UPDATE: The reliability of the reported words of the pope discussed in this post has been cast into doubt without being completely denied. See my comments on this here.
First, a clarification. A lot of people are doing a kind of inquisitorial analysis of Francis's words, especially from yesterday's interview. I've heard accusations of outright heresy and even blasphemy, accompanied by the distinct sound of the rending of outer garments. I'm chewing the pope's words over pretty hard, of course, but I'm trying not to posit any definitive conclusion about their theological rectitude or what it means about his faith if they are wide of the mark. I'm a linguist and, I like to think, a historian of ideas. I'm not a member of the CDF. That incidentally is why I talk in terms of implications, effects and codes, rather than pontificate about how many times Francis has contradicted Pascendi. That is my method, even if I occasionally wander rhetorically towards the edge. Indeed, in this sense, what Francis intended to mean is less important than what he is construed to mean by an admiring world and the Church's own internal seam of relativists. That incidentally is also why the LMS's chairman's argument about what Francis really meant misses what I feel is perhaps my most important point.
There are two problems here which are rooted in the pope's use of language and the current historical condition of the Church, so just be patient as I pick them apart. I'm not interested incidentally in the idea that what Francis meant here was that God converts us, we don't convert others. I think it's clear that he really means he is not going to try to draw Scalfari towards the faith.
In terms of usage, words are notoriously slippy, and ever more so in our informational age. I'm quite prepared, therefore, to accept that in Pope Francis's dictionary 'proselytize' has the meaning of strong-arm tactics, pressuring people to convert. Indeed, I suggest lots of people see it exclusively as a dirty word. In dictionary terms, the word is more or less a synonym of 'recruit' in the context of religion or ideology. But since every dictionary is out of date almost by dint of being published, I think we can accept the semantic slippage here. If proselytize means pressurize for Francis, then I can see why he rejects it.
As for the word 'convert', if we hypothesize for a moment that Francis sees 'conversion' as the result of 'proselytism', then likewise I can see why he would not want to 'convert' Scalfari. I am not sure whether this kind of slippage is apparent in Italian itself. I am aware of dodgy theologians questioning whether Jews should convert to Christianity but that has always been based on heterodox readings of the New Testament, not because conversion is coercive. But again, just for the argument, let us allow Pope Francis to use this as a dirty word. Of course that means he doesn't want to convert Scalfari, any more than he wants to proselytize.
Conceding the papal humpty-dumptyism here - i.e. words mean what I say they mean - might look like fighting with one hand tied behind our back, but we like a challenge here on The Sensible Bond, not least because the real problem lies elsewhere. I'm struck by the parallels between this dismissal of proselytism and Francis's accusation of doctrinal imbalance or obsession in the big papal interview. The stakes of the question are in fact the same: is this claim true? Does it have the least fundamentum in re?
To that end, I would really like to know in what country Catholic proselytism has meant pressurizing others to become Catholics, let's say in the last fifty years. Do we have serried ranks of Italian Catholics going from door to door with septic knuckles, disturbing unbelievers in their homes? Have French Catholic intellectuals been bullying their secular neighbours with disquisitions on the nature of the eternal torments awaiting them? Have Dutch apostles perhaps threatened to blow up the tulip fields of the Netherlands if the world's flower traders refuse to accept Mary's virginity? And if not, why does the pope talk as if he is distancing himself from the hordes of imaginary Catholics menacing unbelievers into accepting the faith? Does proselytism just mean enthusiasm in his book?
Okay, so you say he is keen to avoid a caricature, but if so, why does this avoidance essentially require Francis to place cushions (as Jeremiah might say) below all the pressure points of the secular consciousness? Jesus threatened people with hell: was that coercive? Should we edit that bit out of the Scriptures? If Francis is trying not to step on contemporary taboos, why exactly? Jesus trod heartily on the taboos of his own day. If Francis is attempting not to raise any obstacle to the passage of truth, why does this necessitate such a spinning of truth that he even says at one point that while "our species will end [...] the light of God will not end and at that point it will invade all souls and it will all be in everyone"? Honestly, I come back to this bizarre expression again: who on earth talks like this, what would it mean to a secular audience anyway, and what possible relation can it have to what the Christian faith says about the four last things? No wonder Vanity Fair called him the 'Hipster Pope' (though admittedly not for this interview!).
So, as I say, the problem here is like the question of doctrinal imbalance. If we give his usage of proselytism and conversion these most charitable readings, we find he is still fighting against a caricature without actually fighting it. Does he, as some believe, disarm Scalfari with this talk? Or does he, in trying not to shock, send out a rather confused message which Scalfari could easily take to mean: you're alright, I'm alright, we're both alright.
In any case, the problem goes further in this respect: again, Francis has been adopting so much of the liberal linguistic code, that whatever his intentions, the ecclesial relativists will probably run away with the interview. I'm not so much worried about what he believes as about what he actually legitimizes. Many find the very fact that he spoke to the newspapers in this way to be reckless. I don't. I'm fine with that. I just think he had to be a million times smarter about the way his words could be understood and used.
Lastly, in this evening's missive, I need to say something that has been bugging me for days. Francis is so solicitous for the poor and needy in this world. I'm sure it is a fact we all applaud. But that is all the poverty which seems to be on his mind.
So far, and certainly in these interviews, I don't recall his showing any awareness that the West has its own radical poverty, its own fundamental destitution, which is intellectual, spiritual and theological in nature. The physical poor have population problems, so it is said. Not so the intellectual poor. Their destitution is one that leads to rapid spiritual death and extinction. Their culture of death leads to a steep decline in numbers.
My question, therefore, is simple: if spiritual gifts are more than physical gifts, is not spiritual destitution, are not the spiritual misérables, poorer than the physically poor? The physical poor die for lack of clean water. The spiritual poor die for lack of clear doctrine. The physical poor are weighed down by capitalist oppression. The spiritual poor are mislead by ideologies of license.
Both the spiritual poor and the physical poor need help. Both need mercy. But the way Francis talks, his discourse about doctrinal imbalance and obsession seems to give the lie to those who thought they were feeding the spiritually hungry. I can see why a physically rich man might want his children to fast for the sake of the physically poor, but what benefit would it be to the spiritually poor if those who were spiritually rich deprived themselves?
I pray for the Pope. We all should. But I'm not convinced that love justifies this exhibition in incoherence.
And now, dear reader, I really don't think I can say much more on the matter.