How to Misinterpret Pope Francis

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis gave a three part interview to Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal. The interview was published earlier this week in all the Jesuit journals around the world. Everything was fine and dandy until the mainstream media decided to report on it and, as usual, got it all wrong. Before going into more details, I want to make it clear that I’m not the conspiracy theory kind of guy who thinks the media is secretly conspiring to destroy the Church. I don’t think they have the intelligence to do that. I just think most journalists are—unfortunately—incompetent and vastly ignorant of what the Church teaches. I’m not denying that there might be hidden agendas and the like, but I think overall, the media is just too busy trying to make easy money to lead an actual effort against the Church. The problem is that many Catholics get their information from these sources—they are news sources after all—and are thrown into a panic. Before believing all the nonsense published in most news sites, read the interview yourself. It’s a long read, but believe me, it’s worth your time.

Now that you’ve hopefully read it, we can go ahead and think about what the Pope actually said. Is it that, as the media reported, Pope Francis is throwing all previous Catholic teaching out the window? Is he contradicting everything Pope Benedict taught during his papacy? Is he, as the news articles imply, some sort of anti-Benedict? The short and emphatic answer is no. I have never heard Pope Francis (and believe me, I’ve read a good number of his speeches, homilies and audiences) say anything negative about Pope Benedict. He has never done so. In fact, he always shows a respect and admiration for him that I wish every Catholic would show. Father Spadaro noticed this in his interview and writes: “Pope Francis begins by showing great affection and immense respect for his predecessor: ‘Pope Benedict has done an act of holiness, greatness, humility. He is a man of God.’” Attempting to somehow pit Pope Francis against Pope Benedict is ridiculous. It has no basis in reality.

There are two comments that the media was very eager to (erroneously) report about, namely, Pope Francis’ comments on homosexuality and those on abortion and contraception. What did he actually say?

First, we will focus on his words with respect to abortion, gay marriage and contraception: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. 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.” Nothing new here and, as a matter of fact, the Pope himself is making it clear that he believes and agrees with every single thing the Church teaches about them. But is the Church somehow obsessed with these issues? Are they all we Catholics think about? If you take the time to see what the Church has been talking about in, say, the last hundred or so years, you will find this: of 73 papal encyclicals (the letters the Pope writes to the entire Church and which, as it were, bring to light what is weighing on the Pope’s mind), only one has dealt with contraception (Paul VI’s prophetic Humanae Vitae) and only one has had to do with abortion (Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae). How many have been written specifically about homosexuality? Not a single one. This doesn’t mean the Church is not concerned about these issues. It means the Church understands that these issues must be addressed in context, exactly as Pope Francis has said. That context is the salvation brought about by Jesus Christ. Without that, any discussion on moral issues is pointless. As Pope Francis said: “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.” That is, once you’ve truly accepted the Gospel (and not a version of the Gospel that fits your likes), the conclusions the Church has reached on moral issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality will inevitably follow. It can’t be any other way.

The question remains, however, as to why the Pope would bring this up. I believe that many Catholics, at least in what they show publicly, do in fact focus or overemphasize these issues. It is true that some have, in the way they talk and act, reduced Catholicism to a rejection of abortion, contraception and homosexuality and have neglected the rest (others have done likewise with respect to aiding the poor). Those who do so are wrong. The Catholic faith has its source and its goal in the person of Christ. Everything else emanates from that source. The Pope is saying that those who only see the moral issues need to change their emphasis. They need to direct people, first and foremost, to Christ. Once a person has encountered Christ, they will be asked, by the Lord Himself, to “go and sin no more.” This is something the Church has always held. Jesus Himself acted that way. In Luke chapter 19, Jesus sees Zacchaeus and pretty much invites Himself into his house. In response to that encounter, Zacchaeus offers to give away half of his ill-gotten wealth and to restore what he has taken unjustly. The moral action follows the encounter. This is not a justification or an acceptance of immoral behavior. It is a realistic approach to leading people out of an immoral to a moral life. One cannot begin with morality alone. One must begin with the person of Jesus.

This applies equally to the question of homosexuality. Pope Francis does not say that homosexuality is fine or that we should stop considering homosexual acts immoral. He says that we must treat homosexual men and women with love and respect, something the Catholic Church has always taught. Here, the incompetence of the reporters reaches its utmost heights. Allow me to elaborate, Pope Francis said: “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. By saying this, I said what the catechism says.” Many took this to mean that he was breaking with the past and changing Catholic teaching. But they were seemingly oblivious to the phrase “By saying this, I said what the catechism says.” And not only the Catechism, but a whole series of official Church documents (you can read more about the Church’s official views on homosexuality in this old post of mine), some of which were written by, guess who? Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI. Any honest and competent journalist who ignored what that phrase meant should have taken the time to figure it out. What is this Catechism and what does it say about homosexuality? I’m not a journalist, but heck, if I were to be reporting about something, I would try to do some research so as to not look like a complete fool.

I understand that we can’t expect the secular media to always report accurately on Catholic issues. However, I believe it is their duty to report on them with as much objectivity as they can. These ridiculous articles honestly make me wonder if journalists are even taught how to read, let alone to think. Catholic friends, before you go about freaking out about something the Pope allegedly said and spreading said alleged saying on Facebook or Twitter, go to the original source, read the speech, interview, homily or whatever it is. Share that instead. You would be surprised by how many people would benefit from that.

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