Frame Game

Pope Francis Is a Liberal

It’s not just homosexuality or birth control. He’s profoundly anti-conservative.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis waves as he arrives in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 11, 2013.

Photo by Tony Gentile/Reuters

The new head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has given his first long interview. In three sessions with Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica, Francis outlines his thinking on a series of issues, from poverty to homosexuality to women in the church. What does the interview tell us? It tells us the pope is a liberal. He’ll pull the church to the left, not just on sexuality, but on every issue that pits tradition against freedom or progress. Here’s a breakdown of the English translation of the interview, published by the Catholic journal America.

1. Reform. Spadaro tosses Francis a vague question about “Ignatian spirituality.” Francis uses this question as an opportunity to talk about spearheading change. “Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time,” he says. “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change.” It’s not clear exactly what Francis is referring to. But evidently he’s been thinking about what needs to be changed and how to go about it.

2. Authoritarianism. Spadaro asks Francis how his experience as a Jesuit superior affected him. Francis tells him, “My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative.” The pope insists, “I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.” You can argue about the translation here, but no matter which term you use—ultraconservative, right-wing, authoritarian—it’s pretty obvious what kind of attitude Francis is rejecting.

3. Infallibility. Spadaro asks Francis what it means to “think with the church,” in the words of St. Ignatius. At this, Francis launches into a discussion of infallibility. “All the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief,” he argues. “When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. … We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

Francis cautions that he’s not endorsing pure “populism.” But he’s manifestly rejecting the conventional understanding of infallibility. He interprets infallibility not as a present attribute—the rightness of what a pope or a college of cardinals decrees—but as a collective process. Together, through dialogue with the people, we get the right answer down the road. This notion of dynamic, collective infallibility presumes the fallibility of today’s popes and cardinals.  

4. Small-minded rules. Spadaro asks Francis whether the church needs reform. Francis replies, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” Francis talks about mercy and love, conventional themes. But his slap at “small-minded rules” goes further. It signals that he doesn’t much like these rules at all. That’s a big shift from Pope Benedict.

5. The church’s opinion. At this point, Spadaro brings up the problem of people who are gay or remarried. He asks, “What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases?” Far from ducking the topic, Francis plunges into it. “During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge,” Francis recalls. “By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

Francis’s reference to the catechism seems intended to reassure traditionalists that he’s not overthrowing the church’s teaching against gay sex. But in the next breath, he calls this the church’s “opinion.” You can question the translation, but if Francis had said something more like “truth,” surely the translation would reflect it. If this linguistic shift from judgment to opinion isn’t creeping subjectivism, it’s certainly creeping tolerance.

6. Son of the church. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Francis argues. “The teaching of the church,” he assures Spadaro, “is clear, and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” In reactions to this passage, liberals have focused on the pope’s plea to talk less about the issues in question. But what’s far more intriguing is his flimsy pledge of allegiance: “I am a son of the church.” That’s not a defense of the doctrine, or even an endorsement of it. It’s pure acquiescence. It’s what you say when your heart isn’t in it.

7. Essentials. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent,” Francis declares, still talking about hot-button issues. “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things.” That’s a strong signal that he regards church teachings on these issues as non-essential, if not disjointed. He’s not renouncing the teachings. But he’s demoting them to a level at which they could later be modified or quietly abandoned.

8. Conservation vs. revelation. This is the most important part of the interview:

“The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is—these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today. God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. … We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes.”

This is pretty abstract stuff, but it’s huge. Francis is rejecting the core principle of conservatism. He’s saying that God will be found not in the past but in the future, in the unfolding of history. To fulfill that history, you have to change the world. Francis is a progressive. He doesn’t assume that today’s Catholic teachings are eternally true. He assumes that the lesser, disjointed, non-essential teachings will evolve toward truth over time.

9. Humility. Spadaro asks the logical follow-up: “So if the encounter with God is not an ‘empirical eureka,’ and if it is a journey that sees with the eyes of history, then we can also make mistakes?” Yes, says Francis: “If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him. …  The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties. We must be humble.” Francis assures Spadaro that this kind of humility “is not relativism if it is understood in the biblical sense, that God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him.” Doubt, humility, surprise—this may not be relativism, but it sure isn’t absolutism.

10. Doctrinal security. This is another crucial passage. Francis explains:

“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.”

Wow. Restoration, clarity, safety, tradition, stasis, disciplinarian solutions—it’s hard to imagine how any translation could obscure the anti-conservative thrust of Francis’s critique. The slam at “exaggerated doctrinal security” is particularly pointed. The era of Benedict is over. Faith, as Francis defines it, will transcend ideology. Teachings will change.

11. Developing dogma. Spadaro, according to his own paraphrase, asks Francis “about the enormous changes occurring in society.” Francis steers this question toward the need for doctrinal reform in the church. He reads Spadaro a passage from St. Vincent of Lerins: “Even the dogma of the Christian religion must follow these laws, consolidating over the years, developing over time, deepening with age.” Francis elaborates:

“Human self-understanding changes with time, and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning.”

The pope’s meaning is clear: The church, like other institutions, makes mistakes. Four centuries ago, it was wrong about the cosmos. A century and a half ago, it was wrong about slavery. As science develops—about sexual orientation, for instance—will the church “grow in its understanding” and “mature in its judgment”? I can tell you how Francis would answer that question: God knows.

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