The problem with gradualism


Oh no! Another in flight interview from Pope Francis leading to another comment leading to deep confusion. It provides the enemies of the church with an obvious opportunity for spin which they will take. I refer to comments given to reporters yesterday regarding fidelity to Catholic teaching on contraception. The Pope made clear that Catholics need not “breed like rabbits” A phrase famously used by Ian Paisley to chastise those he claimed “bred like vermin”.

What the Pope was undoubtedly attempting to say was that living according to Catholic teaching does not automatically lead to lots of children. He was  informing those outside the Church that use of Natural Family Planning means one can live faithfully yet space out offspring, citing the necessary example of a mother whose life is endangered. And remember he was only speaking about this subject because he had used this tour to make clear his support for Catholic teaching as found in humanae vitae. So it is definitely not the case that he is being radical, only defending his defence of Church teaching.

But that isn’t what the world is going to hear. People will delight in twisting those words to draw false conclusions. Firstly the suggestion will be made that this is evidence regarding a softening of Catholic teaching under Francis. Secondly that large families are not wonderful gifts to a world desperately in need of more children. I am so sorry that the confusion is going to bruise large Catholic families. If you are one of those then hear this from -a priest of the Church- we love you and we need you!

Why does this Pope cause this confusion on such a regular basis? As stated before it is- I believe- because he has one message for those outside the church and one for those within the church. He perceives that the faithful need a radically different message to those far from it in the culture we currently inhabit.

Which is why his message to Catholics this week was to reinforce Catholic teaching and praise Pope Paul VI for the wisdom of humane vitae. But to those outside the church, via the world’s media on the plane home, he chose to use one of their common misconceptions- that Catholics ‘breed like rabbits’- to teach that, in fact, living by Catholic teaching may not be the reality they imagine.

One message for the faithful Catholic and one for the person on the periphery. It is something we have seen before. The world gets told “who am I to judge?” so that people understand the Church welcomes sinners. The Cardinals are then judged and given a roasting for having not lived up to the standards Christ expects. It is all part of that gradualist approach the Holy Father has made clear is part of his arsenal when it comes to evangelisation.

The problem is that, in a media saturated world, the messages are in danger of running into one another and get horribly distorted. Then the world hears what it wants to hear and faithful Catholics become confused or even disillusioned. Not for the first time I wonder if a man who feels comfortable as the world’s parish priest needs to ponder his also being Pope? So often he seems to forget that shooting from the hip is dangerous when every word, sentence and phrase will be scrutinised in detail. Might he take a leaf from his predecessor’s book, or that of Her Majesty the Queen, and say only what is  necessary and only then after careful consideration?

I don’t know. Because whilst moments like these leave me banging my head on the table- this Pope has managed to grab the world’s attention in a remarkable way. It might be that the pain of frequent misunderstanding is the price to be paid for the Church drawing the world closer to itself.

Ultimately the proof will be in the pudding. Are attendances and vocations rising or falling under Francis? Is the church strengthened or weakened on his watch? Risk is by definition dangerous and at present the court is out. What is certain is that he is a man whose personality and character will ensure that more surprised are just around the corner!

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7 thoughts on “The problem with gradualism

  1. but Ed, surely he is simply clarifying Catholic teaching? How many ordinary people fully understand this? How many people outside the church understand that Catholics are not opposed to contraception, just artificial contraception?

    I really think you’re allowing your dislike of this Pope to colour your thinking here my friend. I for one think he’s far wiser than you give him credit and as an Anglican looking on I find your dislike of his approach baffling. Many you just need to search your soul and forgive him for not being Pope Benedict? (And I mean that with love and respect)

    1. Paul I have no dislike of the Pope to colour my judgement and, if you read carefully, you will see I endorse what he was doing. I just point out that it isn’t always perhaps understood and leads to confusion. You will ask what is the bid deal here. A large Catholic family will not. Not least as it might be read as criticism of a healthy brood

  2. Far from pleasing those who believe Pope Francis to be a liberal, this statement seems to have infuriated them. “The Guardian” has decided that he is now showing his true conservative nature. Amongst the on line comments that follow is one expressing the hope that a young, black Cardinal might become Pope, because then things would “change for the better”
    I suppose it all goes to show the ever widening gulf between the Church and those from outside who claim to understand her.

  3. “One message for the church and another for the world”
    “Might he take a leaf from his predecessor’s book?”
    “I wonder if a man who feels comfortable as the world’s parish priest, needs to ponder his also being Pope”

    Put this alongside many of your other comments about him, “Who’s got my back?” was a notable example and I think you come across as less than convinced about him at least and occasionally patronising of his wisdom.

    To be fair you attempt a gracious comment about waiting to see and the jury being out, but the early indicators of the ‘Francis effect’ do seem quite positive. Not media attention, but Mass attendance in ordinary parishes, 6 million people at Papal Mass, massively oversubscribed General audiences to name just 3.

    On the case in point I think his comment will aid people’s clarification who have found Catholic teaching on this subject quite confusing.

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