Pope Francis has ‘shaken things up’ quite a bit recently, with various statements made to the media, and most pertinently in a wide-ranging interview published by America magazine. Liberal groups within and without the Church have tried to claim his statements as implicit papal support for their long held desires for radical reform, while some conservatives have concurred, albeit from an opposing perspective, writing him off as someone determined to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine. On the other hand, many have pointed out that not much of what he has said actually contradicts the teachings of the Church, and the primary difference from Benedict XVI’s pontificate is one of style – Pope Francis being more direct, and ‘easy-going’, with a better knack for getting to the heart of what may make the Gospel attractive to modern people.
Personally, I would place myself in the final group, and what particularly interests me (and excites me) about Pope Francis’ rule so far, is the emphasis he has put on personal witness to the world from all the faithful, and the formation/development of a personal relationship with Christ for believers themselves. One of the things that liberals have isolated from his sermons, interviews, etc, is a continual focus on doing; that the Church has been too interested in preserving and presenting correct doctrine, and not enough on showing the world the Gospel with the lives of its members, and particularly of displaying the mercy and forgiving love of God known supremely in Christ. Now, for me this is an interesting area of discussion – in my personal experience, I have come to realise how important it is to develop what Hans Urs von Balthasar called a ‘kneeling theology’ one where doctrine and spirituality are never separated from one another, and the dangers of taking too great an interest in theological enquiry without actually growing in one’s love of God. Pope Francis has spoken much of our developing our relationship with Christ, but the statements most seized upon by the media seem to have been regarding our relationship with and love of neighbour, which they have presented as supposedly being separable from doctrine.
It is of course, impossible to separate love of God and love of neighbour, and whilst we all know this in theory, our lives, if we are honest, will often testify to how much harder it is to bring the two together in practice. Yet, as Saint John the Evangelist put it, ‘if anyone says “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar’ (1 John 4:20) and ‘if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?’ (1 John 3:17). The Epistle of James also has much to say in a similar vein. So it is clear, much as we should try to develop a ‘kneeling theology’ and, as the old saying has it, lex orandi, lex credendi (‘the law of prayer is the law of belief’, or ‘the way we pray is the way we believe’), Pope Francis’ recent statements should also serve as a means for us to pause and consider whether we can attach lex vivendi (‘the way we live’) to that statement.
Now this begs the question – which has priority: doctrine, or praxis; the dogma we believe, or the witnessing of that faith to the world in our lives? As I said, many in the press seem to be presenting Pope Francis as a figure ready to jettison the troublesome issue of doctrinal orthodoxy (particularly those elements which get people’s backs up) in favour of a life of simple love of God and neighbour, giving ourselves in service to those in need and enacting a Gospel of forgiveness and mercy every day. There is no doubt that he has placed an emphasis on witness, but has he thereby said that doctrine isn’t important? In the words of Saint Paul, by no means! It is clear that although Benedict XVI’s reaffirmation of traditional Catholic morality was entirely necessary in a culture beset by relativism and license (a position tacitly endorsed by Pope Francis in his recurrent glowing references to the Pope Emeritus and his work, as well as their unofficial co-authorship of Lumen Fidei), the Pope has recognised that people also need the direct, enthusiastic approach that he is currently providing.
This approach affirms Benedict XVI’s theological groundwork and presupposes it as a foundation for his evangelism. This is the genius of the Catholic Church, that it can (and must) contain so many different types of personalities and styles – that there is room for the enthusiastic and personable preaching of Pope Francis and the considered theological and philosophical work of Benedict XVI. Furthermore, to characterise the former as simply charismatic and the latter as aridly intellectual would also be to miss the depth of the riches of the Church’s members – both are men of great erudition and intellect, and both are men of great personal holiness; they simply have different styles.
However, the question remains – out of doctrine and praxis, which has priority? Well, although they are deeply intertwined and will constantly feed into one another (as do doctrine and worship) I think I would have to say doctrine comes first, and I think I’d be very surprised to hear Pope Francis say otherwise. How, for instance, would he preach some of the incredibly moving homilies (e.g.; his meditation on Christ and Mary at the Casa Santa Marta on the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary) he has done, without any knowledge of Christ or His Mother? How could he insist so passionately and convincingly on the need to develop a relationship with a God who is in his essence inexhaustible, ever-merciful love, if he did not know of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity? How would he know any of this, plus all their associated doctrines, if it were not that the Catholic Church had delivered them to him? In fact, if the Church had not written, preserved and selected the books of the New Testament, we would not know anything of Christ’s concern for the poor either.
Christ, the Word of God, came to this earth to save us from our sins, and to teach us about Himself and His mission, which is one of Love. He also chose Apostles to form a Church to continue that saving work, principally through the sacraments, and to develop the teaching about who He is, so that we could grow to know and love Him in that intimate relationship Pope Francis has urged us to form. Growing in this relationship, growing to love God more and more, means we will want to please him more and more, and so will (hopefully) exhibit His love in our lives; but this incarnation of divine love, this being salt and light to the world, does not just consist in serving the poor, but consists in living lives of holiness across the board, which means being concerned with the very things Benedict XVI reaffirmed during his pontificate. The fact that Pope Francis has said the Church has perhaps become too concerned with these contentious issues is true, and the world does need to see more of what else the Church is about, needs to see the fullness of that divine Love. But let us not let the balance swing the other way (indeed, Pope Francis, the day after his infamous interview, has already condemned abortion and encouraged openness to life, whilst referencing Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate; clearly he is aware of when and how to present certain issues) – we need to bring God to the world in every aspect of our lives, personal and public, and if we do all this with love, we cannot fail. We need Benedicts and Francises in the Church, and we need to learn from both of them.