The Pope's Interview: A Reflection

Studies-autumn 2013Gerry O'Hanlon SJ

The stunning recent interview of Francis, Bishop of Rome and Pope, has been heralded as a new moment in Catholic church history. It is worth dwelling on some aspects of the theological vision which underpins his approach and its implications.

Clearly, in a way reminiscent of John XXIII’s preference for the ‘medicine of mercy rather than that of severity’, Francis is deliberately adopting a different tone and style. We sometimes, suspiciously, distinguish between style and substance, as if the former were unimportant. But, as the Northern Ireland situation continues to illustrate, perception, symbolism and tone are already significant shapers of reality. Theologically the style of Francis is pastoral, after the manner of the Second Vatican Council, with its fearless openness to the world and to dialogue with other churches and faiths.


In terms of substance, he speaks by preference of the Church as the People of God. This is highly significant theologically. It points to the primary role of Baptism, so that all, lay and cleric alike, share in the three-fold role of Jesus Christ as prophet (teacher), priest (the common priesthood of the faithful) and king (governance).  Clericalism is relativised – our most basic dignity is one of equality, as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. Within this great stress is laid on the ability of the ‘sense of the faithful’ – the spiritual instinct of good, holy Christians- to discern truth and to do so ‘infallibly’.

This means that ‘thinking with the Church’ now means, as well as respect for the hierarchical Magisterium and theologians, a close listening to what the faithful are saying, in particular those who are poor. Hence the frequent references to dialogue and consultation, a consultation that is real, not simply token or ceremonial. And truth is to be ‘discerned’ – Frances is here referring to a prayerful reflection on lived experience which includes, but cannot be reduced to, rational discussion.

In addition, Francis notes the importance of insisting on basic truths  (‘the most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you’; the one dogmatic certainty that he expresses and repeats is that ‘God is in every person’s life’), of not getting trapped into exclusive insistence on certain controversial topics. He notes that the ‘dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent’, that we cannot be obsessed with the transmission of ‘a disjointed multitude of doctrines’, but that we must find a new balance and focus on the essentials because otherwise ‘even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards’.
In different ways here Francis is retrieving the notion of the ‘hierarchy of truths’ spoken about the Vatican II and also the old idea of ‘theological notes’ which distinguished between different degrees of certainty with which truths are held. Elsewhere it is clear that he is comfortable with doubt and uncertainty as intrinsic to an approach to the mystery of the human being and of God that is not simply restorationist or legalist.

This ‘new balance’ of Francis has enormous, even gently subversive implications. Commentators have tended to focus on his adherence to the doctrinal status quo – ‘I am a son of the Church’. However, once one restores the ‘sense of the faithful’ as a constituent element in the shaping and ‘receiving’ of truth, then, when the faithful have shown their lack of ease with certain truths, in particular those to do with issues of sexuality and gender, there must be cause for reconsideration. This is the logic of the  discernment that Francis espouses. Indeed,  he himself notes how ‘human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens’, instancing our changing positions (in both church and civil society, it should be noted) on slavery and the death penalty.

His more inclusive notion of church has ramifications for governance as well as teaching. Already he has indicated – not least by his preferred use of the title Bishop of Rome and the setting up the groups of cardinals to help him –  that he wants to retrieve the vision of Vatican II for a more collegial church. This will include more authority to local churches – the pointed remarks about the Roman Curia and institutions of censorship surely put the ball firmly back in the court of the Irish Church when it comes to dealing with Tony Flannery and others who have been treated so shabbily. It will include real consultation with laity, women and men. It might help in this respect to recall that the association of ordained ministry with ‘sacred power’ did not always pertain and that Canon 129 of the New Code was historically out of step in its restrictive stance towards the role of laity in decision making.

His words about women have been regarded by many as a weak part of the interview. And, indeed, it is true that notions like ‘the feminine genius’ have too often functioned as a kind of theological sop intended to exclude rather than include. However, it should also be noted that he does speak explicitly of the need for the presence of women ‘whenever we make important decisions…in those places where the authority of the church is exercised’. We urgently need new structures for this to happen.

Francis himself seems relaxed about structural reform: ‘the first reform must be the attitude…the structural and organizational reforms are secondary’. He wants change to be real, to be effective, and notes that it will take time to lay the necessary foundations.  I don’t think any of this means that he is ignoring these reforms. He is a great admirer of one of the early Jesuits, Peter Faber, ‘for whom interior experience, dogmatic expression, and structural reform, are inseparable’.  His own behaviour in Buenos Aires was to create genuine structures and institutions of dialogue and consultation with both clergy and laity. Similarly in Rome already he has created the new body of Cardinals and talks in this interview about a reform of the Synod of Bishops to make it more dynamic, stating  that ‘synodality should be lived at various levels’, so that the ‘people, the bishops and the pope’ should walk together, recalling with approval that more collegial way of structuring the church in the first millennium of Christendom.

However it is also up the rest of us, lay and cleric alike, to continue to call even more urgently for precisely these and other structural reforms. After all, one of the great lessons of Vatican II and its aftermath was that a change of attitude and theology, even a sense of euphoria, were not enough without the concomitant changes in law, structures and institution. These did not happen then –we need to show that we have learned this lesson and ensure that we do not miss this opportunity now. Also, it is simply contradictory to envisage a more collegial and indeed democratic church, and to leave its implementation a single person, no matter how holy, intelligent and inspiring.

In this context, here in Ireland, would it not be wonderful to see the Bishops reaching out in a  spirit of dialogue and consultation to the clergy and laity of all hues, including groups like the ACP and ACI? There have been hopeful  initiatives along these lines already in dioceses like Down and Connor, Killaloe, Kerry and-planned for the future-Limerick. Why not a national synod, and not as a once-off, but as a regular part of Catholic Church life in Ireland? Francis asks bishops ‘to be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths’. He urges us to be sensitive to processes that give birth to new historical dynamics. Hope and history don’t rhyme that often: let’s seize this exciting and exhilarating moment and be responsive to these ‘whispers of the Spirit’, so that the Church can indeed warm the hearts of the faithful and of the world with its message of mercy and hope.

Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J. Theologian, Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.

Studies, Autumn 2013, vol.102 no.407

Posted in Church Structural Renewal Publications