As I mentioned in my last column, I was trying out monastic life – and loving it – when Pope Francis’ widely-discussed La Civiltà Cattolica interview was published in September. I read the interview itself, but thankfully missed most of the resulting uproar.
I find most of the commentary on Pope Francis to be unenlightening, or just unnecessary. With all due reverence and filial obedience to the Successor of St. Peter, I would say that the Pope – any Pope – is not central to my daily practice of the faith. Christ, not Peter, is the center of our religion and our lives.
However, one piece of pontifical commentary did catch my eye. Pat Buchanan – the conservative author, pundit, and former political candidate – used one of his weekly columns to imply that Pope Francis was moving the Church toward “neutrality in the Culture War.”
Buchanan, a staunch Catholic, drew on some of Francis’ remarks – along with words dubiously attributed to him, and comments by others. He presented all of this as evidence that the Pope “seeks to move the Catholic Church to a stance of non-belligerence” in the “war for the soul of the West.”
In Buchanan’s view, the Pope’s emphasis on mercy, and care for the poor, is misplaced. The focus should be elsewhere: “In America, the family has disintegrated … Our civilization is being de-Christianized. Popular culture is a running sewer … In Europe, the churches empty out as the mosques fill up.”
I disagree with Buchanan’s presentation of Pope Francis’ views. But I see where the columnist is coming from – as I think the Pope would. Secularization and cultural decline are serious problems.
Buchanan seems to want a Pope who will hurl anathemas at cultural radicalism. Instead, he hears: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” The Pope affirms the Church’s “clear” teaching, but does not want “to talk about these issues all the time.”
If this were Pope Francis’ entire message, I might be concerned too. Taken out of context, isolated from the Pope’s broader purpose and line of thinking, such remarks could be twisted to support a false agenda.
But Pope Francis does not want the Church to surrender. Quite the opposite, actually. As between the two men, Pat Buchanan and Pope Francis, I would say that the Pope is the more authentic warrior for Christ.
Both of them see that the modern world is in crisis. Placed side by side, however, they represent very different – if not necessarily conflicting – visions of how the Church should respond.
I have sympathized with Buchanan’s vision in the past. However, I now believe the more important “culture war” is on a different front.
The most important struggle is the struggle to evangelize: to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples. Everything else is secondary.
Pat Buchanan, understandably, seems to want the Church to focus on defending the remnants of Christian culture and traditional Western civilization. This is mainly a defensive war, against the Church’s overt enemies. It is a noble struggle, dear to my own heart, and I do not disparage those called to it.
But Pope Francis is more ambitious. He wants the Church to rediscover the zeal of Jesus’ first disciples. Their struggle – which continues today – was not a defensive war, but a permanent evangelistic “offensive” for the Kingdom of God: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
These two struggles – the defense of Western civilization, and Christ’s Great Commission – are not mutually exclusive. They can be complementary.
However, if there is any question about priorities, we should know which of the two struggles is more important.
Pope Paul VI made it clear, in Evangelii Nuntiandi: evangelization is the Church’s “deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass.”
Pope Francis is driven by Christ’s Great Commission – as we all should be. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope calls on all Catholics to be “missionary disciples,” offering “an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord.”
This is nothing new. In 2007, the future Pope was instrumental in preparing the Conference of Latin American Bishops’ “Aparecida Document.” The charter encouraged all Catholics to recover the evangelistic fervor of the early Church. Its aim was to put the Church “permanently in a state of mission.”
“Everyone in the Church is called to be disciples and missionaries,” these bishops stated. “With the fire of the Spirit we will inflame our continent with love … Let us recover apostolic courage and boldness.”
Pope Francis brings this spirit with him to the Papacy. The result is hardly the cultural “neutrality” Pat Buchanan fears – unless you think the Apostles pursued a policy of “neutrality” by placing more emphasis on Jesus Christ than on the moral vices of the first-century Roman Empire.
Of course, the Apostles did speak out against those vices. Likewise, Pope Francis has reaffirmed the Church’s unchanging moral principles. It is a question of priorities.
There is no inherent conflict between the evangelistic vision of Aparecida, and the defense of traditional Western culture. They may come into conflict, however, if proponents of the “defensive war” treat their struggle for cultural morality as something more important than the foundational preaching of the Gospel.
This question of priorities, rather than any real disagreement on morality or faith, is what distinguishes Pope Francis from the likes of Pat Buchanan.
For Pope Francis, the Gospel – God’s offer of mercy and salvation in Jesus Christ – comes first. We should understand what God has done for us, then understand what He asks of us. We are called to the heights of virtue – but we are called by the Father of Mercies, who runs to meet us in our sinfulness.
This was a key point from Pope Francis’ interview in September. He was urging us to present moral norms as consequences of the Gospel, so that God’s offer of grace may appear clearly as the primary fact:
“The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow. … The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”
While the Gospel has serious moral consequences, it must not be presented as though it were primarily a moral code. We run that risk, when we speak and act as though the Church existed mainly to prevent vice and promote virtue.
The moral requirements of discipleship must be preached – but they are not the primary reality of Christian life, nor are they the Church’s main message to the world.
Pope Francis makes this clear. Pat Buchanan could take a lesson from him.
In light of Buchanan’s criticisms, it is ironic to recall comments he made in a 2012 interview with The American Conservative magazine. In that piece, the columnist and commentator essentially admitted that the culture needs apostles and evangelists, more than it needs people like him:
“How do you bring us together culturally?,” (Buchanan) asks, then answers himself, “You don’t need Pat Buchanan, you need St. Paul.” It is a self-awareness rare in men who have run for president three times: “Look, I’m a right-wing troublemaker from Northwest that likes poetry.”
Indeed. Pat Buchanan fights well with words, sometimes for a good cause. I wish his followers well, in their efforts to defend the remnants of Christian culture. But polemics against decline can only do so much.
When we reach that limit, there are two possibilities. One of them is despair – the heroic-doom of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Spengler’s Decline of the West.
The other possibility is Christian Hope – the word that God speaks to us in His Mercy.
This is Pope Francis’ message. He is no naïve optimist, but a proponent of this transcendent Hope – which, he reminds us, “is a theological virtue and … cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human.”
This kind of hope lets us see, in a sense, through God’s eyes. We can look at the wreckage of modern Western culture, and still see a mission field – ripe for evangelization.
On this point, Pat Buchanan is right: only a “St. Paul,” preaching the Gospel with power, can bring us together now. I don’t know if Pope Francis is that man; but we should give him the chance.
That means taking care to understand him correctly – as our first Pope told us to do, with St. Paul himself:
“Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction … beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.”(2 Pet. 3:16-17, RSV-CE)
image: Statue of St. Paul in the front of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls/Wikimedia Commons