Contra William McGurn

by Michael Sean Winters

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William McGurn is typically one of the more thoughtful conservative Catholic commentators in the public square. So, it was deeply disappointing to see his latest commentary in the New York Post entitled “What the Pope meant to say.”


To be clear, WPFMTS (What Pope Francis Meant To Say) Syndrome is different from FDS (Francis Derangement Syndrome). The latter was evidenced in Rush Limbaugh’s coarse comments about the pope “spouting Marxism,” as if devotion to trickle down economics or devotion to Marxism was a binary choice. But, madness is more easily discounted in its significance. WPFMTS is a more pernicious affliction not least because it tends to crop up among those who should know better.

McGurn hones in on the pope’s remark about not being “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” In the same paragraph, the pope had mentioned abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception, so it is pretty clear to what he was referring. Newswriters who penned headlines like, “Pope says Catholics should not be obsessed with abortion” were not taking liberties with the pope’s remark.

McGurn then comments:

Fewer are willing to admit (at least publicly) how debilitating it is when the faithful have to explain away a pope’s words by saying he didn’t mean them, that he meant to say something more or less the opposite of what he did say, or in that in the original Spanish, it’s not quite as awful as it is in English.

I suppose this must be debilitating, which is why I encourage my friends to stop doing it. Let the pope’s words stand as they are. This, McGurn and others decline to do.

McGurn writes that “The pope has invited much of the confusion himself, with both the words he has used and the emphases he has given.” If the pope’s words were plainly spoken and easily interpreted, whence this confusion McGurn discerns? It is there, to be sure. But, is it the pope’s fault? Did he invite this “confusion”?

No. The confusion is the result of the fact that far too many conservative Catholics have spent the better part of three decades trying to convince the rest of us that in order to be a good Catholic, we did need to be “obsessed” with abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception. Interestingly, this charge cannot usually be laid at the feet of your average parish priest. No, it is lay Catholic commentators, and a few prominent bishops, who have made the claim that Catholics must focus on abortion to the exclusion of all other issues in deciding how to vote. It is lay Catholic commentators, and a few prominent bishops, who have opposed same-sex marriage as if it were the be-all and end-all of pastoral solicitude. It is lay Catholic commentators who have conflated the purchase of insurance with the use of contraception, extending the zone of “illicit material cooperation with evil” further than it should be extended.

Of course Pope Francis understands abortion is a sin. And, of course, he understands that the Catholic understanding of marriage is about one man and one woman for a lifetime. And, of course he upholds Humanae Vitae, which is about much more than banning the pill. In fact, most of my Catholic friends on the left will agree that abortion as a sin, but they also view it is a tragedy, a tragedy that requires sympathy for the woman as well as the unborn child. They understand that simply making abortion illegal is unlikely to happen anytime soon, nor, under present circumstances, would it be an effective approach. If we want every child to be protected in law, we have to do more to ensure that every child is welcomed in life. I grant that many, perhaps most, of my RC friends on the left have a tougher time with same-sex marriage and contraception.

This is not the difficulty though, is it? The reason there is confusion about the pope’s comments is that some people have – how many times must it be said – reduced religion to ethics. This is what the pope is objecting to: The moral law is derivative of the kerygma, not the other way round. Pope Benedict made this very clear at the very beginning of his encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John's Gospel describes that event in these words: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should ... have eternal life.’ (3:16)” But, our conservative friends tended not to pay much heed to these gems in Benedict’s writings. As I have noted before, there is great continuity between Francis and Benedict and John Paul II. What there is not is continuity between Francis and the conservative interpretations of Benedict and John Paul II offered by the likes of Richard John Neuhaus, who dismissed John Paul’s call for a conversion of Western lifestyles, and George Weigel, who dismissed whole sections of Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate with his red pen, and Michael Novak who really liked the couple of paragraphs he snuck into Centesimus Annus but dismissed the rest.

There is another source of confusion. There is a need in our busy, noisy, often disorienting culture, to seek clarity above all else. We like our natural law syllogisms and they become a kind of Catholic fundamentalism. Again, our conservative friends champion the natural law because, they say, it is not tied to dogma and therefore permits a frank discussion of moral purposes in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society such as ours. But, they do not use natural law that way. They use it to beat their ideological opponents over the head. Not for nothing did Cardinal O’Malley rightly insist at the Knights of Columbus convention that “The truth is not a wet rag that we throw in other people’s faces.” Like the Holy Father’s comment last week about “little monsters,” we all knew who the cardinal was speaking about, no?

The cardinals did not select a student of John Finnis for the See of Peter. They chose a pastor. They knew what they wanted and, perhaps beyond their wildest imaginations, they got what they asked for. A pastor knows that clarity is a value but it is also something unlikely to be found in human experience. Human experience is messy. It is, dare we say it, confusing. But, instead of letting this cripple us, and retreating to our moral certainties, Pope Francis embraces the messiness of the world and, on several occasions, has encouraged the rest of us to do so too. He has said, again repeatedly, not to be so worried about making mistakes. He wants us to get out and stretch. The WPFMTS syndrome tries to keep us in a perpetual defensive posture.

The saddest comment in McGurn’s piece is not where he describes the pope’s comments about trickle down economics as “sad.” No, the saddest part comes at the end. He writes:

In his original interview with the Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica, the pope said that when the church talks about its teachings, “we have to talk about them in a context.” By that, he means we cannot simply spout orthodoxies to an uncomprehending world.

Pope Francis is right. But it would help if the pope could remember he is not always master of the narrative. His conversations take place within a context that is often out of his control and shaped by those hostile to his message.

Here, McGurn betrays how deeply secularized his own perspective is. A PR analyst may note that Pope Francis is not “in control” of his narrative. A person of faith might note that the narrative is not really “his.”  A person of faith might note that being “in control” is not the objective of the Christian life. Indeed, a person of faith might note that self-surrender is the essence of Christian discipleship, and it is so because it is Christ, the Lord of History, who is “in control” of His message. And, just as happened when He came the first time round, it is the wise teachers of the law who fail to understand, and the little children and the sinners who grasp the kerygma.  



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