Pope Francis was right (and unoriginal) when he said Catholics must make preaching Christ their first task and instruction on morality their second. But that certainly doesn't mean Catholics should stop talking about morality.
Just one verse each day.
Pope Francis’s recently published interview has caused quite a stir. Really, though, it shouldn’t have; out of about 12,000 words, the mainstream media has chosen (not surprisingly) to focus on only about a hundred. Dissident “Catholic” groups are calling these hundred words “refreshing,” describing them as a change in direction for the Church. The voices in the media, in politics, and in politicized Catholicism are describing this interview as a softening of Church teaching on “controversial” issues, and a new tolerance for a broader definition of orthodoxy that can only mean a call to the bishops of the United States to tone down their rhetoric in trying to correct renegade Catholic politicians – those who oppose the Church’s moral teachings on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality as they thumb their noses at the Magisterium and tell them to violate their consciences or risk the wrath of the State.
Problem solved, say the pundits: Pope Francis told them it doesn’t matter anymore. They should move on and get used to the new normal.
Not so fast. In this very same interview, Francis says the moral teachings of the Church are “clear” and that, for his own part, he’s “a son of the Church.” As a theologian, I can tell you what Francis means: “Of course I accept these teachings, and they’re obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention.” This is the reason he doesn’t think they need to be discussed “all the time.” He’s saying, “By the way, it’s not like these issues are controversial. Everyone knows what the Church teaches about these things, and everyone knows those teachings aren’t ever going to change.”
But Francis is also expressing a valid concern about how we present the Church’s moral teachings. It’s actually the same concern previously expressed by all Popes since at least the time of Pius XII. He wants the world to know the positive content of the Christian Faith, not just the negative implications of it. It simply isn’t true that Christianity is just the religion of “No!” – it’s the religion of an exuberant and uncompromising “Yes!” It’s the religion of God’s love for the world, and his will that human beings find a path to freedom and life in Jesus Christ. Christianity is the religion that says, in all ways and in every circumstance, life is more powerful than death, mercy is more powerful than sin, and love is more powerful than hatred, because, from the very beginning, God loves the whole universe, and each and every person in it, into being. It’s the religion that stands against sin, not simply because God hates it, but because God loves the person sin destroys. So the first truth is not that “this is wrong,” but that “God loves you,” and it’s for this reason that the sin is wrong: because it turns away love.
Now, the pundits are saying that the bishops have been harping too much on the negative – abortion, contraception, homosexuality – all of it “anti-, anti-, anti-. . . .” But if we’re being honest, how many Catholics can really remember the last time they heard a homily at a Sunday Mass on any of these issues? If anything, the Church in the United States has come under heavy criticism for not preaching on these issues enough – for allowing the average Catholic in the pew to wonder how serious the Church really is about these things when hardly a mention of them ever finds its way to their ears from the pulpit, and Catholic politicians receive communion openly after mandating with the coercive power of the sword that Catholics, regardless of the constant and “clear” (that’s what Francis called it, remember) teaching of the Church, fork over the money to pay for other people’s abortions. The truth is that priests who dare to deliver the hard sayings on these issues pay a heavy personal price for it, as prophets always have when they’ve told the people what they didn’t want to hear precisely because they needed to hear it.
Too much discussion about these issues isn’t really the problem; too little is. But Francis knows that, too. He explains, correctly, that we can only teach on these issues in a meaningful way when we teach the whole truth and not just the error of sin. The trouble is the emphasis placed on moral problems, as if they existed simply on their own, disconnected from a larger doctrinal and dogmatic foundation. They don’t, and leaving the impression that they do undermines the Church’s message.
So, while the pressure will now be placed on the U.S. bishops to close their mouths and go home and let the politicians and interest groups run the Church, the Pope’s real message is the one Christ gave when, on one particular occasion, he scolded the Pharisees of his own time. He scolded them, not for what they did, but for what they failed to do first. This is an interesting passage, but it’s difficult to translate into English, so I’ll just try to give the sense of it: “Woe to you Pharisees, you hypocrites. You tithe mint and rue and every kind of herb, but you neglect the things that really matter and make tithing meaningful: God’s view of justice and the love that comes from his own heart. Of course you should tithe your herbs, and everything else besides, but the first and most central thing is to love by God’s own love and to bring about divine justice through the gift of his mercy” (cf. Luke 11:42).
So the takeaway is not that Catholics, or the bishops and priests of the Church in particular, speak too much about those clear moral teachings of the Church that bother a secular world that does not know what love really means to God. It’s that our uncompromising insistence on these things will only ever make sense to the world to the extent that they come to see what we see. And that means that we have to show it to them in ourselves, because there’s simply no other place to find it. If you can’t learn love from a Christian, in other words, you can’t learn it anywhere. And that’s the real challenge of Pope Francis’ admonition – as fresh today as it was half a century ago, in 1963, when Hans Urs von Balthasar had said, “Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed.”