taking the words of Jesus seriously

EDITOR’S NOTE: In just a few weeks, Pope Francis will make his first visit to the US. As millions prepare to greet him and his vision for the church, RLC is hosting a conversation about Pope Francis and the way of Jesus in the world today. Today’s guest post is from Sam Miglarese, adjunct instructor of religious studies and education and director of community engagement at Duke University. He is coeditor, with Lucas Van Rompay and David Morgan, of The Long Shadow of Vatican II: Living Faith and Negotiating Authority since the Second Vatican Council.


Ever since Pope Paul VI initiated international papal travel with his ecumenical visit to Jerusalem in 1964 and to the United Nations in 1965, every subsequent Pope has followed suit and embraced pastoral visits as a means of staying connected with the People of God and promoting their agenda of core Christian values. These groundbreaking papal visits to all parts of the world are now an integral part of the role of the Pope as pastor of the Roman Catholic flock.


Each papal visit to the United States is unique and is very much tied to the personality and agenda of the particular Pope visiting. The same will be true for Pope Francis’s upcoming visit. It will carry the stamp of his charismatic personality and pastoral agenda. Make no mistake about it, he is a political activist as his latest encyclical Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to you”) on the care for mother earth shows dramatically. He calls for action by means of political engagement at all levels. He wants us to hear and act upon “the cries of the earth as well as the cry of the poor.”


There is a great deal of anticipation for the first visit of Pope Francis to the United States in September. He intends to participate in the closing ceremonies of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, whose theme is “Love is our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.” This event is held every three years and for the first time in the United States. But this is not just another visit of the Bishop of Rome in an age of international Papal travel. It is appropriate to ask, “What is it about this visit among all the other papal visits that will be unique?”


Francis in his young papacy has already tipped his hand about a clear pastoral approach to issues that have driven his flock into divisive camps of confrontation on marriage and sexuality: contraception, abortion, premarital sex, homosexual unions. Even though he remarked, “Who am I to judge?” in an interview on issues of homosexuality in the first months of his papacy, we should not look for any significant change in the moral teachings or canonical discipline of the Roman Catholic Church. What Francis will likely offer is encouragement as well as a commitment to help shore up and strengthen the family system, which is at the heart of civil society. In Catholic tradition, there is a distinction between the Pope’s official teaching function and his pastoral role as Chief Shepherd. Francis is not interested in the debates that have raged in church circles about “innovation and tradition, continuity and discontinuity” in the ways in which Vatican II has been received. He has replaced those intramural squabbles with a call to honest dialogue with the world at large around issues of poverty, inequality, the environment, and the quality of family life.


This shift of Pope Francis is significant—even radical. He is focused on the pastoral outreach to people, especially those who are judged as not being in communion with church teaching through divorce, use of contraception, and gay unions. He tells us to “stop the obsession” with sex and to find a way to welcome and heal those who have been marginalized because they do not measure up to the ideal state of church teaching on every issue. He speaks of “Mother Church” and her “womb of mercy, ” rather than offering condemnations and dire warnings of the consequences of sinful behaviors.


Francis has begun to question the church’s pastoral outreach: in order to return divorced Catholics to the communion table, the church does not have to change its teaching on the dissolubility of marriage; in order to offer a pastoral solution that involves the exercise of good conscience, the church does not have to overturn its teaching on contraception. However, families do have to pay attention to the toxic effects of consumerism. Families do have to be mindful of the ways that we are exploiting the earth to the detriment of the environment and especially the world’s most disadvantaged nations. Families do have to rediscover a moral compass grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and consistent with the longstanding social teaching of the Catholic Church. Families do have to be a “domestic church”: a place where Gospel teachings are proclaimed, moral values are passed on and lived by example, and actions for justice shape a distinctively Christian lifestyle. The visit to the United States is all about family, and there is the hope among many that the Pope will facilitate pastoral solutions to concerns surrounding divorce and contraception that are consistent with his vision of a “merciful Church.”


The attempt of Pope Francis to change the operative ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church from a divisive emphasis on wrong behaviors to a conversation on pressing issues of family, poverty, inequality, and the environment is of keen interest to civic and religious commentators as well as all people of good will. His papacy offers hope to many as a way forward that will heal longstanding divisions in the Catholic Church since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. His visit to the United States in September will let us see him up close and personal, to experience his new way of speaking and his pastoral style. The visit will predictably ruffle feathers of politicians on both the right and the left, of church ideologues demanding a return to the old ways, and of those who insist on more and faster modernization of church teachings. Those who are most likely to hear his message in ways that offer hope and solace will be the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and all who hunger and thirst for a more just and peaceful world.


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