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.