The Importance of Context: Moral Relativism and the Pope’s New Interview

By Katharine Mahon

"God forgives those who follow their conscience"

“God forgives those who follow their conscience”

On Tuesday morning, as I ate my breakfast and read the latest published interview with Pope Francis — originally in Italian in La Repubblica, later published in English — I received an email from my brother regarding the very same interview. “I have one big question,” he wrote with concern, “isn’t this basically moral relativism on the part of the Pope?” He was referring to these lines in the interview:Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?

      “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.”

Your Holiness, you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.

    “And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

His email came at the perfect time, as I had finally just made sense of some of the Pope’s comments earlier in the interview which I had been struggling to understand. Put together, his worry and my own new insight helped me to address his concerns and also, I hope, address the growing furor over Pope Francis’ recent statements.

While these comments on good, evil, and conscience had my brother worried, I was myself trying to make sense of the opening lines of the article. Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” All I could think was: Really? The leader of the Roman Catholic Church is asked about evil and “the most serious of evils” that he can think of is unemployment and loneliness? Both are terrible burdens that many people struggle with, but given the rampant violence in our world and the terrible poverty which kills multitudes more through starvation and malnourishment, I would have hoped that Pope Francis could say something a little more profound. But here, I think, is the key: Pope Francis was not speaking to me. He was not addressing a young woman theologian in the United States. He was addressing a famous Italian atheist, Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the Italian publication La Repubblica, and the readers of his secular newspaper. For secular Italians, youth unemployment and the issue of elderly care are major, pressing problems. Pope Francis is, if nothing else, a pastoral genius and a man who knows his audience. The Church must confront these secular issues, he says, but it is up to the individual to “follow the good and fight the evil” which contribute to them.

So, to answer the question that many concerned Catholics must have: were Pope Francis’ comments evidence of moral relativism? In the context of speaking to an atheist for an interview in a secular newspaper with a readership of largely secular, non-practicing Italians, no, Pope Francis’ statements are not evidence of any secret morally relativistic leanings. It seems to me that in this interview Pope Francis is preaching to atheists and to the secular world, not in a proselytizing manner (which he calls “nonsense”), but in a manner which affirms their most basic capacity for good and for evil. Reread his statements again with that context in mind: “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good,” and “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.” These are people who have been told by Christians, “You have rejected God, so we reject seeing God in you.” But here is Pope Francis saying instead that everyone has the capacity to judge between good and evil, believers and non-believers alike. And it is the task of each and every one of us to fight for what is good. To tell an atheist to follow his or her conscience is not to subscribe to moral relativism, it is to help him or her to recognize the undeniable realities of good and evil and to consider his or her obligation to work against evil and injustice. Imagine how that might utterly transform our world.

Now, had Pope Francis made this same comment to those thousands of faithful gathered at World Youth Day, or to those in the pews during Mass, or to Antonio Spadaro, S.J., during his interview which was published in Jesuit magazines worldwide, this would be a different story altogether. Moreover, these comments were made during an interview. This is not Pope Francis preaching a homily during the Mass, nor is it Pope Francis giving an Angelus Address, nor is it Pope Francis writing in a papal encyclical or speaking ex cathedra. The statements made by Pope Francis in this interview, while certainly interesting to Roman Catholics, were not said to Roman Catholics, were not meant with Roman Catholics in mind, and do not apply to Roman Catholics. They are not new Church teaching. Moreover, these statements are not the Pope preaching a new Gospel of “do what you feel” to the Church, but are, rather, the Pope preaching moral responsibility to those who we have so often deemed to be morally bankrupt.

Giotto - St. Francis Preaching to the Birds

Giotto – St. Francis Preaching to the Birds

There is a famous legend of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis was walking along one day when he came across a flock of birds who would not fly out of his path. He walked among them, even touching them with the hem of his cloak, but even this wouldn’t scare the birds away. So Francis began to preach to the birds, telling them of how they could best praise the God who created and loved them. The birds responded by opening their beaks to sing and spreading their wings to show off God’s splendor. Then Francis blessed them and they flew away.

Pope Francis notes in this very interview that he is not Francis of Assisi, but I cannot help but consider the parallels here (although, obviously, I am not comparing atheists to birds). Like Francis of Assisi and the birds in the legend, Pope Francis is dealing with unprecedented secular and atheist interest in his message. Instead of shooing them away, Pope Francis has chosen to “get to know” them and engage them in conversation. He is meeting them where they are at and discussing common points which all can agree on, suggesting ways in which believers and non-believers alike might serve one another, make the world a better place, and “move towards the Good.” Finally, just as Francis of Assisi’s legend of preaching to the birds inspires us as long as we don’t take it too literally, so too can we gain inspiration from the Pope’s interview with Scalfari while refraining from overanalyzing each and every comment.

Katharine Mahon is a doctoral student in Liturgical Studies in the Theology Department of the University of Notre Dame

4 responses to “The Importance of Context: Moral Relativism and the Pope’s New Interview

  1. Pingback: Papal Transition 2013 | Daily Theology·

  2. Pastoral genius or naive about the 21st century media? In an age where everything that someone famous like the Pope says (no matter where it was originally published) will immediately be posted on the internet, can we actually talk about “intended audience” anymore? When he was giving this interview he was, like it or not, talking to the whole world, not just the atheists who read one newspaper. I have to disagree. It is the responsibility of the Pope to speak with a single voice, whether it is at World Youth Day, during a homily, or to atheists.

  3. Pingback: “Your Christianity will be Personal, or it will be Bullshit”: Beneath Grisez’s Critique of Francis | Gaudete Theology·

  4. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Some Things Pope Francis has Said | BLT·

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