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Professors react to Pope’s remarks

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pope Francis made headlines worldwide when a lengthy interview with Italian Jesuit journal “La Civiltà Cattolica” published last Thursday suggested his leadership would alter the Catholic Church’s focus on social issues. Notre Dame theology experts said it is clear that Francis’ statements provide a potential perspective change but not a radical upending of Church teaching.

Pope Francis’s words on abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception generated controversy.

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” Pope Francis said in the interview. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

Theology professor Fr. Brian Daley, a member of the Jesuit order like Pope Francis, said he does not find Francis’ ideas revolutionary but rather just a demonstration of different style and points of emphasis.

“As [Pope Francis] has said, what he’s saying has been there in the Catechism, it’s been there in the teaching of the Church, but people perhaps haven’t realized it,” Daley said. “Part of it is the way the media picks it up and spins it. But I do think the style of the Pope is distinct, and it’s very much his own. And to a great extent, I think it comes out of his Jesuit spiritual background and the Jesuit way of approaching pastoral issues.”

Daley said the Jesuit tradition has been to be at the service of the Church, training the members of the order intellectually “in the highest standards of the day,” but also to be deeply rooted spiritually in prayer, contemplation and the Gospels.

“I think the basic instinct of the Jesuits and modern Ignatian spirituality in general is a pastoral one,” Daley said. “It’s a matter of asking what can we do to help people come into contact with Christ and follow him.

“And as Francis says, it’s not that the rules that the Church presents us with are false or irrelevant, but the Church is not basically there to announce rules. It’s there to pronounce God’s love to people.”

John Cavadini, theology professor and director of the Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame, said he sees Francis’ statements as a continuation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s reminder to focus on the essentials of Catholicism.

“What [Pope Francis] has been saying is very much in keeping with Pope Benedict,” Cavadini said. “I think people see there being this division between them, but remember that Pope Benedict published his first papal encyclical on love, called ‘God Is Love.’ I don’t think you can get more essential than that.”

Benedict’s next two encyclicals were on hope and faith, respectively, and Cavadini said Francis’ statement last week highlights the same focus on these essentials in a different way.

“Pope Francis has a very distinctive pastoral application of this emphasis on the essentials,” Cavadini said. “What he’s basically saying is that you don’t attract people to the faith and you don’t keep people in the faith by concentrating all the time on things that aren’t part of the essential proclamation.
“And so what you end up doing, maybe, is making people forget what the essentials are if you’re always talking about other things and you have what he called a kind of ‘fragmented message.’ I think there is a very fundamental continuity with Pope Benedict’s emphasis on the basics, but I think there is a difference in style and a difference in pastoral application.”

Pope Francis said the Church must find a new balance or else its moral edifice would be in danger of “[falling] like a house of cards.”

Cavadini said Francis is trying to steer the attention to the most essential parts of Catholicism that make the faith vibrant to believers.

“The whole point is to convey the beauty of the whole so the more difficult teachings don’t seem like just isolated invitations to desolations, but part of a larger piece and part of a Church that cares about everybody,” Cavadini said. “If the Church shows itself to be a caring communion, then it’s easier for people because there’s something lifted in their lives all the sudden if someone is willing to help them.”

This “pastoral framework” for approaching people could transform the whole communion of the Church without altering any of its moral teachings, he said. Pope Francis’ new approach to these teachings partially stems from his different background compared to that of Pope Benedict.

“Pope Benedict was a professor … and he became a bishop not out of a pastoral parish experience as much as from a professorial experience,” Cavadini said. “I don’t like people saying Benedict is bad and Francis is good; I think that’s just very superficial because Pope Benedict was a very loving person, a very smart person, but a professor.

“He focused on the essentials but spun it as saying ‘these are our foundations, and that keeps us from succumbing to cultural relativism.’ I think Francis, taking the same emphasis on the essentials, says ‘how do we translate this into a way of pastoring or shepherding?’ I think Francis thinks that it translates into a pastoral care of warmth and presence … carries those essentials of the Gospel with them.”

Daley said he sees Pope Francis as “an intellectual but not an academic,” especially taking into account his background in Argentina and his appreciation for world culture.

“I think [Francis] operates on a fairly imaginative level,” Daley said. “And Benedict does too, but Benedict is the shyer person; he’s kind of an introvert, I think. And he’s a first-class intellectual theologian … where Francis is much more of an extrovert, a charismatic personality.

“I think what he’s doing is a typically Jesuit approach, training himself as well as possible in human culture and human understanding … I think he’s really someone who tries to think in contact with the present time, but the reason for this is always to do the work of God and bring the Gospel to people.”

Cavadini said viewing these issues as part of the larger context of the essentials of faith makes it clear that the Church’s mission goes beyond rule-making and finger-pointing.

“These are pastoral issues before they’re political issues,” he said. “I think that makes a big difference to people’s lives. With this new approach, you create new possibilities with that warmth and presence and a willingness to bear people’s burdens with them.”