Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Pope Interview and Challenges Beyond Pull Quotes

"The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”
- Interview with Pope Francis, as translated in America Magazine
In the fifth grade at my parochial gradeschool, my teacher explained a term 'Cafeteria Catholic'. Someone who is Catholic, but chooses what parts of that faith they're going to take or leave. I picture it as someone in line with an orange tray, extending an index finger to indicate whether they want the beans, the salad, the pepperoni pizza (and then later, maybe, removing the pepperonis). I don't recall if it was part of the lesson or not, but what I walked away with was that if you're picking and choosing, then you are not really by definition, doing the thing you're saying you're doing (i.e., being a Catholic in the true sense of the word).

All or nothing.

So as an adult, I've found it difficult to define myself as Catholic. Because I don't do all the pieces (I'm not at Church on Sunday), and I don't believe all the things that seem to be Catholic dogma (Church teachings re: contraception and homosexuality at the very least). But part of that may well be because it seems that at least in the past 10 - 15 years, these are the things that the Catholic Church has defined itself by.

Defining itself by telling the world what it is not about. It is not about abortion, it is not about homosexuality, it is not about contraception. And not only is it not about these things- for it, these have been the most important things.

So for me, if I were to answer, am I a Catholic or not- by the Cafeteria Catholic test, I'd say no. Because I don't necessarily agree with all of the Church positions on these issues. These are two halves of the same coin: an organization that has defined itself by opposition to these things, and an individual that figures that if I disagree, then I should not partake.

The news headlines about the Pope Francis interview, much like the ones from him talking with reporters on the flight from Rio de Janeiro, are all focused on his comments regarding homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. It's easy business to run a headline that the Church is doing a 180 on hot button issues. But what's more interesting is that the Church teaching on this actually hasn't changed at all (not saying that it shouldn't, just describing what this actually is). What's important is that its leader is putting them in context next to what he thinks is a bigger, more important message.

"The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

He is not saying that the Church is incorrect. But he's saying that this isn't important the most important thing in the world right now. And I think from the other things he says in the article, my takeaway is that he believes that the emphasis that the Church has placed on these singular issues is misguided. That the Church should not only define itself by what it is against, and what it is about.

All Church teachings are not of equal importance. It's not an all or nothing deal.

And it seems from the rest of this interview that for Francis, the Church is not about the specifics of dogma, but about love, about seeing God in all people, and according all people the respect and care that you would if you knew that God was right there in front of you (with the implication that, by means of this person in front of you, he is).

For me as a non-practicing Catholic, I think that the challenge that Francis's position opens is that if you're not a practicing Catholic, and you're not practicing primarily because of the Church's teachings on these social issues, then imagine for a moment that the Church doesn't define itself by its opposition to these people or practices, but that the Church defines itself by seeing God in all people, and caring for them.

So in the same way that the Church may no longer define itself by the things it opposes, then maybe I should no longer define my relation to the Church purely out of my opposition to what it opposes.

Once we get past that, then I think there's actually a genuine question of, broadly:
Do I believe in the value of this organization and what it might be able to do for people living in this world?
If Francis is able to lead the Church in the direction that he points towards in this interview, then I think that my answer to that question would probably be yes.