72. Secular Perceptions of Pope Francis

January 6th, 2014

What others understand is an important clue about what we are saying to them. It is true that the filter of the media is highly intoxicated and that it is able to manipulate everything according to its own interests. Interviews and speeches can be arranged by the media in such a way that they become something different than their original intentions and contents. However, what people are taking in is a combination both of what they want to hear and of what we allow them to hear.

In assessing the first months of Francis’ pontificate, the secular media continues to communicate what their perception is concerning what the Pope has said up to this point. On the one hand there is a widespread fascination about his frugal style, charming personality, and engaging language. On the other, there is an appreciation for his “innovative” theology or lack of insistence on traditional tenets of Roman Catholic doctrine. Two recent comments about Francis’ theology deserve some attention.

The Rejection of Church Dogma

Interestngly, on November 20, when Time initially named Francis as a candidate for the “man of the year” award, the website noted that he was nominated for his “rejection of church dogma.” It was only after some pushback from the tweeting world the Time changed the description to read “rejection of luxury.” In truth, Francis has never jettisoned any church dogma, but the perception of the secular media is worth considering. “Rejecting church dogma” is a gross overstatement, but de-emphasizing, marginalizing, and putting doctrine in the background perhaps gets closer to the point. Francis is perceived as a Pope from whom dogma is less important than attitude, mercy more relevant than truth, and generosity of spirit more apt than the affirmation of traditional belief. Some of his statements (e.g. “Proselytism is a solemn non-sense”, “Who am I to judge a homosexual person?”, “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them”) have become slogans with which secular people resonate well. They hardly represent a Christian view and it is precisely for this reason that secularists find Francis’ “gospel” a message that is far from church dogma. It is not an open rejection of it, but it is understood as being a significant distancing away from it.

After the dogmatic Benedict XVI, Francis is viewed as a less rigid Pope in terms of doctrine. He is seen as being more relaxed on defending the theological identity of his Church and more committed to focusing on non-divisive issues. Roman Catholics should ask themselves whether him being considered for the “man of the year” honor is a real achievement or istead a matter that should raise concern.

The Abolition of Sin

There is yet another comment that reflects the widespead interpretations of Pope Bergoglio. The editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, who had met with Francis and published their conversation a couple of months ago, wrote an articole (December 29) in which he argues that the greatest achievement of the Pope so far is that he has practically abandoned the traditional doctrine of sin. “He has de facto abolished sin”. He is not saying that Francis has openly declared that the official Roman Catholic theology is wrong on its teaching on sin, rather he suggests that Francis sees mercy standing over sin to the point of practically overshadowing it and making it irrelevant. When he speaks about sin, he does so in reference to himself (“I am a sinner”) or to the structural aspects of sin (e.g. the oppression of the poor), but never implying the idea of radical separation from God and divine judgement. He emphasizes that God is present in every person and in so doing he downplays the tragic reality of sin. It is a de facto abolition.

The secularists applaud this development because they generally think that “sin” is the greatest obstacle for the modern conscience in coming to terms with the Christian religion. Whether or not this is a fair assessment of the Pope’s views remains to be seen. It is, however, a matter of fact that his popularity with the media is based on the perception that the Pope is a dogmatically fluid and open-ended Christian leader. Is this an issue entirely dependent on the manipulation of the media or is it also a sign that Francis is actually saying confusing and misleading things? We are now back to where we started, i.e. what others understand is an important clue about what we are saying to them.



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