews, not encyclicals. Off the road, back home in the Vatican, he faces strong forces who will oppose him. As he spells out in more detail what he means, he will lose some fair-weather or partly-cloudy friends. He is highly aware of the complexity of the issues he is addressing. He knows that there are great theological differences between “abortion,” which in present form is an “issue,” and “gays,” who are people. He knows that biblical revelation includes few words at best on the topics, since that revelation was addressed to a very different world than the one we now inhabit.

“Abortion” makes many who are considered to be liberal uneasy because, face it, there are life issues involved. “Gays” make many “straights” uneasy for deeper psychological reasons, which are more negotiable.

We will all pick ourselves up off the floor and try to make sense of things. Here are a few responses from my angle:

1. I am not a Roman Catholic, but I have a positive view of many, many modern papal and episcopal statements, especially on war-and-peace, social justice, and care for others. What struck me as I read about his comments is that the Pope is sending out signals countering the idea that “anti-abortion” and “anti-gay” headlines and preoccupations in Catholic or other Christian expressions crowd out everything else being said. He’d like equal time for other issues.

2. He shows that papal or other authority-expressions are not confined to or best effected through formal doctrinal statements, censoring activity, or scolding. He knows the power of symbols, and has shown natural ways of dealing with symbols and gestures. He may go through his papacy without issuing an encyclical or pressing for bishops to speak formally, but he knows that most of the formal doctrinal impositions of recent decades have little effect. All but the ideologues who have everything figured out — on all sides — respond to symbols and gestures.

3. He knows that the Church must wear a different face if it is to re-invite its own lapsed members or new people; currently, the outlook is simply crabby or whiny. Crabbiness and whining are not signals of what is definitely prophetic. I’ve known of a writer who asked, “Who can refute a sneer?” So we might ask, “Who can refute a genuine sign of compassion, a readiness to risk, a willingness to embrace those who are “other?” We are not hearing effective arguments against the Pope’s actions, and those who do not agree with them have to find some other means than merely complaining or sniping if they want to advance the cause.

Bottom line: I join those who cheer, but don’t think these early signs of openness are all we will note from Pope Francis. He will write or sign some documents and policy statements with which many who are cheering today will have to disagree. Is it the Protestant in me that asks for low or mixed expectations? I’ve heard of one who said, “If it looks as if you are winning, demand a recount.” So we don’t need to talk about winning and losing among factions in respect to the papacy. We do well to enjoy the moments when the Pope’s love of people and response to the Gospel change the terms in respect to church and world. Whatever comes tomorrow, today has been a day which shows the promise of excitement, revision, and hope.

Read a related New York Times article here.

Author Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at memarty.com.


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