If electrons were ink, the number of gallons spilled over the last five days on Pope Francis's interview with the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica would measure in the tens of thousands. The big knock on the Holy Father ever since his election has been that his remarks are "too vague," open always to "interpretation," and yet suddenly it seems that no one has any trouble understanding exactly what he means. It turns out that he means whatever the New York Times says he means—even when reporter Laurie Goodstein, the Times' dedicated hatchet man on the Catholic Church, has to jump through hoops and rip words out of context in order to make the absurd claim that the Holy Father "criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized."
You can read the entire interview in English translation at the U.S. Jesuit journal America; needless to say, the reason Miss Goodstein does not put quotation marks around Pope Francis's putative criticisms is because those words are not found anywhere in the 12,000-word interview.
I have written two lengthy pieces on the interview already, considering different aspects of it for Crisis Magazine ("Pope Francis and His Critics") and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture ("Getting Naked in the Public Square"). I'm not going to rehash those remarks here (though I would urge you to read them); rather, I want to highlight three paragraphs that have received very little attention, but which lie at the heart of the interview and, I think, may someday be seen as defining Francis's pontificate:
The risk in seeking and finding God in all things, then, is the willingness to explain too much, to say with human certainty and arrogance: 'God is here.' We will find only a god that fits our measure. The correct attitude is that of St. Augustine: seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever. Often we seek as if we were blind, as one often reads in the Bible. And this is the experience of the great fathers of the faith, who are our models. We have to re-read the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. Abraham leaves his home without knowing where he was going, by faith. All of our ancestors in the faith died seeing the good that was promised, but from a distance. . . . Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing. . . . We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.
"We will find only a god that fits our measure." This is the constant danger that we face as Christians: While God made man in His image and likeness, we are tempted always to remake God in our own image. The apostles themselves fell into this trap, expecting Christ to institute a worldly kingdom, and falling into confusion when He died upon the Cross. Even after His Resurrection, they did not immediately understand. Pope Francis refers frequently (as Pope Benedict did) to the encounter with Christ of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus—the first post-Resurrection story of "going, walking, doing, searching, seeing." They had known Christ before His Crucifixion; we can assume that they knew the Scriptures well, since they had been taught by Christ; and yet they did not understand how the Scriptures had been fulfilled in Christ's Death and Resurrection. It took the encounter with the Risen Christ, especially in the breaking of the bread, before their eyes and hearts were opened and they could understand. Their journey, however, did not end once they understood; in a way it had just begun:
Because God is first; God is always first and makes the first move. God is a bit like the almond flower of your Sicily, Antonio, which always blooms first. We read it in the Prophets. God is encountered walking, along the path. At this juncture, someone might say that this is relativism. Is it relativism? Yes, if it is misunderstood as a kind of indistinct pantheism. It is not relativism if it is understood in the biblical sense, that God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him. You must, therefore, discern the encounter. Discernment is essential.
Christianity is an incarnational religion: God became Man. He became a specific Man, in a specific place, at a specific time. In doing so, He sanctified both time and this world. Our God is not a being wholly other, like the god of the Muslims; we know Him the only way we know anything—through our experience of life, in a place, in time. And our experience of Him is therefore not absolute, in some abstract sense; but an experience like that of His disciples. We know Jesus Christ as a Person; we know God through our relationship with the God-Made-Man. And just as all of our relationships change over time, and in various places, so our relationship to Christ must grow as the circumstances of our life change:
If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security,' those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone's life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person's life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.
"Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God." It is easy to treat tradition as if it were an end in itself, a body of something, rather than what it truly is: the means of handing down truth. In the context of Christianity, that truth is Truth with a capital T—Christ, Who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. In the Catholic Church, Sacred Tradition is the counterpart to Sacred Scripture: Both are means through which we encounter the Risen Christ. Where Protestants too often make Scripture an end in itself, we Catholics can make the same mistake with tradition, and, in both cases, the result is the same: "faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies." But once faith becomes an ideology, it is no longer faith; we substitute the means through which we encounter Christ for the encounter itself.
The very reason why tradition is so important is because it allows us to encounter the Truth, and to proclaim the Truth, in ever-changing circumstances. As the hymn proclaims, "Time, like an ever-rolling stream / bears all her sons away." But God, encountered through tradition, remains "our help in ages past" and "our hope for years to come."
All of this means, however, that our reaction to changing circumstances cannot simply be to retreat to some idealized version of the past. The disciples encountered Christ there and then, and that encounter changed their lives, and the lives of those around them; only if we encounter Christ here and now can He change our lives and the lives of those around us.
There is so much more to be found in Pope Francis's interview than the word obsessed, and so much that the New York Times would really rather you not see. Forget what you've heard from the mainstream media and blogs; read the whole thing; and quit worrying about the future of the Catholic Church.
That's in God's hands.