When Francis was elected pope four years ago, he made a memorable request as he introduced himself to the world: “Pray for Me.”
Now that Francis is engulfed in controversies that once seemed unimaginable, given the serene days of his early papacy, prayers for Francis are more needed than ever. So too are fair and accurate presentations of his pontificate.
An important new book has appeared that carefully evaluates Francis’s pontificate, and provides something the pope—for all his good deeds—often hasn’t: context and clarity.
What Pope Francis Really Said by Tom Hoopes, writer in residence at Benedictine College, is one of the best books to appear on the subject—because it avoids caricaturing Francis, from either the left or the right, and strives to get to the heart of his papacy by studying the full context of his teachings. A second strength is that it rescues Francis from distortion without overlooking his flaws.
To try to understand what Pope Francis wants from the Church in the twenty-first century, we should start by invoking Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. Our understanding of Pope Francis has become knotted up with conflicting feelings fed by mistaken reporting, false adulation, rash judgment, and the pope’s own verbal slip-ups.
One of the challenges in covering Francis is that he frequently speaks in incomplete sentences, particularly in the free-wheeling—and often problematic—interviews he grants to the press. Explaining Francis’s teachings in their proper context, therefore, is like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle—because he says so many things, about a particular subject, at different times, and with different emphasis. But Hoopes has done an admirable job tracking down Francis’s most important statements, and bringing them together to provide a coherent summary of his teachings.
Regarding the pope’s much-discussed views on the economy, for example, Hoopes immediately puts to rest the notion that Francis is a crypto-Marxist who despises every aspect of the free market. In fact, as Hoopes documents, Francis’s views are rooted in the Gospel and the Church’s rich body of social teachings and these are “not just focused on bettering the material needs of the poor,” but addressing the needs of rich and poor alike. On more than one occasion, Francis has stressed that the greatest deprivation people suffer today is not material, but spiritual: “The greatest poverty is in fact the lack of Christ, and until we bring Jesus to men, we will have done too little for them”—not a statement any committed Marxist would make.
Hoopes stresses that there are many forms of capitalism, producing everything from a capricious “economy that kills,” to a much more humane one which has elevated the lives of millions. The pope’s rebukes against the abuses of capitalism are aimed at the former, not the latter; he is not unaware of the benefits healthy market-based economies have brought mankind. The Holy See has frequently accepted large donations from business leaders and religious groups that have earned their wealth, not from a callous indifference to the poor, but from a morally sensitive entrepreneurial spirit that seeks to help everyone. Quoting from both Evangelii Gaudium, the pope’s first apostolic exhortation, and his encyclical Laudato Si, Hoopes shows how many commentators have misrepresented the pope’s economic teachings, virtually ignoring statements like this one from Laudato Si:
In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favors productive diversity and business creativity.... Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.
If Francis’s teachings on social justice have been misreported, his statements on abortion and the sexual revolution have been warped by the media beyond recognition.
Early in his papacy, Francis made numerous statements about abortion and sexual morality that led many to believe he wants the Church to downplay these issues, but Hoopes demonstrates why this isn’t so. What Francis has said is that the Church should not “only” speak on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and contraception, lest Catholics become “obsessed with a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” at the expense of hearing the full Gospel. But what did Francis mean by that? That pro-lifers were misguided, if not emotionally and psychologically disturbed, and that Catholics should withdraw from the culture war’s burning moral issues?
Far from it. He simply meant that we first need to convert sinners to accept Christ, before we can expect them to follow Christian morality. As Hoopes says well: “We do not come to accept Jesus because Christian morality is challenging; we come to accept the challenge of Christian morality because we have fallen in love with Jesus.” Francis stated it another way: “The proposal of the Gospel must be…simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
Lest there be any doubt were Francis stands on certain hot-button moral issues, Hoopes provides many examples of the pope powerfully condemning abortion, denouncing the sexual revolution, and defending religious liberty. That Francis has also taken a strong stance against transgender ideology, and recently issued a document upholding the Church’s ban on seminarians and priests with deep homosexual tendencies, underscores his orthodoxy on those vital matters.
Hoopes’s analysis of the pope’s positions on ecumenism and war are equally informative, as he shows how Francis is an active ecumenical leader, but not a religious relativist; and a peacemaker, but not a pacifist. The pope is also, Hoopes persuasively argues, an eloquent and needed Christian advocate for migrants, displaced persons, asylum-seekers and refugees.
All that being said, however, Hoopes has made it a point, both in his book and his other writings, that Francis should welcome constructive criticism from faithful Catholics. For it cannot be denied that Francis, for all his admirable traits and accomplishments, has created distress and confusion—and in some quarters, near despair—with his increasingly amorphous concept of mercy; his ambiguous statements about Holy Communion (particularly for the divorced and civilly remarried); dubious episcopal appointments; tolerance for dissenting Catholics; sweeping generalizations about “rigid legalists” in the Church; and his failure to keep his solemn promises about fighting child abuse in the Church. This will be the subject of my next column assessing Francis.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.