Pope Francis Lifts a Page from John Locke

Without the “fresh” message of salvation and God’s love front-and-center, Catholics worldwide will continue to leave the flock.

In his beautiful, wide-ranging, 12,000-word interview published in the journal America, Pope Francis is drawing accolades from many and frowns from religious conservatives for his comments regarding the waning emphasis on homosexuality, contraception and reproductive rights that has marked his pontificate:


We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

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.

There are a few interwoven claims here. The headline, clearly, is that the church’s teachings regarding sexual matters are “clear,” but should not be “obsessively” harped upon by church officials. Another message is odder, shocking even: the church’s ministry is “a disjointed multitude of doctrines.” What? It is one thing to de-emphasize a set of issues in favor of a broader message of love and redemption for all, but it is another to convey the de-emphasized teachings as “disjointed.” This reads like a critique of the teachings themselves as being incoherent or mutually inconsistent. Reading on, we find Pope Francis’s main message. Sermons to the laity should begin with “proclamation” on the “necessary things” regarding the “saving love of God.” Instruction on moral questions should follow, but the fire and brimstone should be served in dabs, not dollops, and first things should come first:

Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn...The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing...The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

So Pope Francis is suggesting a re-orientation of church priorities. And he is thinking practically. Without the “fresh” message of salvation and God’s love front-and-center, Catholics worldwide will continue to leave the flock:

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.

Sounds like both a humane stance and a winning one. And it bears some marks of another case for religious modesty from 1689: John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. In his Letter, Locke was arguing against political oppression of religious minorities, not against over-exuberant moral preaching about hot-button issues. And there is more than a little irony here: Locke famously withheld toleration from Catholics because they were, he wrote, beholden to a “foreign prince” (the Pope) and thus untrustworthy citizens. But several of Locke’s contentions for toleration mirror the case made by the Pope in his interview.

The first is the claim from both Locke and Pope Francis that the true church is not a site of religious coercion but of moral guidance and love. Here is Locke:

If the Gospel and the apostles may be credited, no man can be a Christian without charity and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love.

And here is Pope Francis:

Religion has the right to express its in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

Recall, too, what Pope Francis had to say about the “necessary things” that a church must insist uponthat which “makes the heart burn” to be closer to Godand compare that sentiment to this passage in Locke’s Letter:

But since men are so solicitous about the true church, I would only ask them here, by the way, if it be not more agreeable to the Church of Christ to make the conditions of her communion consist in such things, and such things only, as the Holy Spirit has in the Holy Scriptures declared, in express words, to be necessary to salvation; I ask, I say, whether this be not more agreeable to the Church of Christ than for men to impose their own inventions and interpretations upon others as if they were of Divine authority, and to establish by ecclesiastical laws, as absolutely necessary to the profession of Christianity, such things as the Holy Scriptures do either not mention, or at least not expressly command?

It’s stretching things a little too far to say that the church’s teachings regarding homosexuality, abortion and contraception are “unnecessary” to a Catholic’s prospects of salvation. Here Pope Francis parts with Locke: he has never disavowed these teachings. But by emphasizing what is truly “necessary” in a Catholic ministry and urging church officials to tone down their moralizing about social and sexual issues, Pope Francis is setting an agenda for his papacy that blessedly departs from that of his predecessor.      

Read on:

Is the Pope Catholic?

Will China’s green energy tipping point come too late?

Pay attention to the decisions made by the provinces.

Surprising Science
  • China leads the world in numerous green energy categories.
  • CO2 emissions in the country totaling more than all coal emissions in the U.S. have recently emerged.
  • This seems to be an administrative-induced blip on the way towards a green energy tipping point.
Keep reading Show less

Got a question for a real NASA astronomer? Ask it here!

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.

Surprising Science

Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Keep reading Show less

5 communication pitfalls that are preventing people from really hearing what you're trying to say

If you want to be a better and more passionate communicator, these tips are important.

Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash
popular

If you identify as being a socially conscious person in today's age of outrage, you've likely experienced the bewildering sensation when a conversation that was once harmless, suddenly doesn't feel that way anymore. Perhaps you're out for a quick bite with family, friends, or coworkers when the conversation takes a turn. Someone's said something that doesn't sit right with you, and you're unsure of how to respond. Navigating social situations like this is inherently stressful.

Below are five expert-approved tips on how to maintain your cool and effectively communicate.

Keep reading Show less

Take the Big Think survey for a chance to win :)

Calling all big thinkers!

  • Tell us a little bit about where you find Big Think's videos, articles, and podcasts.
  • Be entered for a chance to win 1 of 3 Amazon gift cards each worth $100.
  • All survey information is anonymous and will be used only for this survey.
Keep reading Show less
(Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
Culture & Religion
  • The next Mega Millions drawing is scheduled for Oct. 23 at 11 pm E.T.
  • The odds of any one ticket winning are about 1 in 300 million.
  • This might be a record-setting jackpot, but that doesn't mean you have a better chance of winning.
Keep reading Show less

The value of owning more books than you can read

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
Personal Growth
  • Many readers buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf.
  • Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don't know.
  • The Japanese call this practice tsundoku, and it may provide lasting benefits.
Keep reading Show less

How to raise a non-materialistic kid

Money makes the world go 'round. Unfortunately, it can make both children and adults into materialists.

Robert Collins / Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Keeping a gratitude journal caused children to donate 60 percent more to charitable causes.
  • Other methods suggested by researchers include daily gratitude reflection, gratitude posters, and keeping a "gratitude jar."
  • Materialism has been shown to increase anxiety and depression and promote selfish attitudes and behavior.
Keep reading Show less

Elon Musk's high-speed test tunnel will give free rides on Dec. 11

The Boring Company plans to offer free rides in its prototype tunnel in Hawthorne, California in December.

Image: Getty Images/Claudia Soraya
Technology & Innovation
  • The prototype tunnel is about 2 miles long and contains electric skates that travel at top speeds of around 150 mph.
  • This is the first tunnel from the company that will be open to the public.
  • If successful, the prototype could help the company receive regulatory approval for much bigger projects in L.A. and beyond.
Keep reading Show less