Benedict XVI’s zealous and dogmatic evangelism was undone by Vatican scandal. But a recent interview with Pope Francis seems destined to inspire the Catholics that his predecessors pushed away return – is this a new chapter in the history of Catholicism?
Tuesday 24 September 2013 - 14:19 by Matthew Vella
Francis's words are "more than an Arab spring for the Church" - Fr Rene Camilleri
A new tremor has just rocked the Vatican, with members of the clergy startled out of their doctrinal lull and their ears pricked at what Pope Francis, the first Jesuit to be appointed Roman pontiff, has declared in an interview with La Civiltà Cattolica.
Six months since his election, Francis has floored observers with his candid declaration that the Church had grown "obsessed" with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, criticising the Church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritising moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalised. His vision - an inclusive Church, a "home for all" - is in stark contrast to the evangelical purity of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
This is not the Church changing its stance on its doctrinal tenets, but it's Francis softening the timbre of an otherwise conservative religion that has been brash and divisive on gays, the use of condoms in a time where AIDS has ravaged developing nations, the condemnation of IVF, and the barring of women priests from the sacrament.
They're the kind of words that make atheists sit up and listen. Is Pope Francis a good bloke after all, not rash in judging others, ready to rumble with the Vatican's agents of fire and brimstone? Here he is, urging a "new balance" in the Church, calling for greater involvement of women in key decisions, and a less condemnatory approach towards gay people, divorcees and women who have had an abortion. He calls on Catholics to welcome back people who have been pushed away by the Church from mass, and how he received letters from homosexual persons "who are 'socially wounded', because they tell me that they feel like the Church has always condemned them. But the Church does not want to do this".
"A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: 'Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?' We must always consider the person... in life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation."
In Malta, the sounds of Pope Francis - the first pontiff to choose the name of poor founder of the Franciscan order - have hit the right note. "The feeling I immediately got reading the Pope's interview was that of a dream come true," Prof. Rene Camilleri (pictured) a priest who lectures in theology at the University of Malta, said. "Popes were always there to be obeyed and respected as supreme pastors of the Church. Francis is one with whom you can connect, even on the level of feelings he is not afraid to vent out."
Camilleri however delivers his own brand of bluntness on the dissonance between the words of Francis and the Maltese archdiocese:
"The joy of reading such freshness and openness is of course clouded by the feeling of living locally in a radically different Church from that the Pope is speaking about. Our Church is still hijacked by the spirit and attitude the Pope is denouncing," Camilleri says in a biting criticism of the local Church since the appointment of Paul Cremona as archbishop.
"It suffices to see how our Church tribunal works, our lack of political will as Church to speak of strategies, our difficulties to speak of outreach, the mediocrity of our liturgies, and the misplaced priorities we continue to perpetuate. All this is cause of great suffering for so many of us. Even after a mere six months since we had a change in leadership."
So is Francis about to rock the foundations of the local Church, with its leadership in the past years having taken strong stands of near-condemnation of divorcees, parents of IVF children, and even gay people - only recently Auxiliary Bishop Charles J. Scicluna, formerly the Vatican's prosecutor on sex abuse and a close confidante of Benedict, suggested that gay couples demand the recognition of their own diversity, cannot expect equal treatment like access to IVF (which he likewise stated that it remains unacceptable). "The gay lobby should respect the fact that its appeal for social recognition has its starting point in diversity, and therefore it is not just that they are now calling for equality when in fact, real equality does not exist. Diversity must always be respected even when its consequences are not those that are desired or expected."
Because as another priest asks, even though Pope Francis is playing sweet music, does his Church actually want to listen to it?
The Dominican priest and philosopher Mark Montebello, himself considered a "rebel" of the local Church apart from being the biographer of that most famous of rebels, Manuel Dimech, is particularly fond of Francis's comments on the Church's fixation on sex. "The Church needs to seriously reassess its entire teachings related to anything connected to sex and sexuality," Montebello says. "Not just myriad concerns on same-sex marriages, homosexuality, abortion, marriage, divorce, and contraception, but also to all gender issues.
"By pointing out that the Church very often speaks of sexual matters 'out of context', and that 'the Church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently', the Pope only mentions one side of such a complex issue. For millennia the Church considered the human body (and sex, specifically) to be an object of scorn; the seat of sin and the devil. It was only at the Second Vatican Council that this vilifying, and grossly damaging attitude began to change; but only partially and tamely.
"This lack of clear-headedness and assertiveness contributed to the doctrinal excesses of which the Pope speaks. Though a reassessment is direly needed in such matters, I wonder whether today's overall mindset of the Church is ready for it, or will ever be."
Fr George Dalli, not a stranger to the controversy of reaching out to people beyond the dogmas of the Catholic Church, is a more familiar face on television. And his feeling after reading Francis's interview is that the new Pontiff has just made him happier.
"I've always been happy being part of the Church. Francis has made me even happier," he says.
Dalli says Francis has been able to say 'first things first': "God loves homosexuals, divorcees, separated couples, single mothers, and sinners just like me. So who am I to judge these people over some learning that is based on philosophy, and not the word of the gospel? Christ's parables - the lost sheep, the return of the prodigal son - were totally in contrast to what the Pharisees used to say."
He makes a particularly blunt contrast between the Church of today, and the religious leadership that shunned Jesus of Nazareth.
"The Church's leadership has always felt that it had to defend what we call 'the depository of faith'. But it forgot that this depository was found principally in the word of Christ, a man who was like us in all ways except for sin, hated for befriending sinners by those who wanted to preserve the Judaic depository of faith, through which they secured privilege, riches and comforts," Dalli says.
"Vatican II was an attempt to change direction: Christ had no dogmas except for God as father, no laws except for a life of love and compassion, to help those in need... that's your exam paper, as it were.
"It was the [local] curial leaders of the Church that did not want Vatican II to reach the flock. I'd say Malta did not see Vatican II even pass through the breakwater," Dalli says in a pungent observation.
Prof. Camilleri reflects on his own experiences as a priest, and in a candid statement, seems to admit to his own exasperation with the state of the Church.
"Pope Francis, through gestures and words in these first six months since his election, with his letter to La Repubblica last week and now with this interview, gives me the strength to proceed. He confirms in me the conviction that there is hope and that it is worth waiting. The powers that be many a time make you believe you are the extra chorus, the odd one out. And here comes a Pope speaking plainly and clearly on things how they should be.
"This was a long awaited moment for the Church. It is much more than an Arab spring for the Church. The Pope, amongst so many other things, confirms that 'thinking with the Church' does not mean simply obeying, renouncing to one's personal responsibility, keeping prudently silent as normally we are made to think... it's like Jesus again going through the streets of Palestine and creating so much contrast with the anachronistic religion of the Pharisees."
What Francis said
The interview with Francis was conducted by the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal whose content is approved by the Vatican. Spadaro conducted the interview during three meetings in August, and was released simultaneously on Thursday morning by 16 Jesuit journals around the world. Francis personally reviewed the Italian transcript, and it was translated by a team into English.
The pope's words are likely to have repercussions in a church whose bishops and priests give much importance to abortion, gay marriage and contraception as their top priorities. Francis said that those teachings have to be presented in a larger context. "I see the church as a field hospital after battle," Francis said. "It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else."
Francis, 76, also revealed his love for Mozart and Dostoyevsky, and his grandmother, and said his favourite film is Fellini's 'La Strada'.
During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
On the vow of chastity
Religious men and women are prophets. They are those who have chosen a following of Jesus that imitates his life in obedience to the Father, poverty, community life and chastity. In this sense, the vows cannot end up being caricatures; otherwise, for example, community life becomes hell, and chastity becomes a way of life for unfruitful bachelors. The vow of chastity must be a vow of fruitfulness.
On women in the church
Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.
On the church as a healer
The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. "I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars!"
On the Second Vatican Council reforms
Vatican II was a re-reading of the Gospel in light of contemporary culture. Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same Gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy. The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation.
Yes, there are hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity, but one thing is clear: the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualising its message for today - which was typical of Vatican II - is absolutely irreversible.
On uncertainty and God
Yes, in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions - that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.
The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.