By DONALD DeMARCO
A common complaint directed at Blessed John Paul was that his sentences were too long. In defense of the former Pontiff, his mind was philosophical and he wanted to express complete thoughts that were not subject to misinterpretation. The common complaint directed now at Pope Francis is that his sentences are too short and very much open to misinterpretation. In defense of the reigning Pontiff, he wants to speak to the common man and make his point sharply and succinctly.
Commentators are currently scurrying around in an attempt to provide a larger context for many of Pope Francis’ statements ensuring Catholics that they are neither heretical nor inconsistent with Church teaching.
In his 2013 Christmas address to the world, the Holy Father urged people to become “a community of brothers who respect each other, accept each other in one’s diversity and take care of one another.” One may ask how far does “acceptance” go and does it extend to actions as well as customs and religious beliefs? More recently, he stated, “Sinners are accepted, but not people who are corrupt.” Those who are “corrupt,” of course, are “sinners,” but in this case, the context was admitting candidates to the seminary who were previously guilty of sex abuse. Obviously “acceptance” does have its limitations.
In his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis describes his “dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is a missionary impulse, capable of transforming everything so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world.” The question that may be raised here is whether “acceptance” can be reconciled with “transformation”?
This question may best be explained in reference to the paradox of love. Love is not sterile. It is, by nature, a transformative impulse. It is never content with the status quo. The lover wants what is best for those whom he loves. At the same time, love is accepting inasmuch as it affirms loved ones as children of God and equally human. So too, the Christian accepts his neighbor, differences notwithstanding, and works to improve both his reality as a person and his situation in life. Pope Francis exhorts us not to be accepting of either sin or poverty.
It should also be pointed out that the transformational work that goes with evangelization is not, in any way, an “imposition.” The world, as it should be, is wary of imposing alien values on any culture. This accounts for the difficulty that some people have in reconciling “transformation” with “acceptance.”
It is important to note, here, that Pope Francis is not saying anything new, but is actually building on the thought of his Predecessors. For example, Pope Pius XII, in his first encyclical Summi Pontificatus (October 1939), stressed the need to “understand the civilization and institutions of diverse people more deeply and to cultivate their gifts and their best qualities.” “Whatever in peoples’ customs,” he went on to say, “is not indissolubly bound up with superstition or error must be examined with benevolence and, if possible, preserved intact.”
Transformation, therefore, from the perspective of the Church, is no more an imposition than is the watering of a plant. It is beneficial and perfective.
In this spirit, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith made the following statement in 1659: “Make no attempt, nor seek in any way, to persuade these people to change their customs, their way of living, or their common practices, when they are not manifestly contrary to religion or morality. Nothing is more absurd than to want to transport France to China….Do not bring anything like that, just the faith, a faith that neither rejects nor offends a way of life or customs of any people, so long as they contain nothing of evil. On the contrary, faith wishes to preserve and protect such things.”
Pope Francis may be more equitably disposed to sinners than to “spinners.” He may be more sympathetic to those who sin out of weakness than to those professionals who spin their distortions for a living. Nonetheless, the current Pontiff is not saying anything new, though he may be communicating to the world in a new way. He has not separated himself from the previous Popes, but is building upon the ground they have already firmly established.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)