October 14, 2013
More on Pope Francis, misunderstandings, risks, and older brothers
Returning to my ongoing conversation-with-myself about the content and reception of some of Pope Francis's recent and highly publicized less-formal interventions: I got together the other night with some good friends-and-colleagues here at Notre Dame to reflect on the America interview and the "letter to the Italian atheist." This gathering gave me an excuse to re-read both items, and I was struck, again, by (at least) three things: First, I really like their warm and inviting tone. While. I admit, I am not entirely sold on the idea that magazine interviews and semi-private correspondence is the ideal vehicle for the Pope's pastoral or teaching roles, it seems impossible to deny (and, of course, why would one want to?) the appeal of these and similar writings and statements.
Second, I'm struck -- hammered, really -- by how badly these writings have been presented in most press coverage. (This means, among other things, that some "conservatives" who have been complaining -- or worse! -- about the Pope's statements are really complaining about un-made statements.) For example, it was not evangelization but "proselytism" -- which has long meant in Church teaching and papal writings a particular unworthy mode of communication that is inconsistent with the human dignity of the hearer -- that was dismissed by the Pope as "pious nonsense." And, the Pope did not say, in America, that Catholics or the Church are "obsessed" with abortion and marriage; he did say that he did not think it was necessary to speak about these issues "all the time" (no one thinks that it is, it seems to me) and that it is better to speak about them in context, in the right way, as connected with the deep, core truths of the Gospel and about the human person. And, his point that we cannot "interfere spiritually" with people is an echo of John Paul II's reminder that the Church must "propose, not impose" -- it was not a statement about laws relating to marriage or about sexual morality. And on and on. (To be clear: I am not here "parsing the Pope", in an effort to avoid or water down something he said that I don't like. I am venting frustration over the fact that it's being reported, said, and complained that he said things he didn't say.)
Third, I did have a sense that John Allen was (as he so often is) right to raise the possibility of the Holy Father needing to respond to an "older son problem", in the sense that some Catholics -- I'm thinking particularly of those who have, without being "obsessed" or "legalistic", heroically labored in the trenches of the pro-life movement -- might wonder if their work -- which is, after all, precisely the kind of love-and-mercy-in-action that the Pope is challenging all of us to take up -- is getting short-changed a bit. It would be a blunder -- not so much a doctrinal or "culture war" one, but a pastoral one -- if the Pope or a bishop were to -- unwittingly, obviously -- cause the self-sacrificing and inspiringly other-regarding people (I am thinking of Ann Manion, the incredible person behind Indiana's "Women's Care Center") who have given a lot to help vulnerable women and unborn children to doubt the Church's gratitude and support.
Now, I think that some of my friends at the gathering were (not without reason!) confused or even frustrated by my simultaneous expressions of (a) appreciation for the Pope's statements, (b) criticism of misinterpretations and misrepresentations by misguided critics and perhaps-disingenuous fans, and (c) concerns about the message some statements could send but, well, there it is. Now . . . what does any of this have to do with law? Maybe (for now) this: A challenge facing any legislator or legislature is the crafting, in a prudent way, of laws that work -- that move the ball in the direction of their object or goal, in a reasonably efficient way, with reasonably low risk of unintended sub-optimal consequences and side-effects. It will be the rare law that comes with no such risk or causes no such consequences, but still we press on with law-making. What choice do we have? Well, given all the givens about communication, context, and the press's blind-spots and pathologies, it will be a rare papal statement -- whether a letter to a news-editor or to the universal Church -- that will not be misunderstood or misrepresented by some. It would be wise, and pastoral, for Church leaders, including the Holy Father, to do what they can to reduce the risks of misunderstanding or the dangers of misrepresentation but, at the end of the day, these risks and dangers are ineradicable and, I suppose, have to be faced if the Church is going to be salt and light, teacher and prophet, friend and "field hospital."
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