When I volunteered to comment on Pope Francis’ interview with his brother Jesuits, I was in the midst of preparing for a broadcast on Immaculate Heart Radio in Phoenix on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. This was a fortuitous confluence of tasks. I begin this post with a recommendation that all readers read the Spiritual Exercises before reading or re-reading Pope Francis’ interview. It is a truism to say that the interview reveals a man fully formed in Jesuit spirituality. Reading the Exercises gives the reader the key to interpret this interview. The interview reveals neither a “liberal” or “lax” pope nor a “conservative” or “tough” pope. Instead, our pope is someone formed to find people where they are, help and work with them to discern their need for God and becoming the human being they ought to be through accompanying them to the goal all Catholics must share: to know God.
Media coverage of the interview, which has focused on his supposedly controversial remarks of “pulling back” from specific ethical teachings of the Church is not him going lax, but his putting those teachings in their proper context. They are constituent elements of a body of Catholic ethical thought, which must never be confused with the whole of Catholic teaching. Readers of this blog know well that moral excellence is an essential but by no means final step to attaining the life of holiness, a communion with God, a theosis that is the true goal given by Catholic teaching. However, that goal is difficult, if not impossible to attain if Catholics lack the strong skills of discernment. Discernment by which one can grow in relationship with God was the focus of Pope Francis’ interview because the Church cannot be truly evangelical unless it can discern well the presence of God in the life of each individual (including how people reject God’s presence and grace through sin), and how God calls each person to theosis within the Church.
The Spiritual Exercises call people to discern, with their spiritual director, a proper mean in their journey to God. This is not discerning a path of moderation for its own sake, but discerning with the Church a path to God which is proper to that person’s state of being in life, avoiding the dual pitfalls of both moral and spiritual laxity or rigorism. The difficulty of discernment is underscored by Ignatius’ insistence that the Exercises be done with a director, a feature common across Catholic spirituality. The challenge of telling apart the presence of God from a trick of the Evil One, or a mere case of feeling warm inside, is such that good discernment must never be a do-it-yourself project. Pope Francis says as much when he warns against too much certitude if we discern an encounter with God. Too much certitude would prematurely end our quest for God, and give us the false idol of “a god that fits our measure.” Instead of certitude, Pope Francis states we should possess confidence that God is always present in our quest for theosis, including those whose lives are destroyed by vice.
Catholics who think they must play the admonishing Paul to correct a morally lax successor of Peter need to be reminded of what St. Ignatius teaches concerning how we should treat persons who are not meeting the mark, who are suffering desolation and temptation in their lives. The Exercises instructs the director to “not be hard or dissatisfied with him, but gentle and indulgent, giving him courage and strength for the future, and laying bare to him the wiles of the enemy of human nature, and getting him to prepare and dispose himself for the consolation coming.” That consolation is defined by Ignatius as nothing less than any increase the person attains in faith, hope, and (especially) love for God. Pope Francis’ comment that the Church must stop focusing on a select set of moral teachings is not a call to moral laxity. It is a warning that by focusing on a select set of sins to campaign against, the Church is engaged in a counterproductive and futile strategy. Such a focus assumes that all humanity is suffering from the same problems. It prevents the Church from discerning the unique problems each human being faces, which does include issues of sexuality but it is not limited to that alone. Hammering away at any one ethical teaching without understanding where people are in their lives, gives them a disincentive to follow the Church because they are not presented with a moral and spiritual horizon specific to their needs. And, too much focus on any specific ethical teaching of the Church distracts us from the true end of the Christian life, which includes “the Good Life” but if that life is not one lived with God, one cannot call such a life Christian.
The Exercises balance the language of consolation with the language of admonition and vigilance, designed to keep people vigilant against attempts by the Evil One to frustrate, reverse, even destroy, their moral and spiritual progress toward God. Pope Francis, in describing the confessional as “not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better” is an example of this aspect of Jesuit spirituality in practice. The kind of motivation utilized is relative to the moral and spiritual state of the person being counseled. The gentility of Pope Francis’ remarks would not prevent any cleric or lay minister from using a tough form of admonition toward someone who is obstinately sinful or stubbornly pursuing a spiritual dead end. Doesn’t Pope Francis want ministers to descend into the darkness where such people live their lives and not get lost?
What Pope Francis wants each of us to do is not hammer a brace of doctrines over people’s collective heads, but discern where each of our brothers and sisters are in their unique lives and present the whole of Church teaching as God’s promise of a better way to greater virtue and a relationship with God. Sacrifice and suffering will be experienced as we are at times pushed to shed bad habits specific to each of us and get cured of sin, but the spirit and letter of Pope Francis’ interview reminds us that the Christian life does not end there. Jesuit spirituality teaches that the promise of the Christian life is a growing consolation brought about by a relationship with God, lived in faith, hope, and love. And, this life is never lived alone but in the community of the Church.
This post is the third in a series of posts reflecting on the interview “A Big Heart Open to God” with Pope Francis published in America Magazine and simultaneously in 15 other Jesuit Magazines around the world.