Attraction and Resistance: Discerning with Pope Francis

The entire text of the interview of Pope Francis (America Magazine, September 30, 2013 pp. 15-38) is something I will want to sit with for some time. Likely I will be referring back to it frequently to review my reactions, inner shifts and feelings as I ponder his comments and what they might mean to me.

I was educated in a Jesuit college and consider myself fortunate in having been immersed in the Jesuit spirituality of that community for some years. What began as new learning – the art and practice of discernment in everyday life – slowly became an integral part of my own spirituality. For that reason, there is the ring of familiarity in the words of Francis as I read them in the interview that has been published in several Jesuit publications. I hear familiar words, concepts, images, phrases and sentiments. His ways of expressing certain things are very similar to my own expressions.

This familiarity must be something to notice in my discernment. While it generates some strong feelings of empathy, it must also cause me to heighten my awareness of things I might overlook because of that familiarity. Even Jesuits have jargon.

One of the things I have been taught is to notice feelings of attraction and resistance when I am reading anything. In my repetitive practice of recording these feelings during many of my courses, I have found this often leads to insights. The practice has a further purpose. It sometimes leads to noticing how something “new” is trying to break through into my consciousness. As I read the interview with Pope Francis, appreciating his candor and his honesty, I quickly sensed that this writing requires me to commit myself to a process of discernment. I intend to take his words seriously, so I must know how I am responding to what he says. Where do I experience attraction to what is being said? Where do I experience resistance?

I am very attracted to Francis’ thoughtfulness and what I sense to be a deeply contemplative disposition. He is a thinker, which we expect from the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, but he is also a “wonderer.” I find that very attractive. He is humble and can admit that he has made many mistakes. More importantly, he doesn’t speak about those mistakes in the abstract or refer to them vaguely. He “confesses” actual mistakes, such as not taking other people’s opinions into account when making decisions and how that led to bad outcomes. Practical humility like this is certainly a refreshing trait for a pope.

I am also attracted to Francis’ comment that Church leaders must be “able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.” Following the analogy, it must mean that if the sheep are free to roam and are not to be confined to fenced pastures, the shepherds will have to walk with them as both guides and fellow explorers. This is quite a different image than the image of the shepherd seated on an overhanging rock as an overseer to the docile flock. These agrarian metaphors of sheep and shepherds are largely ineffectual in our times – at least in North America – but the contrast in the message is obvious. Are the clergy and leaders in the Church being advised to follow the lead of innovative thinkers and actors? How much freedom will there be to do this?

Another instance of attraction was to the part of the interview where Francis gently rebuked the general tendency within the church to focus on certain issues at the expense of the primary mission of the Church which is to imitate Jesus and to proclaim God’s kingdom. He is talking about the Church’s obsession with the issues of abortion, homosexuality, and contraception.” He states that “when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”

This, to me, is a very important statement.  Moral situations arise within a narrative context. There is a story to every person’s dilemma. To take the issues out of context and speak of them in general and theoretical ways, and to divorce them from their narratives, is to make them abstract and to place them under the control of likewise abstract and theoretical controls. It may make the “issue” easier for us to consider in our minds and to “take a position” on it, but it divorces the issue from its human context and therefore makes it difficult to surround with compassion and mercy. Is justice possible without compassion and mercy? Is justice possible in theory? Or is justice only possible when suffering interrupts real life and evokes empathy, sympathy and compassion in communities?

And now, to my resistance. I will focus only on the strongest resistance I had, which was to Francis’ comments about women. He suggests that the Church requires a theology of women. I believe this is a dangerous proposition. I have read in some responses to this comment that we do not have a theology of men. That is not true. Exclusively male language for God makes almost all Christian theology a theology of men. That is why some find it so ‘radical” to speak of God in female images.

To have separate (distinct) theologies based on gender is to risk dissecting God into male and female aspects.  This is a dangerous theological direction. It is just as dangerous as limiting God to maleness and the Church to femaleness as sometimes happens in the metaphor of Christ and “His” Bride. Francis obviously chooses to regard humanity as fundamentally divided into two distinct spheres of organic content with very clear parameters around each – masculine and feminine. His philosophy seems to be that, rooted in biological differences, men and women flourish in different ways, evolving into organic and personal realities that are distinctly different, although complementary. He seems to be suggesting that this complementarity has not been fully explored, since women have not been given their due in ecclesiastical structures of authority and leadership. If I understand him correctly, he is saying that women have a different role from men, but some more significant place must be found for them in the structures of the Church.

My resistance to this is that when women attain to full personhood in Christian life, the Christ-like character that manifests in them overshadows all previous distinctions, including gender. Being one in Christ means that all of these distinctions are brought into the integrity of the Church which is the body of Christ. We therefore need no theology of the woman, any more than we need a theology of the African, of the Islamic person or of children or the elderly.  As imitators of Christ, we need only a Christology of the human person as a way forward towards addressing issues of full equality of the baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. We have overcome many boundaries caused by distinctions based on human differences. Addressing the full personhood of women remains one of the final frontiers in achieving a theology of the person that applies to each and every baptized Christian.

Discernment is ongoing as I consider and reflect upon the words of this new pope. I look forward to hearing more from him and I am feeling more encouraged than I have in some time. My hope is that the dialogue recommended by the Second Vatican Council will revive and lead to refreshing insights for all of us in the Roman Catholic tradition.

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About Kathryn Perry

Kathryn Perry, MDiv, is an alumna of Regis College, Toronto. She is the author of The Courage To Dare: The Spirituality of Catherine Donnelly, Founder of the Sisters of Service (Novalis 2013).
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