His approach is about spreading the Gospel, not spreading the rules
I’ll admit I initially felt a lot of trepidation when Pope Francis became pope.
It was hard for me to accept when Pope Benedict XVI stepped down. I love Pope Emeritus Benedict. I came back to the Church under his pontificate, and I admire his intellect, his clear, incisive writing and especially his deep humility.
When I first began observing Pope Francis’ very different way of being in the Church, I felt a lot of fear. Many of the people who want huge sea changes in the Church seemed so excited by Pope Francis. Frankly, this was (and still is sometimes) alarming. I love the Magisterium and the teachings of the Church, and I feared that this sound foundation would crumble.
But after a lot of prayer, I began to realize that my fear belied a lack of faith. Popes cannot change doctrine even if they want to, and more importantly it is now clear to me, when I ignore the inevitable spin the media puts on things, that Pope Francis is not in the business of changing doctrine. He makes this very clear in his recent document on the family, Amoris Laetitia.
Pope Francis believes in marriage. He believes in family. He believes in life. He believes in the continuity of the teaching authority of the Church.
So why are people so confused?
Pope Francis’ teaching can be ambiguous and confusing because the primary lens through which he views the teachings of the Church is evangelization, not doctrine. In other words doctrine informs and is the foundation of his approach, but in a hierarchy of values it is not on top.
And this is appropriate. The Christian life is about spreading the Gospel, not spreading the rules.
We are not called to look at people in difficult situations and immediately apply rules to their lives. Rather, we are called to walk alongside people in difficult situations. We take a longer and more patient approach in order to invite them to understand and accept the Church’s doctrine and eventually come into full communion with the Church.
How does this actually play out?
Pope Francis is short on details in Amoris Laetitia, which is unsurprising. He is not writing canon law. But Pope Francis also makes it clear that he is not challenging doctrine: “In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur” (307).
Rather, Pope Francis is hoping to encourage a more compassionate, merciful pastoral approach to parish life on the ground. Walking alongside someone does not come with a manual. It requires the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a discerning intuition that allows one to help a person understand the Gospel and God’s truth.
As a former atheist who stumbled into the Church, who received communion before going to confession and pretty much did everything possible wrong for quite a while, I am relieved that the people who helped me along did so in a spirit so like Pope Francis’. I was blessed to have loving, truthful, clear and very patient guides on my way back into the Church. They did not look at me and see a rule-breaker. They looked at me and saw themselves, a sinner stumbling toward God. They gave thanks to God for what he was doing in my life and tried to help guide me closer to the truth.
I think all Pope Francis is trying to do is to train the Church to be like the guides I was blessed to have.
Because, let’s be honest, Christianity is on the decline in the West. We are at a pivotal point in the New Evangelization. In the United States, as in many other countries, millions of people have left the Church but still feel a strong connection to Catholicism. In a few generations, even this connection will be lost. We will have generations of largely unbaptized people if the current trend continues. We must learn now how to effectively approach people outside and on the fringes of the Church and invite them back.
Evangelization tactics that are primarily focused on doctrine are not going to convince people who barely believe in God. Pope Francis is inviting us not to abandon doctrine but to shift to another facet in the diamond of truth, that of mercy informed by doctrine.
If we really care about evangelization and spreading the Good News, then this is the time for this approach.