Pope Francis, God and the World (Part 2)

In his first Angelus and Sunday homily, Pope Francis contemplates Jesus’ mercy and his challenge to the self-righteous in the Gospel of the woman caught in adultery.  But the gentleness of Francis’ pastoral style contrasts with the combative way he has sometimes taken on government and courts back in Argentina.  There he has spoken out fiercely on issues concerning poverty, legalizing abortion and most recently (and unsuccessfully) gay civil marriage.

One problem with this style of Church teaching is that it can seem to encourage the easy, self-righteous separation of the publicly ‘good’ from the publicly ‘bad’ (exactly what the Sunday Gospel challenges).   It can also support an impression that the Church looks inward, jealously protecting its rights in a constant battle with an ‘evil’ secular world.

So what tenderness can we expect from the new Pope for Catholics who are on the wrong side of the official laws?  And what hope is there for dialogue with a world of people who think differently from us?   We can turn again to Jorge Maria Borgoglio’s interviews of 2010 for clues.

He is firmly committed to the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and family.  He regards this as something that any ethical person can recognise as valid, whether they are Catholic or not.  However, he also puts it in a wider context.  The Church’s teaching on the right to life – defending the unborn –  must include the right of the mother to care during and after pregnancy, the right of mother and child to food, water, sanitation, education, the right of the mother to human care in old age.  In other words, it implies a whole way of being community.  The implication is that, unless the Church is prepared to promote these things, its defence of the rights of the unborn is hollow.  He further speaks of the need for great compassion for women affected by abortion and is strong in condemning priests who show disrespect to unmarried mothers.

He also gives a sense of proportion when talking about other matters of human sexuality.  He maintains that the reason for the Church’s rules is that it believes they promote a fuller and happier life.  He criticises the way some Church people too easily reduce Church teaching to rules of sexual behaviour, rather than the Gospel and the mercy of God.  When his interviewers begin asking him about whether it is time to recognise that people think differently these days, he turns their attention to other things that people take for granted, like not paying their taxes or cheating in business.  The implication is twofold.  Firstly some things are simply wrong however many people accept them.   Secondly some of the things that people don’t even see as wrong do far more damage to society than some of the hot topics around sexual ethics.

He is a man who knows his own mind and he does not believe that ethics changes.  But this does not mean that does not believe in the progress of civilisation or that he thinks our ethical awareness cannot grow.  On the negative side, he points to the pitfalls of progress, when advanced technology drives out humanity and undermines civilisation.  Yet, positively, he points to the abolition of slavery, the establishment of human rights, awareness of ecological responsibilities.  These are areas where we have learnt to see real ethical imperatives more clearly.   He notes that the Church has done such learning in the past, for instance in changing its teaching on the death penalty.  By implication it can do such learning in the future.

His vision of the place of Church in society is not that of a closed fortress.   ‘A Church wrapped up in itself… makes itself paranoid, autistic’.  The Church needs to get out of itself, engage with people, even if that means taking risks.  Its task is to help society grow together, more committed, more human.  Its partners in dialogue are whoever has a sense of the transcendent.  This may mean believing in God, or it may mean believing in the value of other human beings.  All who share this horizon of value can meet, converse, reconcile and build together a better world.

Fr John Moffatt SJ

John Moffatt SJ (born England 1959; entered the Jesuits 1982; ordained 1992) is a Jesuit priest. He has studied at Oxford, London and Innsbruck. He has worked as a school chaplain at St Ignatius College, Enfield and Wimbledon College, Merton. He has also worked as a university chaplain and at the Jesuit Institute—South Africa, in Johannesburg. John Moffatt SJ is the author of ‘The Resurrection of the Word: a modern quest for intelligent faith’ (The Way Books: 2013) and ‘The Faith Delusion’ CDs (Radio Veritas and Jesuit Institute, 2014). See also moffatt.wordpress.com.

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