His interview reveals a simple man of the poor–a compassionate and humble man who has people as the heart of his concern. He wishes for a church that is outgoing, creative and risk taking. He wants a gospel that is lived in a compassionate, forgiving and Christ-like manner. He pushes against a Catholicism that is legalistic, puritanical and condemnatory. He wants a church that reaches out to the poor, the rejected and the forgotten. He wants to show a church that loves the sinner.
All this is well and good, but I have some worries. Every pope is both empowered and limited by his own history and culture. Pope Francis is from a generation and a culture which is Catholic. For the most part everyone is Catholic. They understand the basics of Christian morality and the fundamentals of the Christian story and the basic elements of the Catholic faith. Too often, however, that Catholic culture was impeded by a Church that had become overly clericalized, legalistic, condemnatory and hide bound.
Francis’ message of forgiveness, acceptance and embrace of all works well enough in a Catholic culture where people know they are sinners and have a basic understanding of confession, reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. The problem in translating Francis’ message to post-Christian Europe, Liberal Protestant America and other developed countries is that most of the population either have no concept of sin in their lives or they deny the idea completely. Therefore Francis’ message of forgiveness, acceptance and embrace simply comes across as condoning whatever lifestyle people happen to have chosen. Catholics might make the distinction between loving the sinner and hating the sin…non Catholics both don’t and won’t make that distinction. Consequently, the Pope’s message simply comes across as him being a real nice guy who doesn’t judge anybody–like everybody else in our relativistic society.
Within his own largely Catholic context the Pope’s message works, but in our own culture his message is in danger of being interpreted as wishy washy, mealy mouthed liberal gobbledegook. He is saying to the homosexual person–”God loves and accepts you and so do I. But you need to sincerely seek him and turn from your sin.” The secular Westerner simply hears him say, “Hey man, I’m OK. You’re OK.” He says, “Neither to I condemn you go and sin no more” and they hear him say, “Neither do I condemn you. Do what you want.”