Proof Texting the Pope

Ever since that March day when Jorge Mario Bergoglio unexpectedly became Pope Francis, selected by the College of the Cardinals under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Catholics, and it seems the larger society, have sought to get to know what makes him tick and discover hints as to where and how he might lead the Church.  That is well and good and to be expected, and certainly his gentle, gregarious, and generous manner and way of speaking point to a different kind of Pope who has been embraced by the world. I myself remember watching him emerge on the balcony that March day and being filled with hope just at his choice of name.  In his choices, such as where to live and how to spend his energy, it seems that he speaks volumes. I am struck by the synergy of his way of being with the words often attributed to his name sake, Francis of Assisi: "Preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words."

However, I've also been noticing something these eight months that gives me pause and concern.  No, it is not anything Pope Francis has done or said.  Rather, it is the consistent "proof texting" that fills my Facebook feed, peppers conversations, colors secular news stories, and pervades the Church. We hear what we want to hear in his words, while some hear what they don't want to hear or hear the silence of what is not being said that they want to hear.  I wonder if in the midst of all this proof texting, centered as it seems to be around our own preconceived agendas and notions, we aren't just missing the point.

Now, let me add a note of full disclosure before I share my observations.  I was not a huge fan of the previous Pope.  In fact, on the day he was elected I felt disenfranchised and very concerned about his conservative leanings, much of it based on what I knew of certain actions he undertook as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.  If I reflect back honestly, I was suspicious of anything he wrote, said, or did.  Yet, I read it. And in time I came to deeply appreciate how he carried the mantle of Pope John Paul II as being a voice of reason, hope and challenge to the Church and larger society in areas concerning globalization and ecology.  His social encyclicals were profound and gave me pause and food for thought regarding economics and my own responsibility as a consumer in a globalized world to people who are poor and marginalized.  Yet I had friends who refused to read, listen to, or ponder anything Pope Benedict said.  I keenly remember one particular peace and justice commission meeting in my parish when two friends literally walked out of the meeting because I dared to offer a reflection from the Pope during our opening reflection. 

Perhaps that is why I was so impacted by an article in today's New York Times: "Conservative U.S. Catholics Feel Left out of Pope's Embrace."  The catchy title of the article obviously is a reference to this montage of photos which is all over my Facebook Feed these days:

Google "Pope Francis Embrace" and you will find many other pictures.  These gestures and moments seem to speak deeply to people who have felt alienated from the Church themselves, or have felt that real life concerns of people on the margins, those who are poor or vulnerable have been marginalized in recent years by a Church seemingly focused on specific issues of morality and one end of the spectrum of life issues.  The infamous America interview with Pope Francis, and in partiular the slew of commentary and news articles that sprung from it, give evidence to this feeling of both being embraced and embracing the larger world.

There is another photo of a Pope Francis embrace that is not in my Facebook Feed but adds some balance to the conversation:

This of course is a photo of Pope Francis embracing Pope Benedict.  There is continuity. This is the same Church, although with a different style of leader. To the best of my knowledge, nothing Pope Francis has said or done has changed Church doctrine or broken with tradition.  Respect for life and the dignity of the human person are key and core to everything he has said and done, as is a pastoral approach.  This last is key I think.  He is the Bishop of Rome.  He is our pastor, not a lawyer or judge or other legal professional. These seems to be how he approaches issues of controversy, as a pastor, not as someone laying down the law. 

Yet, when we give into the temptation of proof texting, we hear what we want to hear or lament that we don't hear what we want to hear. Whether it is amplifying out of context something he says about sexual morality or the role of women or denouncing his assumed silence on certain life issues, we miss his main pastoral message which is the message of Jesus: love and mercy.

This is summed up well, I think, by a woman quoted in the NYT article.
At the Pregnancy Aid Clinic in Hapeville, Ga., a Catholic-run nonprofit center where women who come for pregnancy tests are counseled against abortion, staff members gathered around a kitchen table last week and cautiously said they had been grappling with the pope’s message and were trying to take it to heart. 
Alexandra P. Shattuck, the clinic’s director, said she had studied the pope’s interview in her parish’s Bible study class and concluded that the news media had taken Francis’ warning not to “obsess” about abortion out of context. She said he was really trying to teach about mercy. 
“I think he was completely right,” added Katie Stacy, the development coordinator. “The focus should be not only on love and mercy, but on treating the women in these crisis situations with love and mercy.”
Here is an example of someone moving beyond proof texting. Rather than focusing on what Pope Francis is NOT saying, she is open to being transformed and challenged by what he does say.

Am I guilty of proof texting the Pope? Of course.  Regular readers of the blog might remember how pleased I was with his words and actions during the Syria crisis earlier this Fall. It is human to seek meaning in the words of leaders.  My only concern is that at least in this country, we seem to be using our proof texting of the Pope as a divisive wedge, a defense of our own positions [or if we are no longer able to find a papal defense of our positions, we might experience a new feeling of alienation].  The Church is not about right or left, winners or losers, progressive or traditional.  It is about being the people of God and the body of Christ.

As for Pope Francis, I am going to try to save my next round of proof texting for his first social encyclical! :)


Anonymous said...

In my community and parish, most do not label themselves "liberal" or "traditional." We are just Catholics. I think the obsession with interpreting and reinterpreting the pope's words doesn't "pervades" the church, though it seems to pervade the community of Catholic commentators and bloggers. And there is nothing wrong with it really.We are still interpreting and reinterpreting the words of Jesus.

Unknown said...

Thanks for talking about our human tendency to take what we like and avoid the harder challenges. Proof texting our world---- but missing the point.

I encourages me to remember that as a Christian and as a Catholic, I must remember first that each person is good and is created for good. If I can listen from this space, maybe I can be critical but not condemning, listening for that piece of truth that each of us carries.