The headline writers are wrong, and so are the hyper-traditionalists who agree with them: Francis is not gutting Catholic moral teaching.
But those “orthodox Catholics” who are loathe to criticize a pope are missing something too.
While it is true that attempts to contrast Francis with Benedict too starkly are wrongheaded -it is not like Francis invented care for the poor, criticism of capitalism, or divine mercy- saying that the differences are merely ones of style and stress are not accurate.
First, of course, even matters of emphasis and personality are not insignificant.
But it is more than that: the two popes have a fundamentally different vision of the Church in the modern world.
Benedict, back in 1969, proposed that the Church of the future would be smaller, more disciplined, and cohesive than has been the rule since Constantine. There was continuity with Francis in that he also foresaw that this future Church would be a church of the poor, but his vision of a remnant church, a sort of guerrilla outfit in a hostile world, is very far from what Francis envisions.
For Francis, what the Church “needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”
The Church must reach out and embrace its weakest and most sinful members, and beyond that, the world. Francis says “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”
John Allen, who wisely called Francis “the Pope of Mercy” more recently dubbed him “the Pope of the Middle”, meaning the pope of moderation.
But this is profoundly wrong; there is nothing moderate about Francis’ call to embrace the very heart and root of the gospel, of divine mercy extended to everyone, no matter the state of their soul.
That is radical, and it is a challenge for every Catholic across the spectrum.