Reflections on the Pope’s Interview
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
Everyone’s talking about the lengthy interview with Pope Francis did for Jesuit magazines. The pope stated in a 11,000 word interview that “[W]e cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and contraceptive methods” and then the press went on to write only about what the Pope said about abortion, gay marriage, and contraceptive methods.
Every state Catholic conference director is familiar with the media’s obsession with those issues. Only a portion of our work concerns abortion, marriage, and contraception and the work of a state Catholic conference comprises only a very, very, small fraction of the Catholic Church’s activities. From news reports, however, a person could easily conclude that the church is a massive political machine fixated on abortion, marriage, and contraception.
Missed in Pope Francis’ interview are gems like this: “The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”
Nor do they always coincide, the pope says, with what is “clear and safe.” Upon reading this I was reminded of a passage from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” concerning the lion Aslan, the Christ-figure of the book.
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
The pope was warning against seeking clarity and safety by retreating into a form of legalism in church matters, where the rule overshadows the spirit. Doing so, the pope warns, risks having the faith become an “ideology among ideologies.”
A similar temptation occurs in politics, though the risk is the reverse - ideology becoming faith. Ideological, philosophical, and partisan identities can seem like a refuge from the “ambiguity of life.” Identifying as a “conservative,” “liberal,” “libertarian,” “socialist,” Democrat, Republican, Tea Partier, or something else provides a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, and guidance on how to act.
Ultimately, however, the clarity and security that comes from such labels is illusory. All ideologies and political parties are man-made and, due to our fallen nature, necessarily ambiguous. They all fall short of the fullness of the truth about who we are, how we should live together, and how we should govern.
Another way we seek safety and clarity, according to the pope, is by living a “lab faith” rather than a “journey faith.” He notes, for example, that those who want to help the poor - which should include all of us - should not just study poverty, but discern it directly, through the people who experience it. For Pope Francis this is the “frontier” to which we are called to carry the gospel.
Policymakers face the same temptation. Very few are or ever were poor, pregnant and unmarried, jobless, struggling with addiction, mentally ill, or dying alone. Yet they engage in making laws that directly impact those that are. If they seek advice at all, they typically turn to the ideologically motivated think-tanks and government bureaucrats who live in their “laboratories.”
Here is where Christians, and especially those involved in church ministries, can make a difference. The Catholic Church brings not just her social doctrine to bear on issues, but also the experiences gained from those who heal the sick, feed the poor, hold the hand of the girl facing a crisis pregnancy, stay awake with those suffering from addiction or mental illness, and pray with those approaching death. If lawmakers cannot go to the frontier, then we have an obligation to bring our experiences from the frontier to them.
If you have not read the interview, take the time to do so. It can be found here: http://americamagazine.org/pope-interview