Church Mission and 'Non-negotiable Values'

The False Conclusions of Papal Comparisons

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By Gilfredo Marengo

Some among the first commentators on the interview with Pope Francis published in La Civiltà Cattolica saw his words as heralding a significant break from his predecessors in the way the Pontiff tackled the issues usually gathered under “anthropological question”. Apparently, in fact, he would say good-bye to the defence and promotion of the so-called “non-negotiable values” so central to the teaching of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

A rash interpretation, to put it mildly, not to say one leading to a prejudiced approach to the Pope’s magisterium.

Recent news reports of a number of historical-theological debates about the current direction taken by the Church demonstrate the difficulty of managing a continuity-discontinuity approach, prone as this is to oversimplifications which jeopardise a positive understanding of many events that are crucial to contemporary Church life, first of all Vatican II.

When turning to the succession of different Popes since the 1950s, it is striking to see the novelty and originality expressed by each of them throughout the exercise of the Petrine ministry – but this cannot justify in any way setting them against each other.

It would suffice to remember how Paul VI valued and embraced the heart of John XXIII’s magisterium, and how John Paul II acknowledged, beyond any formality, his debt to the Pope who had completed the Council undertaking. At the same time, each of these three Pontiffs emerges as a unique ecclesial figure: when examined through the discontinuity lens, not only do these figures appear deformed: their fruitful reception into the fabric of Christian community life is actually hampered.

This is why the game of comparing Benedict XVI with Pope Francis is methodologically unsound: to record differences is a trite exercise, to interpret them as oppositions reveals an excess of prejudice.

As to the “anthropological question”, it can be recalled that, during the traditional Christmas speech to the Roman Curia in 2012, Benedict XVI argued a comprehensive reflection on the family and the problems linked to questioning the objectivity of the sexual differentiation in the context of gender theories. His articulation of faith’s judgement on this matter is particularly enlightening: « When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man

The exquisite perspective emerged through Revelation, which the Pope had already evoked through the biblical story of the creation of the original couple, is stressed as the fundamental interpretation of a correct anthropology of man and woman; ultimately, it is impossible to adequately grasp the dignity of human existence without a clear theological horizon.

On the same occasion, Benedict XVI considered opportune to highlight the importance of those well-known values that are «fundamental and non-negotiable for the human condition». Interestingly, the immediate context of this appeal is the «dialogue with states, dialogue with society». It is easy to see that such values cannot exhaust the Christian message on man’s life: rather, they express some salient traits of the Christian anthropology, at least that part of it which can be embraced and appropriated by a culture prepared to dialogue openly and without prejudice, with an experience of faith supported by an intelligent rationality. 

If properly understood, the Pope’s intervention makes it difficult to grasp the reserves arousing from his consideration that: «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

Without taking anything away from the value of this sphere of the Church’s communication to the world, the point is to prevent the contents of the message and of the Christian testimony to man from being (even unintentionally) limited to the so-called “non-negotiable values” — whilst there is no denying of their importance and objective social, cultural and political value.

To see the Pope as distancing himself from his predecessors sounds like an excuse. On the contrary, his words can dialogue with those milieus where the last few decades of magisterium have risked being trimmed down to a handful of dogmatic-sounding issues to be conveniently dropped into certain cultural and political debates, especially popular in the English-speaking world.

A more serene reading of Pope Francis’ interview can, on the other hand, indicate to what extent it is still necessary to unreservedly take up the Vatican II pastoral outlook. The Council Fathers have communicated that the challenge of a renewed encounter with the contemporary world urges the Church to assume a perspective that is irreducible both in institutional terms (the ecclesial body) and in view of a more convincing theology. The Council, in fact, chose to be open to dialogue and to valuing contemporary human experience, considering this necessary for a regeneration of the Church’s life and mission, and perceiving in it a specific call from the Spirit. The Council’s interpretation of reality and history was accompanied by the decision to use a positive, proactive language and style, able to arouse interest and a fascination for the Christian message.  The Church was invited to take a stance before history and her present, thus recognising the form through which God calls her to be faithful to her apostolic identity.

The horizon evoked by Pope Francis’ words furthers and re-launches this direction by laying a new emphasis that should not be overlooked.

It is well known that the troubles of the post-conciliar Church have been largely attributed to the open-dialogue attitude of the Vatican II season. It was sometimes hoped that the Church would take her distance, for the ecclesial community to rediscover its reasons and capacities and effectively resolve the critical elements affecting its life.

At the same time, the profound changes affecting the world in the last 50 years cannot be ignored. In its often tragic complexity, today’s society does not seem to have perceived the Christians’ willingness to dialogue: in fact, it often rows contrary, as to either distancing itself or attacking the Christian way of thinking. There is no lack of openly intolerant attitudes, whenever the Church passes the boundaries of a sickly political correctness, not fearing to remember her Lord’s unique salvific claim.

So, in this historical climate the Pope re-launches the Christian communities into an all-out encounter with what is human, through an impulse to witness and share each brother’s life’s drama. This does not only express his deep self-identification with the most precious heritage of Vatican II; the new beginning is triggered by far more complex and dramatic circumstances but is also loaded with challenges for the vocation and mission of each and every Christian.


Gilfredo Marengo is a professor in Theological Anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Rome.

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