Pope Francis Says He Is Anti- “Antiseptic Hermeneutics”–Is That So?

“Who am I to judge” (a gay priest) made the big headline at the end of the Pope’s trip to Brazil last week, perhaps rightly so, despite the spin from some quarters that nothing is changing. English transcripts have now been published of both the full airplane press interview (the first such, on land, sea, or in air, since John Paul II was healthy), in Zenit.org, and of Francis’s address to CELAM, the bishops’ conference of Lain America and the Caribbean, in the Whispersintheloggia blog.

The address to the bishops, who are now the demographic heartland and more of world Catholicism, showed Francis not just as a master of the “grammar of simplicity” he urges upon his fellow church leaders, but also as a Pope with a distinctive practical theological agenda. His message was that “there is no such thing as an ‘antiseptic’ hermeneutics,” meaning no neutral vantage point on theological/pastoral questions, or we might use Paul Tillich‘s language and say there is no neutrality on matters of ultimate concern. For Francis, there are multiple temptations and “evil spirits” to avoid: sociological reductionisms (which include worship of free markets as well as Marxism); psychological reductionism (an “immanent, self-centred approach”); Gnostic and Pelagian elitisms; functionalism (“fixing holes in the road…no room for mystery…aims at efficiency” and makes church an NGO); and a clericalism in which priests and laity are complicit because “deep down it is easier…(and which) explains, in great part, the lack of maturity and Christian freedom” in much of the Latin American laity. In sum, for Francis the obstacles to “missionary discipleship” in Latin America (and not only there) amount to self-enclosure and a lack of proactive mindset.

Francis’s agenda has just begun to play out. He appears to be strongly focused on responding to suffering, poverty, gross economic inequality, and injustice. He appears to have opened the door to divorced and remarried Catholics, and perhaps to gay Catholics; but on the plane back to Italy said that John Paul II had closed the door to women priests “in a definitive formulation.” To some obsevers, such as Diane Winston in the LA Times, Francis has a woman problem: “I leave it to Catholic scholars and theologians to explain why Francis can all but countermand Benedict’s directives on gays but not John Paul’s on women.” Pope Francis says that Mary is more important than the apostles, and that women cannot be limited to roles as altar servers and catechists. They must do “profoundly more” and “mystically more.” Is that so? And how so? On some issues the Vatican is an expert practitioner of what Clifford Geertz termed “anti-anti-relativism,” recognizing that, as Geertz put it (though in a broader context) “cultural relativism is just there, like Transylvania….(we) do not need a protective cross against the relativist dracula.” Would seeing women as fully human be a relativistic bridge too far?

Jorge Bergoglio said in a 2007 interview with “30 Days” journalist Sefania Felasca that “coming out of oneself is also coming out from the fenced gardens of one’s own convictions.” Francis now has some huge challenges if he is determined to clean up the Catholic church. We may have a summer lull (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) in news out of the centers of ecclesistical and political power. But voices just as compelling as Francis’s, albeit voices currently on the Catholic periphery (where Francis claims he wants and the church needs to go), will soon be asking him to transcend some aspects of his own self-referential and self-enclosed mindset.

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