What’s Wrong With the New Pope? A Commentary on the Commentary on the Latest Interview

For those who missed it, Pope Francis gave another fantastic interview last week, this time with the […]

Will McDavid / 10.8.13

For those who missed it, Pope Francis gave another fantastic interview last week, this time with the atheistic founder of La Repubblica. I think we’re on the verge of an additional dialogue shift, as His Holiness, showing no signs of changing his tone, will gradually start to provoke people within his own church, if the past is any indicator. The last “Papa Buono” provoked an absurdly paradoxical schism in the name of traditionalism, and the most interesting aspect of the new Francis I material, to me, is the beginnings of a reaction within his Church. “New persuasive words“, or Christian Wiman’s “new poetics of faith“, is almost an understatement for Francis’s last two interviews, but I’m nervous that in the future, we’ll see him at least partially through the lens of their critics, something I’d like to experiment with a bit here.


First, as someone outside the Roman Church, I want to recognize the irony upfront of non-Catholics pontificating (!) on a father figure they disclaim and the insecurity that sometimes comes across in our need to comment at all. But it’s an interesting tonal change in the Catholic Church, and one that I think bodes well for the Church at large. But we also can’t overplay Francis’s freshness; we’re seeing a watershed stylistic shift, but not necessarily any kind of major break, especially not theologically, with an already-modernized-and-compassionate post-Vatican II Catholicism. Not everyone agrees. The most obviously objectionable portion in the Pope’s interview was the following:

LR: Your Holiness, you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.

Francis: “And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

At the normally-balanced First Things, Mark Movsesian of St. John’s University weighs in:

The pope’s views on conscience were also odd, from a Christian perspective. “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them,” the pope said. “That would be enough to make the world a better place.” With respect, “do what you think is right” is not the Christian view of conscience. That sounds more like Anthony Kennedy than St. Paul. And would the world really be a better place if everyone did what he thought was right? How about jihadis?

I don’t know Mr. Movsesian’s denominational affiliation, but it’d be surprising if he were a Roman Catholic, as over forty years ago the world’s largest gathering of R.C. bishops drafted the following, promulgated by Paul VI:

vatican-IIThose also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. (Lumen Gentium, II.16)

This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power. (Dignitatis Humanae, 1)

And the kicker:

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. (DH, 3)

What we’re seeing in Movsesian’s dissent is a tepid sort of moralism, a traditionalism without quite enough reference to tradition. For the record, Lumen Gentium and Dignitatis Humanae do have a few checks and balances on the above three sentiments, but they’re still pretty radical documents. A great time to protest them would’ve been the sixties.

The point of DH wasn’t to claim a new, relativistic way of looking at morality, but rather the opposite: an extraordinarily high view of Romans 2:15’s assertion that the Law is inscribed on the human heart – a theme we’ve tried to expound upon on Mockingbird. That rarest of beasts, an individual disagreeing with the Roman Church in the name of Roman Catholicism, could only be motivated by one of the strongest “baby drivers” in the human psyche, our fear that giving grace and freedom to someone will cause them to spiral out of control – sex, drugs, and God-knows-what-else. Francis I hasn’t said anything new. The point of Dignitatis Humanae wasn’t ‘anything goes’, but rather that true obedience cannot be coerced by legislation, power, or guilt-trips. Francis I is finally acting that out, in the highest Roman Catholic tradition of ‘development’ in doctrine rather than ‘innovation.’

Again, we Protestants aren’t obligated to care one way or the other if the Pope seems to be saying or doing anything apostate, but that doesn’t stop some of us from getting tremendously upset about the proclamations of a figure we don’t formally recognize. I personally would disagree with Francis about forgiveness lying with the Church, Mariology, and lots of other stuff, but that’s not what non-Catholics are upset about. For another perspective, Rod Dreher, an Eastern Orthodox convert, offers his thoughts:

I don’t get the universalism behind encouraging people to “move towards what they think is Good.” What the Wahhabist thinks is Good is not the same thing as what the secular materialist thinks is Good, and is not the same thing as what the Amish farm woman thinks is Good. I mean, obviously there will be some overlap, but if the Pope believes there is no reason to insist on Christian particularity, if Jesus is true for him, but not for everyone, then why evangelize at all?

I don’t personally think the Pope ever said that Jesus is true for him, but not for everyone. Hermeneutics of suspicion, anyone?

My personal dissent with Pope Francis’s interview was, at first reaction, a suspicion that he sounds a little over-optimistic about the possibility of loving everyone – parts sounded almost new-agey. But, alas, that’s what the Man himself did – healing before teaching, judging only the self-righteous, focusing on the individual before him like she’s the only person in the world, giving the beloved disciple to his lonely, grieving mother as a surrogate son and pardoning a thief willy-nilly as his last actions before his death, cooking breakfast for Peter rather than giving him long lectures on the meanings of loyalty and ecclesiology.


Above all, we can praise a certain trust manifest in Francis – that evangelism is good, but ultimately in God’s hands; a faith that God’s grace is more persuasive than our petty moralism, a concern for comforting the lonely old and the hopeless young, because companionship is good for the soul. Whatever ‘universalism’ he has isn’t a self-assured theological assertion about salvation, but rather a willingness to lean into an ultimately inscrutable, but legibly faithful, Providence when it comes to all things, all people.

Such a willingness and humility is, as far as I can tell, a posture of faith very similar to the fruit of Luther’s simul iustus et peccator, which moralists the world over have always hated. Like the alleged antinomianism of Luther’s Christian freedom, it’s an issue of trusting God’s mechanism of grace over our own mechanisms of right-handed moral coercion. Above all, it’s not an everything-goes-Christianity-is-right-for-me-but-maybe-not-for-you kind of affair, but the opposite: a trust in the lowercase-c catholicity of the Cross, not a denigration of Christianity’s claim to primacy but an assertion that the logos underpins the entire created order, that Christianity’s view of human experience is not one view among others, but the descriptive norm of all human experience. That is not universalism, but Christian orthodoxy.

Francis I has not said anything new within Catholicism, but he has started emphasizing the strand of Christianity – that of grace, freedom, and dependent faithfulness – that our Old Adams are most resistant to; in other words, the “heart of the matter.” Unfortunately, that message doesn’t always sell.


4 responses to “What’s Wrong With the New Pope? A Commentary on the Commentary on the Latest Interview”

  1. Mark Brown says:

    One problem with all this, the Book of Acts assumes or has as its driving force the idea that the gospel has been preached to the ends of the world. The righteous heathen or in Rahner’s phrase the anonymous christian is one of those very rare birds likely extinct. The gospel is preached in every age giving us the opportunity to respond and that awful power to reject grace. Relying on one’s conscience alone is relying on the law alone. In that sense, Francis, being warmly welcomed by those who have rejected the church’s proclamation of both law and gospel, is taking the gospel away from them. He is removing the call to repentance and the offer of grace and affirming them in their own law. Yes, it might be based upon that which is written on our hearts, but fallen creatures that we are we have hardened our hearts and calloused our ears to hearing it clearly. I’m afraid I don’t see your final line at all. Francis appears to me as that most dangerous of all moralists, the smiling watchman who won’t tell you of the terrible judgement to come, but instead affirms you just where you are and where you want to go, instead of offering the living waters of grace and freedom from that most restrict law, the one of our own making.

  2. michael cooper says:

    I am almost certain that Mark Movsesian is Roman Catholic. He is also a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, so I think he may not be as “ignorant” of RC doctrine and tradition as this post claims. Nor do I think it fair to label Movsesian a “tepid moralist.” I really don’t see how his comments are any more or less “moralistic” than those of Francis. Most likely, both share the same view of the interaction between what they call “grace” and moral action that is orthodox RC doctrine. What seems to be going on here is that Francis wants to try to convey to the secular world what he sees as “common ground” between it and the RC church, and to do so in language that is not weighed down with doctrinal qualifiers. This risks being misunderstood by the secularists as being “with us” in a way that he really is not, while on the other hand being misunderstood by those who would like a more precise doctrinal language used that is not open to such misinterpretations by those outside the church. For example, I don’t think that Francis in his comments meant them to be taken categorically and to their logical conclusions, as Movsesian, being trained as a lawyer, naturally would take them. I think Francis was simply trying to say “Generally, if people just did what they thought was the right thing to do then, all in all, the world would be a better place.” That is to say, as the Pope, I am not trying to pick a fight with atheists at every turn. But this kind of rather loose language drives more precise types nuts. But being a “moralist” or not really has nothing to do with it.

    • Will McDavid says:

      MC – You’re right, I was too biting/dismissive toward Movsesian, especially in the ‘tepid moralism’ label. Written in a dissent-y mood, I’m afraid. Mea culpa.

      I’d view the Dignitatis Humanae passage (and document as a whole) as something a bit more than common ground, but common ground is certainly the motivation behind his tone, style, etc.

      • michael cooper says:

        Will, I agree with you totally that Dignitatis Humanae is way more than seeking “common ground” but I was just saying that I think that Francis is on a mission to seek common ground where he can with the secular world in order to try to convey the message of the gospel, as he sees it, rather than having that message so obscured by secondary, alienating church doctrines ( but doctrines with which he of course agrees) I think he strongly believes that the secular world never even “hears” the core message sometimes, and that the church has been partly to blame for that. I don’t agree with him on all the ins and outs of what the “gospel message” is, but in general I like his approach. Anyhow, he’s talking about Jesus the friend of sinners, and not afraid to stick his neck out, so that should make us all happy.

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