Fr Lucie-Smith has blogged about the Guardian editorial of September 8 2013 entitled “Pontiff with the popular touch”. Now there has been an editorial in the Telegraph on Friday September 13, also about Pope Francis, entitled “The Christian soldier.” Like the Guardian, the Telegraph approves of the Pope’s informal style, probably because it is in contrast with his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI (and to some extent, even with the late John Paul II).
For the time being the new Pope has caught the imagination of the world’s media with the simplicity of his dress, his style of living and his way of making spontaneous gestures, such as “cold calling” the faithful to offer moral support – including a victim of rape and a man whose brother had been murdered”, as the Telegraph editorial puts it.
Personally, as I blogged soon after his election, I like these characteristics of Pope Francis; they show that the man hasn’t been swallowed up by the office and that he has his own way of breathing new apostolic life into an ancient, tradition-encrusted position. They make the Pope more accessible in the minds of ordinary people. This is not to criticise his two most recent predecessors; it simply gives the world and the Catholic laity a fresh perspective on the man who is head of the largest religious community in the world.
What I dislike in the two editorials is the slightly unfair spin they given to the comparison between Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict, such as the former’s refusal “to live in the opulent Apostolic Palace”. This suggests that because Pope Benedict followed tradition rather than breaking with it, he had somehow chosen Renaissance pomp and luxury. This is untrue; it is a question of two holy men with two very different characters.
Again, I like Pope Francis’s off the cuff remarks – though I worry that they will be misread by a media looking for sensational stories and the hope that the Church will “change” on fundamental moral teachings. The Telegraph editorial picked up on the Pope’s remarks, in a letter to the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, that God’s mercy extends to atheists and agnostics if they follow their consciences. You can see how both Catholic hard-liners and secularists will have a field day with this statement because it appears to be the “Gospel of niceness” – and God is not “nice”.
But the Holy Father is using language in the way of someone of faith, prayer and theological understanding. God died for all men, not just Christians or just Catholic Christians, and his mercy extends to all – with the qualification of the “if” clause about conscience. An article in Crisis Magazine by Anthony Esolen discusses a recent book on this subject by author Robert George. Called “Conscience and its Enemies: confronting the dogmas of liberal secularism”, its author argues that “The duty to follow conscience is a duty to do things or refrain from doing things not because one wants to follow one’s duty but even if one strongly does not want to follow it. The right of conscience is a right to do what one judges oneself to be under obligation to do, whether one welcomes the obligation or must overcome strong aversion to fulfil it.”
In other words, “conscience” is a tough proposition. Esolen comments, “That’s why we spend so much time trying to circumvent it” – precisely because to live according to the moral imperatives urged by conscience is hard, whether you are a Christian or an atheist. To follow your conscience can lead to dishonour and death, as St Thomas More discovered. There is nothing nice about it.
Sooner or later, Pope Francis will make a statement that the media decides is not nice at all. I fear this love affair between the press and the Pope will end in tears.