Francis: Be Obsessed with People, not Polemics

This post is part of a series of reflections by TJP writers on Pope Francis’s recent interview.
Full Series List: The Papal Interview: Young Jesuits React and Reflect
The Original Interview: At America Magazine
Maintenance on the third rail Photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Flickr

Maintenance on the third rail
Photo by MTA on Flickr

If nothing else, Pope Francis knows how to grab a headline. During his epic interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the pope did something a lot of bishops do when they talk to the media. He grabbed hold of the third rail of (ecclesiastical and civil) politics with both hands, engaging a triumvirate of hot-button issues: abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. But instead of issuing a rallying cry for a culture war, Francis said that as a church, we’re talking about these issues too much — and more importantly, giving them outsized emphasis. The third rail, in other words, is at least partly our own creation. And Francis took hold of it so that we might let it go.

And, of course, much of the commentary following the interview was about … abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception.

This is perhaps understandable, because it makes for a sexy headline (pun intended) and sells papers (well, as much as anything sells papers anymore). But it’s a shame, because it buys into the very mindset that the pope seems so determined — rightly, I think — to undermine. If we focus on these prominent social questions as “issues” or “problems,” we miss the point.

In his young papacy, Francis has shown a willingness and a desire to look behind these “hot button issues,” and see the real live human beings whose lives are deeply affected by them. This is not the same thing as overlooking or ignoring the questions. In fact, the pope is insisting that for Christians, taking these issues seriously means proclaiming God’s merciful love, not fixating on a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” But our public discourse — both within the church and without — often proceeds like these particular issues can be separated from the human lives that they touch so intimately. They cannot.

Take this snippet from the interview, for example, which has been very well-covered in the last few days:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’

“This person” is the focus. This person before me. Not some big, global idea. Not some invisible bogeyman, not some shadowy and amorphous “gay agenda” (or even, for that matter, a “gay lobby”). In response to a provocation, Francis focuses on a person. My brother, or sister, or neighbor, or self. He continues,

We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.

For Francis, people are not problems. Mysteries? Yes. But not problems or riddles to be fixed or solved.

Much the same trend emerged as Francis discussed the example of a penitent woman who had an abortion and a failed marriage in her past. Again his focus falls on the individual, her conscience and penitence. And in this he is only saying what so many Christians have discovered over and over again: that it is easier — and thus more tempting — to condemn and vilify an abstraction (“abortion,” the “culture of death,” “gays”) than a person like yourself, and one whose pain is before you.

For as long as I can remember at least, we have been accustomed to a certain way of talking about difficult moral issues, the kind that Francis faced head-on in this interview. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is the well-worn truism frequently trotted out in these situations. These words are true, so far as they go, but they almost never go far enough. Often, these words are offered as a kind of respectable prelude to condemnation; the obligatory fine print to be read quickly before a justifiable and agreed-upon denunciation. “Love them, but…”

We are still waiting for the “but…” from Pope Francis. Perhaps one will come, and yet – and who can deny that this is more challenging? – none seems forthcoming. For we crave (or I do, at least) the sanctuary of air-tight moral precepts and royal roads to salvation. And yet we know that the line between “sinner” and “righteous” is a dotted one, and that the sweep of “sinner” includes us all.

Many of us, myself included, have piously uttered the words “love the sinner.” The question Francis is asking is: do we really mean it?

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