Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Christ-Centered Pope

Published in National Review Online on September 20, 2013


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Perhaps the most revealing detail in Pope Francis’s lengthy interview, conducted by the Italian Jesuit Antonio Spadaro and published yesterday in English translation in the Jesuit journal America, is the pontiff’s reflection on one of his favorite Roman walks, prior to his election:

When I had to come to to Rome, I always stayed in [the neighborhood of the] Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of “The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio. That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew. . . . This is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.

The Calling of St. Matthew is an extraordinary painting in many ways, including Caravaggio’s signature use of light and darkness to heighten the spiritual tension of a scene. In this case, though, the chiaroscuro setting is further intensified by a profoundly theological artistic device: The finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew, seems deliberately to invoke the finger of God as rendered by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Thus Caravaggio, in depicting the summons of the tax collector, unites creation and redemption, God the Father and the incarnate Son, personal call and apostolic mission.

That is who Jorge Mario Bergoglio is: a radically converted Christian disciple who has felt the mercy of God in his own life and who describes himself, without intending any dramatic effect, as “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Having heard the call to conversion and responded to it, Bergoglio wants to facilitate others’ hearing of that call, which never ceases to come from God through Christ and the Church.

And that, Bergoglio insists, is what the Church is for: The Church is for evangelization and conversion. Those who have found the new pope’s criticism of a “self-referential Church” puzzling, and those who will find something shockingly new in his critical comments, in his recent interview, about a Church reduced “to a nest protecting our mediocrity,” haven’t been paying sufficient attention. Six years ago, when the Catholic bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean met at the Brazilian shrine of Aparecida to consider the future, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio, was one of the principal intellectual architects of the bishops’ call to put evangelization at the center of Catholic life, and to put Jesus Christ at the center of evangelization. The Latin American Church, long used to being “kept,” once by legal establishment and then by cultural tradition, had to rediscover missionary zeal by rediscovering the Lord Jesus Christ. And so the Latin American bishops, led by Bergoglio, made in their final report a dramatic proposal that amounted to a stinging challenge to decades, if not centuries, of ecclesiastical complacency:

The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission. . . . It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats. . . . What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel . . . out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries. . . .

A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized would not withstand the trials of time. . . . We must all start again from Christ, recognizing [with Pope Benedict XVI] that “being Christian is . . . the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

The 21st-century proclamation of Christ must take place in a deeply wounded and not infrequently hostile world. In another revealing personal note, Francis spoke of his fondness for Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, one of the most striking religious paintings of the 20th century. Chagall’s Jesus is unmistakably Jewish, the traditional blue and white tallis or prayer-shawl replacing the loincloth on the Crucified One. But Chagall’s Christ is also a very contemporary figure, for around the Cross swirl the death-dealing political madnesses and hatreds of the 20th century. And so the pope’s regard for Chagall’s work is of a piece with his description of the Catholic Church of the 21st century as a kind of field hospital on a battlefield strewn with the human wreckage caused by false ideas of the human person and false claims of what makes for happiness. Thus Francis in his interview on the nature of the Church:

I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.

And how are the wounds of late-modern and postmodern humanity to be healed? Through an encounter with Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. “The most important thing, “ Francis insisted in his interview, “is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” The Church of the 21st century must offer Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life (as John Paul II liked to put it). The moral law is important, and there should be no doubt that Francis believes and professes all that the Catholic Church believes and professes to be true about the moral life, the life that leads to happiness and beatitude. But he also understands that men and women are far more likely to embrace those moral truths — about the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death; about human sexuality and how it should be lived — when they have first embraced Jesus Christ as Lord. That, it seems to me, is what the pope was saying when he told Antonio Spadaro that “proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things.” These are what make “the heart burn: as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. . . . The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

Francis underscores that “the teaching of the Church is clear” on issues like abortion, euthanasia, the nature of marriage, and chastity and that he is “a son of the Church” who accepts those teachings as true. But he also knows that “when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.” That “context” is Jesus Christ and his revelation of the truth about the human person. For as the Second Vatican Council taught inGaudium et Spes, its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly comes clear. For Adam, the first man, was the type of him who was to come. Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”

Thus Pope Francis, the pastor who is urging a new pastoral style on his fellow bishops and fellow priests, insists that every time the Church says “no,” it does so on the basis of a higher and more compelling “yes”: yes to the dignity and value of every human life, which the Church affirms because it has embraced Jesus as Lord and proclaims him to a world increasingly tempted to measure human beings by their utility rather than their dignity.

Francis’s radical Christocentricity — his insistence that everything in the Church begins with Jesus Christ and must lead men and women to Jesus Christ — also sheds light on his statement that there is a hierarchy of truths in Catholicism or, as he put it, that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent.” That does not mean, of course, that some of those teachings are not really, well, true; but it does mean that some truths help us make sense of other truths. The Second Vatican Council reclaimed this notion of a “hierarchy of truths” in Unitatis Redintegratio, its Decree on Ecumenism, and it’s an important idea, the pope understands, for the Church’s evangelical mission.

If you don’t believe in Jesus Christ as Lord — if you’ve never heard the Gospel — then you aren’t going to be very interested in what the Catholic Church has to say in Jesus’s name about what makes for human happiness and what makes for decadence and unhappiness; indeed, you’re quite likely to be hostile to what the Church says about how we ought to live. By redirecting the Church’s attention and pastoral action to the Church’s most basic responsibility — the proclamation of the Gospel and the invitation to friendship with Jesus Christ — Pope Francis is underscoring that a very badly disoriented 21st century will be more likely to pay attention to evangelists than to scolds: “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. . . . The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.” The Church says “yes” before the Church says “no,” and there isn’t any “no” the Church pronounces that isn’t ultimately a reflection of the Church’s “yes” to Jesus Christ, to the Gospel, and to what Christ and the Gospel affirm about human dignity.

It’s going to take some time for both the Church and the world to grow accustomed to an evangelical papacy with distinctive priorities. Those who imagine the Catholic Church as an essentially political agency in which “policy” can change the way it changes when a new governor moves into an American statehouse will continue — as they did within minutes of the release of the America interview — to misrepresent Pope Francis as an advocate of doctrinal and moral change, of the sort that would be approved by the editorial board of the New York Times. This is nonsense. Perhaps more urgently, it is a distraction.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is determined to redirect the Church’s attention, and the world’s attention, to Jesus Christ. In this, his papacy will be in continuity with those of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Francis is going to be radically Christ-centered in his own way, though, and some may find that way jarring. Those willing to take him in full, however, rather than excising 17 words from a 12,000-word interview, will find the context in which those 17 words make classic Catholic sense. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” the pope told his interviewer. Why? Because it is by insisting on conversion to Jesus Christ, on lifelong deepening of the believer’s friendship with him, and on the Church’s ministry as an instrument of the divine mercy that the Church will help others make sense of its teaching on those matters — with which the New York Times, not the Catholic Church, is obsessed — and will begin to transform a deeply wounded culture.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

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