I wrote and broadcast about the interview numerous times, but it was my column in The New York Daily News that produced the greatest reaction, particularly after Cardinal Timothy Dolan generously praised the article in a press scrum and then described it on his blog as “one of the best analysis of Pope Francis” that he had read. In that column I wrote that contrary to media misinterpretation, what the Pope did say “and what is genuinely revolutionary and far more interesting, is that the Church’s conversation with the world has to be radically re-shaped. Or, to put it another way, there cannot even be a conversation unless and until the Church says yes before it says no.”
I argued that, “What Francis has urged, though, is a new painting. Black and white is vital, but the true picture can only be understood through a whole variety of colours. So this is a Pope of nuance and back-story, of delicacy and empathy of delivery … The human within the theological, the person within the religious, the living, breathing, confused, confusing man or woman within the moral law.”
Thus back to right and left. The left jumped onto the Holy Father’s words like a starving man on a Big Mac. They devoured without pausing to taste, and it gave them a nasty dose of intellectual and moral indigestion. Of course this wasn’t the successor to St. Peter abandoning biblical teaching on life and sexuality — that’s not only absurd but also impossible. Nor was this the announcement of a new Church, but if anything a re-emergence of a more ancient, pre-Reformation theology.
The right acted similarly, drawing the same conclusions but depressed by them rather than delighted. And here let me explain what I mean by the right. I am a serious, orthodox, even conservative Catholic; my friends applaud me for it, my enemies despise me for it. By the right I don’t mean devout believers, I mean the bunker people who never seem to realize that we obey God out of love rather than fear, and that the rules are there not to close the doors but to open them.
This, surely, is what the Pope meant when he spoke so eloquently of his love for the Church and his loyalty to it and its teachings. Of course we have to explain to people what Catholicism proclaims and also prohibits, he said, but we can’t do that if all they can hear is a list of negatives. There’s a flavour of the prodigal son here, and I am as much at fault as anyone. I’ve been here for years, been faithful to the commands, lived as a Catholic when I know others in the Church, even clergy, haven’t. How dare the Pope say newcomers, wanderers, are just as welcome? He said it because God teaches it.
Both left and right fail badly and sin loudly when they try to recreate the Pope and even Christ in their own image. He’s not the Jesus of climate change, mainstream media and liberation theology; nor the Jesus of obsession with homosexuality, conspiracy theories and cynical other-worldliness. He’s just Jesus, who left us a Pope, a magisterium, a Church and the sacraments.
How revealing it is that the two extremes are so similar in appearance. The left have done far more damage because they have enjoyed more influence since the 1960s, have helped to effectively destroy Catholic education and confused and misled good Catholics into leaving the faith. But both excesses are man-made, both wrong, neither authentically Christ-driven.
I suspect this is not the last time the Pope’s comments or actions will be exploited. It’s not easy when it happens, but we’re far better off relishing the attention given to the Church than lamenting how troubled we are by the noise. It’s a good noise, a Godly noise, a Catholic noise.