Where God Is Moving

September 20, 2013
Where God Is Moving

Pope Francis, who has inspired both affection and controversy with recent remarks on homosexuality and atheism, made headlines again this week. In an interview with the editor of the leading Jesuit journal in Rome, the Pope criticized the Catholic Church's focus on "abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods."

Without a "new balance" in the Church's approach to these issues, he said, "even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."

Yesterday, two prominent Catholic members of the Harvard Divinity School community shared their thoughts on Francis's comments. Professor Francis X. Clooney, S.J. and the writer James Carroll, HDS '97, HDS '99, expressed enthusiasm for the Pope's desire to refocus church hierarchy on the core message of the gospel and away from what Francis called "small-minded rules."

Clooney, the Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at HDS, said that the Pope's remarks clearly distinguish him from his two predecessors.

"If you compare what he is saying in this interview with either [Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul II], they wouldn't have said anything the way that Francis did," Clooney asserted. "The ability to criticize the inward, narcissistic Church, harping on certain issues out of context again and again...the previous popes simply wouldn't have said anything like that, even if deep down they recognized the same problems."

A deeper Catholic moral tradition

Carroll, a religious scholar, former Catholic priest, and National Book Award-winning memoirist, agreed that the Pope's words are dramatically different from those of his immediate predecessors, but said that the thinking was actually not new. In Francis's call for the Church to take a more balanced and contextual approach to issues like abortion and homosexuality, Carroll said he saw "a return to the common sense of the deeper Catholic moral tradition."

"It's actually what Joseph Cardinal Bernardin used to talk about," he said. " 'The seamless garment,' which was repudiated by the American Catholic hierarchy. It's the idea that the church's concern for the sacredness of life extends to war, the death penalty, and matters of economic justice. Bergoglio won't water down the church's opposition to abortion, but by putting it in a broader context, we might get a more humane sense of moral thinking about it."

Clooney—who, like Francis, is a Jesuit—cautioned that the Pope's remarks should be taken in the context of a very lengthy and substantive interview. He noted that Francis's comments about homosexuality and abortion came after an in-depth discussion of Jesuit tradition and thought. The Pope's remarks—even on matters of sexuality and abortion—were consistent with his groundedness in the Jesuit spiritual tradition.

"He did a lot of talking about his view of God, about discernment, how God works in the Church and so on," Clooney said. "If somebody doesn't see where that comes from, they'll conclude merely that the previous popes were knee-jerk conservatives and now here's a liberal. But it's deeper than that, a different starting-point and perspective on how you respond—pragmatically, pastorally—to issues that bother people."

A scale of moral reasoning

Francis's statement that "the dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent," was particularly important, according to Carroll. He says that the remark refers to a Catholic emphasis on peace and the rights of the poor, and also the context in which the faithful should place issues of sexuality and reproduction.

"Here you have a Church emphasizing its tilt," he says. "The preferential option for the poor doesn't mean the Church is unconcerned for rich people; it means that the Church tilts toward the poor. The preferential option on the death penalty doesn't mean the Church can't make exceptions in which it can be justified, but by and large, the Church is against the death penalty. The preferential option against war doesn't mean the Church can't admit, theoretically at least, that there might be some cases in which war could be justified, but in general the Church is opposed to war. And it's in that scale of moral reasoning that we should find issues like abortion."

Clooney agrees that the Pope is calling for a sense of perspective, and of a deep recognition that "the mission of the church is the presentation of Jesus Christ, not to get as few people in the world as possible to use contraception."

Carroll goes further and says that Francis is reviving the "good news" for people living in a morally complex world.

"Jesus was not judgmental," he says. "Jesus was with sinners, people who were sexual sinners. And the sexual sinner who loosened her hair and wiped his feet with perfume, to the scandal of the people he was sitting with, that woman drew from Jesus a profound response of respect and even love. When the Pope invokes the Gospel, that's the kind of image he's lifting up, at least as I hear it."

While he can't predict the Pope's next move, Carroll sees Francis laying the groundwork for lasting institutional change—the kind of change that will far outlive his tenure as head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

Clooney won't speculate, but does say that part of being a Jesuit is to look to the future and seek the more fundamental change in attitude that in the long run changes things in an integral way.

"The Jesuit approach is to pay attention to tradition and to look at the larger situation," he says, "but then to imagine something new. You have to have an instinct for where God is moving. It can't be done by saying what everybody's said before. You have to say something new."

—by Paul Massari