THE SERVANT GENERAL
UNDERSTANDING POPE FRANCIS
April 4, 2015
Many conservative Catholics have been concerned that Pope
Francis is a liberal, especially as he makes controversial
statements about such things as homosexuality. But Pope Francis
himself has said that he is a son of the Church and that he
will not (he cannot) change established Church teaching.
So why does he say things that he does? Well, he truly is
a man of mercy and compassion, and has a very pastoral approach,
trying to reach out to those in the peripheries. Perhaps this
article can shed more light on him.
And help reassure Catholics who are apprehensive about what
is to come in the October meeting of the Synod of Bishops.
Insights on the enigma that is Pope Francis
By Phil Lawler
Two years after his election, millions of Catholics are still
trying to understand Pope Francis. Two recent essays have
provided useful perspectives:
Writing for Crisis, Msgr. Hans Feichtinger, a priest of the
Diocese of Passau, Germany, makes the important point that
Pope Francis is not, like his two illustrious predecessors,
an academic. He is a very intelligent man, with a rigorous
Jesuit training. But his instincts are those of a spiritual
director rather than a professor.
After 35 years of extraordinarily gifted teachers, the world
may have slipped into thinking that every Pope would communicate
the same way. That was never likely. In the history of the
papacy there have probably never been two back-to-back Pontiffs
with the intellectual credentials of John Paul II and Benedict
XVI. But even if their successor was equally brilliant, it
was unlikely that he would share their academic background.
Most Popes have not spent their formative years in university
Pope Francis has been a teacher. But his priestly ministry
has been devoted to working with non-scholars. He does not
instinctively address his statements to an academic audience;
on the contrary, he appeals to ordinary men and women. (This
simple style helps to explain his popularity.) Moreover, his
preference for grass-roots Catholicism is reinforced by his
realization that John Paul II and Benedict XVI, often working
in partnership, have left the Church a treasure-trove of teaching;
there is no urgent need for more.
So rather than continuing the work of his two predecessors,
Pope Francis is taking a quite different approach. You might
say that instead of trying to teach the world how to think,
he has concentrated on teaching the faithful how to act. Msgr.
Feichtinger recommends that we think of him as the “universal
It’s noteworthy that Pope Francis has chosen to deliver
homilies at daily Mass and make them public. When you think
about it, some of his more formal public statements sound
suspiciously like homilies, too. Msgr. Feichtinger concludes:
Pope Francis has made his choice about how he would like to
exercise his office. Catholics respect his choice by taking
his pronouncements and gestures for what they are, which includes
not treating them as expressions of the primacy of teaching
when they are not. Francis does not want toand in fact
he cannotchallenge the teaching authority of his predecessors;
rather, he wants to help us “consider how to provoke
one another to love and good works.” (Heb 10:24)
Because he so often speaks informally, without worrying about
the possible consequences, Pope Francis has sometimes drawn
criticism for causing confusion among the faithful. Sandro
Magister, the noted Vatican-watcher for L’Espresso,
has often been among the critics. But Magister is fair enough
to point out that it is wrong to see the Pope as a liberalmuch
less a radicalon controversial issues such as abortion,
homosexuality, and divorce.
”Among the many things that Pope Francis says there
are some that almost never make the front page of the newspaper,”
Magister writes. “And if they do they are almost immediately
swept away by other headlines of an opposing and compelling
nature.” When the Pope expresses sympathy for homosexuals,
say, the media give the story top-headline treatment. But
when he reaffirms the Church’s teaching on sexuality,
that is treated as a non-story.
Magister helpfully provides a sampling of the “conservative”
statements by Pope Francis that have been ignored by the mass
media. While there is certainly a great deal of mystery about
the Pope’s thinking, Magister finds that he is “a
faithful witness of tradition on questions like contraception,
abortion, divorce, homosexual marriage, ‘gender’
Some of the prevailing confusionor sense of mystery,
if you prefer a more neutral termcould be avoided if
the Pope laid out his arguments logically, setting out a thesis
and the arguments to defend it. Then analysts could not ignore
the Pope’s defense of Catholic tradition, and critics
could not accuse him of undermining established doctrine.
But this Pope does not choose to communicate in the style
of the scholar. Get used to it.