A pope for the Catholic middle

Some sensible analysis, as ever, from John L. Allen Jr.

September 20, 2013 — All Things Catholic

Having spent the early part of this week in Australia and New Zealand, I’m arriving today in Rome, where the buzz is about Pope Francis’ blockbuster interview [1] with 16 Jesuit publications around the world, including Americamagazine in the United States, in which he pointedly rejects a church of what he calls “small-minded rules.”

In political terms, Francis says something out loud that arguably had already become clear, but with a degree of candor that popes don’t often provide: “I have never been a right-winger.”

At the level of content, there’s not much groundbreaking in the interview with respect to his hour-and-20-minute press conference aboard the papal plane July 28. He offers the same blend of traditional doctrine with a deep emphasis on mercy, stressing that the church needs to be more pastoral and less judgmental in engaging questions such as abortion, homosexuality and women.

Francis offers extended reflections on his Jesuit vocation and identity, and also some insights into his personal reactions to the experience of taking on the Catholic church’s top job. The full English translation of the 12,000-word interview, which was conducted in Italian, can be found here [2].

Standing back from the details, what seems clear — not just from the interview, but from the balance of the pope’s first six months — is that the election of Francis in March did not just signify the rise of the first pope from the developing world or a rejection of patterns of business management in the Vatican held responsible for the leaks scandal and other meltdowns.

Perhaps most fundamentally, it represented a breakthrough victory for the Catholic middle.

Truth be told, the liberal wing of the church will be cheered by the new pope’s language — his rejection of a “restorationist” mentality in Catholicism, for instance, and his insistence that “thinking with the church” cannot simply mean thinking with the hierarchy. At some point, however, they’ll demand movement from rhetoric to policy, and on that front, many may be disappointed.

Francis has twice now uttered a firm “no” to women’s ordination to the priesthood, and he’s unlikely to radically change teaching on matters such as gay marriage, abortion or contraception. A desire to project a more merciful tone on those matters isn’t the same thing as disagreement with their substance.

Meanwhile, for at least some on the Catholic right, it must now seem powerfully obvious that this just isn’t their pope. Francis is determined not be a cultural warrior, meaning he doesn’t intend to use his bully pulpit primarily to fight political battles. He acknowledges some conservatives are disappointed he hasn’t been more forceful on the life issues, but insists church teaching is already clear and he doesn’t intend to go around repeating it. He also underscores that this won’t be a terribly disciplinary papacy.

That leaves the Catholic middle as the pope’s natural constituency.

In broad strokes, these are people generally content with church teaching and tradition, though inclined to a hermeneutic of generosity in applying it. They don’t have a chip on their shoulder about authority in the church, though they’re also not inclined simply to shout “hosanna” every time someone in leadership speaks. They’re eager for reform, not so much for revolution.

Mostly these are people who regard Catholicism fundamentally as a force for good in the world and who long for moderate, accessible and inspirational leadership who can lift up the whole gamut of Catholic thought and life rather than a selective version of it tailored to advance a specific political or theological agenda.

In a nutshell, that seems to be more or less Francis’ aspiration.

There are plenty of such middle-of-the-road Catholics, probably a majority of the church, though their Achilles’ heel has always been that they’re not organized and not especially vocal. Liberals and conservatives publish newspapers, post blogs, create organizations, hold press conferences, and otherwise dominate public conversation; moderates generally keep their heads down and stay out of the fray.

The drama now is whether the Catholic middle will mobilize effectively to support the best pope for their interests they’re likely to see in a long while, because the truth is that over the long run, other ideological camps may not always have the pope’s back. Read more click here…

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