At first, I was sort of confused.
When I saw this headline on the NYT app Thursday night: “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion.”
… I thought, What focus? Where’s he been going to Mass?
Because in my experience, there is no particular focus on those things, in actual Catholic churches. And the Church I know is certainly not “obsessed” with those things, as the pontiff said.
All of you who are not Catholic are now asking where I’ve been, that I don’t know the Church is “obsessed” with those things.
Here’s where I’ve been — I’ve actually been in the Church, rather than experiencing it as it is written about by secular media. And I cannot recall when I’ve heard a single homily concentrating on any of those topics. Occasionally, during the petitions, I’ve heard an affirmation of life mentioned among all the other things we’re praying for. But “obsession”? “Focus,” even? No. Not part of my experience.
Now I do hear that there are some parishes that do have more of such a “focus.” But I don’t know that from personal experience.
It’s the rest of the world that thinks about those things, constantly, and only interacts with the Church in terms of its positions on those subjects. That’s pretty much all most Catholics seem to know about us. Well, that, and pedophilia. A topic that also fails to intersect with my experience of the Church.
The only intersection I can recall in this diocese between these separate perceptions is when then-Bishop Robert Baker was one of the bishops who said politicians who favor abortion on demand should not receive Communion. But I mostly read about that in the paper. I don’t recall it intruding into my parish life. And I don’t recall of hearing of anyone actually being denied communion in this diocese, although maybe it happened.
I want to say there was another bishop’s letter regarding a political issue sometime since then, but I don’t remember what it was about. It just didn’t have much impact on my experience of church life.
Oh, wait — I remember now that our current bishop, Robert Guglielmone, wrote a letter advocating for Medicaid expansion in SC. Does that count? Probably not.
So I was wondering what the pope was on about.
But when I read some other versions of the story, with different headlines (such as the WSJ’s “Pope Warns Church Focusing Too Much on Divisive Issues”), I got it.
Pope Francis was, in a way, doing what I did as editorial page editor at The State. Not to elevate myself to the level of the Holy Father or anything.
Y’all know I have an aversion to seeing Culture War issues intrude upon our politics. It’s because of the habit of thought I developed as EPE. My view was that there were all sorts of things we needed to talk about in South Carolina — economic development, education, our dysfunctional form of government, the need for comprehensive tax reform. It was tough enough to try to have constructive conversations about those things, untainted by partisan, ideological foolishness, without wasting any capital we had on issues that were hopelessly divisive.
There was nothing, absolutely nothing, we could accomplish in terms of changing minds on abortion, or same-sex marriage, or any of those kinds of things. Both sides in the partisan battles in this country used those issues for one purpose — to divide. As a sort of password to identify “their” people — to identify the good, right-thinking people — and to delegitimize those who disagreed.
All we could have accomplished by writing about such things would have been to make close to half our readers furious, thereby closing their minds to anything we had to say about pragmatic solutions to the issues we could actually do something about here in South Carolina.
I still don’t like to see such issues take a front-and-center position in our politics, because they drive us apart, and make it even harder to have constructive conversations on anything else.
Anyway, what does that have to do with what the Pope said?
Well, to begin with, this pontifex maximus is a very humble guy. He doesn’t care about winning argument points. And he understands that in terms of the way the world interacts with the church, perception is reality. So never mind that the church isn’t really obsessed with these things. It’s perceived as being so, and that erects walls between the church and lots of people who would otherwise be open to its central reasons for being.
So, he very publicly lets the world know that while he is Pope, the church will not be “obsessed” with such things. He’s not for a moment backing away from church teachings on those matters, but he assures us that he and the church he heads aren’t going to be going on and on about them. From E.J. Dionne’s column on the subject:
Francis responded plainly in the interview. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” he said. “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
As the WSJ described them, his remarks “appeared intended to nudge the church away from politically charged issues by setting out a vision of a church that is more welcoming and less preoccupied with emphasizing doctrine.”
Doctrine. That’s the key word, I think.
This pope’s predecessor was an enforcer of doctrine. That’s how he made his bones in the church. Under John Paul II, he was the bad cop, the modern-day version of a Grand Inquisitor. He was Mr. Rules and Regulations.
This pope is more about the central issues that our faith is about. Love, mercy, open arms and healing hearts. And he doesn’t want to be going on and on about things that distract from that, or to have the world think the church is going on and on about those things.
I like this Pope.