As I perused the New York Times article today that summarized Pope Francis’s stance concerning the Catholic Church, I could not help but think of the very similar words that I heard nearly three years ago from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Patriarch Bartholomew’s words prompted me to reflect on the importance of preserving tradition while progressing as a society, and how the Church is dealing with those seemingly conflicting developments. At its crux, his speech, which was at the core of my first article At the Crossroads of Progress & Tradition written nearly a year and a half ago, conveyed the message that those developments are not in fact conflicting nor mutually exclusive. When the essence of the faith – love – is truly examined, understood, and embraced, we can progress without losing the integral elements of the past.
Similarly, Pope Francis confronted this very issue in his recent interview. He spoke of the need for an equilibrium between tradition and progression, between the details of the Church’s doctrines and the underlying intrinsic message of the Church. In his own words, Pope Francis said,
“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance. Otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
In an ever-changing and expanding world, we are constantly facing issues that seem to rub up against the teachings of the Church, the friction of which often causes many to seek to determine a “right” and “wrong.” The moral dilemmas of abortion, contraception, or gay marriage, among many others, are not only the headlines in politics but also in our respective faiths at times. However, Pope Francis’s take on these issues echoes the aforementioned importance of recollecting and concentrating on the core message of the Church. As Pope Francis once said when questioned on the Church’s view of homosexuality,
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”
Just as the Pope teaches us to “consider the person,” a more global and inclusive outlook than focusing in on his/her sexual orientation, it is imperative that we stay true to that global and underlying message of our faith and not lose track of it amidst the minute details pertaining to the Church’s doctrines or teachings. Those doctrines and teachings are certainly important, but as Pope Francis said,
“The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”
It is no coincidence that love is at the center of the Pope’s outlook for the Church, just as it was the foundation of the Patriarch’s speech in the spring of 2012, for love (and its inseparable partner, forgiveness, which I will group together with love in this article) is the essence of the Christian faith. In fact, this virtue transcends religion; love brings all of humanity together and allows more than 7 billion people (all different in one respect or another) to co-exist in this world.
The Pope’s words, which reflect those spoken by Patriarch Bartholomew in many ways but most importantly concerning this fundamental aspect of our faith, are not only encouraging and important from an ecumenical standpoint, but they should be taken to heart by all of us, regardless of one’s faith or one’s location on the liberal-conservative scale pertaining to religion, politics, morality, etc. Our society continues to change, with more people living in this increasingly interconnected world and more ideas being spread across it. There will never be one prevailing truth regarding every issue and disagreements will always exist. However, if we can avoid becoming entangled in each detail and focus on that underlying meaning that unites and connects us, we shall live in a more inclusive world. For as Pope Francis said,
“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”
As I read the Pope’s word’s today, it was easy to see the irony in the fact that the two leaders of the sects that once split due to slightly differing ideologies concerning a few teachings during the Great Schism of 1054 are now embracing the same outlook for the future nearly a millennium later. That outlook consists of focusing on the integral elements of our faith that bring us together, and not allowing the smaller issues to drive us apart. However, I then realized that it is only ironic in a historical sense not from a standpoint of religion or humanity; the foundations of our faith have always remained constant despite any changes on the periphery. As we move forward, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and everyone from different sects and religions altogether need to embrace that universal element of humanity: love. We should hold onto that integral ideal from past tradition and continue to progress and evolve with it in mind, finding and preserving that important balance. In doing so, we can create a world that both the Pope and the Patriarch envision, and we can truly progress.
“True progress is a balance between preserving the essence of a certain way of life and changing things that are not essential.” – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I
(If you would like to read the entire article from which I pulled the excerpts above, here is the link: Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion)