A Hermeneutic Of Pontiffs

I remember that one day I produced a theological musing on Twitter. One of my tweeps responded with something like “If you take that to an extreme, that’s [Heresy X].” I thought about that for a second and my response was “Well, don’t do that, then.”

I often think about that moment because whenever we write about theology there is a great room for interpreting anything anybody says, because the terms we use are so imperfect, and perhaps because Christian theology contains so many carefully (un?)balanced paradoxes.

It seems to me that this should lead to a general principle of, well, charity in interpreting what people say in this arena. If I am an orthodox Catholic, and I say “X” and some version of “X” is heretical, then you should probably assume that that’s not what I meant.

I say this, of course, because whenever Pope Francis says something, some Catholics have what seems best referred to as a hissy fit. And these hissy fits, invariably, seem to be based not on what the Pope actually said but what he seems to have said.

So for example, when the Pope says “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them”, that could be interpreted as a brief for moral relativism. Of course, the only problem with that interpretation would be that it would be arrant nonsense. Because, you know, he’s the Pope, and also an orthodox Catholic, as he has demonstrated on countless occasions.

What’s striking is that the same people who always wish to interpret the Pope in an unorthodox fashion are always so prompt in explaining why, say, the media are interpreting a Pope’s comments wrong.

The problem here, as always, is pride. We think like politicians. We parse words for whether they help the Republican Party of the Church or the Democratic Party of the Church, whereas we should be humbly receiving the teachings of the Vicar of Christ. When those teachings seem shocking to us, common sense alone dictates that, instead of rending our garments, we should, with humility and charity, check ourselves to see what we can learn.

So, for example, in his most recent interview, when the Pope criticizes proselytizing, is he criticizing evangelization? That’s what some people on Twitter seemed to think. It also doesn’t make sense, because the Pope later praises the Jesuits’ missionary work and, you know, more generally, he’s a Catholic bishop. It seems to make more sense if we understand his criticism as applying to pointless, antagonizing grandstanding (which is so often the form “evangelization” takes), and as calling us to an ethic of love in addressing unbelievers.

The wrong interpretation is particularly sad in this case, and missing the forest for the trees, since in this case the interview itself is an inspiring example of evangelization, with the Pope inviting (with striking humility!) a secular atheist journalist to a candid conversation. You think the Pope doesn’t care about evangelization? He is showing you how to do it! Note that his interlocutor leaves, while not converted, absolutely in awe, which is a pretty good first step. Note how the Pope speaks to his interlocutor in terms he can relate to—terms which might irk you, if you are a “conservative Catholic”, but terms which might bring people to the flock.

We really have to learn from the Pope.