Does Francis Have a Teaching Strategy?

The story is told about the remarkable Francis Cardinal George when he returned to his native ground in Chicago. A reporter sought to draw him out by asking whether he would be a Cardinal in the style of the late (liberal) Cardinal Bernadin? As legend has it, the new archbishop niftily deflected the question by reminding the reporter that the Church has a certain “aversion to cloning.”

Like everyone else, people in the media will have their own sense of the story they would like to hear – or the outcomes they would like to encourage. We would need a rare innocence to suppose that this tendency was not at work as TIME magazine, in a gesture made all the more noticeable by its surprise, named Pope Francis the Person of the Year. 

The praise of this fine priest had to be taken as earnestly tendered, as it was so evidently earned. But it was clear also as to why a notable part of the American media finds a new pope newsworthy for doing something that looks to them new. He seems to be taking a path that even people outside the Church may wish to praise, and in praising him, drawing him further along that path.

As to what that path was, the write-up in TIME left little mystery. The editors found a certain fascination in the way that Pope Francis was “annoy[ing]” or unsettling what the editors call “conservatives” – i.e., the Catholics concerned that Francis is speaking less often, less forcefully, less clearly about abortion and the taking of innocent life. Or, as the editors note, “Francis both affirms traditional teachings on sexuality and warns that the church has become distracted by them.” The Deputy Managing Editor Rhadika Jones explained further that the editors were drawn to the pope by his accent on poverty and the “inequality of income.” 

Our readers know that some of us, writing in these columns, have set off tremors as we have registered our concerns that the teaching of the Church, on matters running to the core of the “human person,” has gently turned equivocal. Gentle or not, there is little doubt as to how the shift has been understood in a broader public.

As I remarked in response to readers last time, when did we ever hear of Catholic legislators voting in favor of same-sex marriage by invoking John Paul II or Benedict and declaring that they should not cast judgments on others? But that is precisely what we heard in Illinois, as we have heard it on the pro-life issue in other places – and we’ll hear it many times again.   

And yet, it must be said that Francis has brought us a new moment, or new possibilities, for teaching. At every turn, we hear of massive numbers coming to St. Peter’s Square, and of Catholics once fallen away now showing up at Mass.  But the question is whether people are returning because they see the Church receding from the teaching they had found uncomfortable, or because they have been reminded of the deep powers of forgiveness, of a Church willing to enfold them again with all of their sins, as its unfolds us all.  And once at Mass again, might they open themselves anew to a teaching they had once heard – and rejected?

I raised the question with one priest I know, a fine teacher who has not shied away from dealing in his homilies with those vexing questions that make some of his auditors uneasy. I wondered:  is there a strategy for teaching in a different way to the people returning to the Church? He pointed out that there is just so much to be done in a homily of ten minutes. And of course we know that priests have often been reluctant to speak on abortion or sexuality, precisely because those homilies may be felt by some of the parishioners with a sting of reproach.

Are we likely to see that teaching return, and return with more deftness, when the congregation now contains more people who have returned precisely because that teaching, as they understood it, had become muted?

Do we find ourselves falling back upon a kind of Aristotelian notion that if people become practiced in doing certain things, the practice may cultivate in time the understanding that fits the practice?  Could it be – as we usually hope – that if people regularly attend Mass, they may absorb even more fully the ethic that pervades the ritual; that in the wonder of things, their lives will become more ordered to the communion that enfolds them?  

I put the question in a note to a dear friend, and wise priest, Fr. James Schall. He noted that people may be drawn by a new enthusiasm, with a music of their own they are hearing, but “enthusiasm and jazz can only go so far, and deep down, it has its own norms that will replace doctrine if we do not pay attention.” 


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.