A Church Obsessed?
The love affair between the media and Pope Francis continues. There is much to admire about the new Pope, such as his humble decision to take public transit, to answer his own phone calls, and to avoid some of the more gorgeous trappings of the papacy. He is doing his best to strike a balance, placing the traditional teachings of the Roman Catholic church (which he says that he continues to hold) in a broader context. That is presumably what he intended to do when he confided to interviewers recently that he felt that the church must “talk about them [i.e. the issues of abortion, contraception, and gay marriage] in a context”.
The Roman Catholic church cannot focus only on these issues, he said, and the moral structure of the church will “fall like a house of cards” if it does. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” The media, which has decided that the new pope is radically different and much better than his more traditional predecessors, have seized upon his words as if he were back-pedalling on his church’s stands on these controversial issues. I personally think that this is to misread the pontiff, and that he is trying to broaden the discussion, and not simply back-pedal. But I would like to probe a bit further his statement that “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time” and the implication that the church is somehow obsessed with these issues as it speaks to the world.
The Church is indeed called into dialogue with the world. That is, we Christians are called to preach the Gospel to the world as persuasively as we can, and to call the world to repentance and faith. Repentance, of course, means changing one’s mind (that is what the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means), and therefore coming to the conclusion that one was wrong about one’s former views. What this repentance involves will change throughout time, because people’s cultural sins and errors change throughout time. In Germany in the 1930s, the church there was called to tell the mass of German citizenry to repent of the sins of blind nationalism and anti-semitism. In the twentieth century, the church in America was called to tell those opposing the civil rights movement to repent of racism. Every culture has its own blind spots as well as its own strengths, so that the call to repentance will sound different notes at different times and places.
In our own day, the prevailing sins in the west (or “blind spots” if you prefer) are the sins of homosexuality and abortion, for it is these issues that are most aggressively defended and advanced by their promoters and where the most ferocious attacks are levelled at the Church. These issues in fact form a kind of front line in the ideological war of the World against the Church. It is nonsense to say it is not necessary to talk about them all the time, since the World is talking about them and practising them all the time. That would be like saying that the anti-Nazi confessing church in 1930s Germany should not have been talking about the issues of Nazism and anti-semitism all the time. Given the challenges of their day, what else could they do if they would remain faithful to the Gospel? It was not they who set the agenda for debate, but the Nazis. All they were doing was responding to the challenge as best they could.
It is true, as the pontiff says, that there are other important issues as well as homosexuality and abortion, issues such as child poverty and abuse of power. But the World and the media are not vociferously contending that child poverty and the abuse of power are okay, nor attacking the Church when it says that child poverty and power abuse are wrong. The World and the Church agree that these things are wrong. The front line in the eternal and eschatological conflict between the World and the Church is not drawn here. It is drawn between their stands on abortion and homosexuality. The Church’s stand on these matters (at least in Orthodoxy) is more careful and nuanced and less judgmental than many in the World think it is. But that is all the more reason for talking about it.
I do not think that the Church in the west is unduly obsessed with the issues of homosexuality and abortion. That would be like saying that the generals in the Second World War were unduly obsessed with the conflict on the front line. It is true that one needs to focus on other things in a war, such as home defense and supplying those on the front line. But it is on the front line that the battle is either lost or won.