No doubt about it: religious traditionalists are spooked, especially within the Catholic Church. Many were edgy enough before Pope Francis’ interview in which he said the church could no longer afford to be “obsessed” with issues such as homosexuality, contraception and abortion.
Tired of being laughed at in all the best places for their defense of these perennially unpopular teachings, many of the orthodox faithful had already grown accustomed to maintaining a defensive crouch in the public square. Now the nontraditionalists–both inside and outside the church–are positively giddy, hoping that the new Pontiff will finally do what they want: namely, back off from all that archaic stuff.
But is Francis really throwing Catholic traditionalists under the Popemobile? The answer is more intriguing than first responders to the interview have discerned.
In the first place, and as the pope himself stressed throughout the interview, the occupant of the Chair of Peter is not exactly free to rewrite the teachings of the church. As he also said to America and La Civiltà Cattolica and everybody else, “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the church.” Translation: Any papal capitulation to vox populi on matters of morals has a proverbial snowball’s chance.
Second, in a way that many people today do not understand (and Francis does), even if the teachings that put a kick me sign on the church could be changed by fiat, it would be self-defeating to do so. The mainline Protestant churches have all tried just that–throwing out the unwanted baby of the traditional moral code with the theological bathwater. Yet they’re still drowning. Over the centuries, people have found plenty to complain about in the church’s bans on abortion, contraception and extramarital sex. But that fact doesn’t undermine the code’s internal consistency–or its appeal to those who have found in it a tough but beautiful truth.
And neither would Pope Francis seek to undermine this code. He immediately followed his interview with a speech to a medical group in which he observed that the unborn too have “the face of Jesus.” And days later, he presided over the excommunication of a priest who had defied church teachings about gay marriage and female clergy. To some people, this might look like politicking on both sides, but to those who follow the church’s official teachings, it’s just playing by the rules.
No, Francis isn’t asking anyone to back off from 2,000 years of teaching, give or take a few decades. He’s making a different and pragmatic point: in a world already blasted by sin, the church is first and foremost a field hospital for broken souls. (“Heal the wounds,” he explained.) And as the Pope has also made clear in his pastoral work, including in his recent phone call to a pregnant woman in turmoil because her already married boyfriend was pressuring her to have an abortion, the sexual revolution is sending a steady stream of patients to the wards.
The ubiquity of their sad stories–the sheer volume of human beings whose lives are now definitively shaped and sometimes deformed by a consumerist sexual ethos–is precisely what Pope Francis is responding to. Asking Catholics to lead the case for faith by emphasizing traditional morality in an age glutted by sex is, indeed, a pretty tough sell. He’s suggesting that believers work with the facts on the ground and find creative ways of planting the same eternal seeds in damaged soil.
“Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God,” he said. Maybe this means using the “genius” of women to heal breaches within the hierarchy rather than to create more of them. Maybe it means understanding the moral energy behind environmentalism and building new bridges between that movement and Christian ideas of stewardship. Maybe there’s synergy too in connecting the obvious moral dots between concern for all kinds of animal life and concern for unborn human life.
These are just some ways in which others can reach out as Pope Francis seems to want–and they don’t involve compromising or countermanding the Magisterium by so much as an ampersand.
Far from selling the beleaguered faithful down the Tiber, this Pope is simply asking them to find bigger nets. This fisherman in chief is not a radical. He is something more interesting and unexpected both inside the church and out: a radical traditionalist.
Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press).