Pope Francis I-1762389

Naïve. Imprudent. A “Jesuit.”

Such are some of the negative attributes that have been imputed to Pope Francis in the worried emails and dismayed blog posts that have come across my laptop screen in the week since the English publication of the Holy Father’s interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J. Why such consternation from those who number themselves among Francis’s staunchest supporters? It comes down pretty much to this one sentence from the interview:

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.

Apart from the fact that Francis’s critics have insufficiently attended to the word “only” in this sentence, what they have missed, far more importantly, is the profoundly evangelical context in which these words were spoken. In his assessment of the interview on National Review Online, George Weigel explains this context well:

Francis underscores that “the teaching of the Church is clear” on issues like abortion, euthanasia, the nature of marriage, and chastity and that he is “a son of the Church” who accepts these teachings as true. But he also knows that “when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.” That “context” is Jesus Christ and his revelation of the truth about the human person….”

Thus Pope Francis, the pastor who is urging a new pastoral style on his fellow bishops and fellow priests, insists that every time the Church says “no,” it does so on the basis of a higher and more compelling “yes”: yes to the dignity and value of every human life, which the Church affirms Jesus as Lord and proclaims him to a world increasingly tempted to measure human beings by their utility rather than their dignity.

Weigel makes clear that what Francis urges in the interview is neither a change in the Church’s moral theology nor a diminishment of a commitment to pro-life, pro-family causes. What he urges, rather, is a change in pastoral emphasis. The pontiff wants the Church to concentrate, above all, on what he calls “the first proclamation”: Jesus Christ is Lord. He wants the faithful to focus first on setting hearts on fire with the Good News of a Person. From such a love, the Holy Father knows, commitment to the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics and the life issues follow.

What Francis articulates here is a rhetorical principle of classical provenance, the same principle that C.S. Lewis speaks of in “Men Without Chests”:

In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism…about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’.

To re-order the “mere appetites” of those who have lost all sense of their own dignity and what it means to be made by God for everlasting happiness with him, Lewis reminds us that appeal is best made, not to reason directly via “syllogisms,” but to the “spirited element,” that is, to the heart.

Interestingly, in the interview Pope Francis also makes use of the kind of military metaphor that Lewis uses in his essay. Francis refers to the “wounded” souls of our time, and to the Church as a “field hospital.” To heal these wounded souls, the Church must speak to those who, despite their conduct, are yearning for the salvation that Christ brings. Francis’s point is that once these hearts are set on fire by the love of the God-Hero, then they will be ready to commit themselves to the proper “flag.”

Lewis identifies the virtue of the heart or spirited element as magnanimity, “great-souledness”–and in his interview Francis sounds the theme of magnanimity as well. As I wrote elsewhere this week, magnanimity, according to the pope, is the virtue of relating small things to great: of seeing every person and event, however small, in light of the soul’s great adventure in grace. Francis insists that the Church develop this virtue of magnanimity, so that we not reduce the faith to rules and principles—to an ideology—and thus fail to see every person we meet as someone longing for an encounter with Christ.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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