Despite the popularity that Pope Francis enjoys in the secular media, a number of Catholics find his reluctance to set black and white boundaries, especially on issues related to marriage, difficult to understand.

The head of the international movement Communion and Liberation, Fr Julián Carrón, presents an interesting perspective on the Pope in a two-part interview in the on-line Catholic news service Crux (Part 1 here and Part 2 here). Interviewed by John Allen and Ines San Martin, Fr Carrón backs the Pope to the hilt as he discusses some of the themes in his new book Disarming Beauty.

Despite the difficulties that Christianity faces, especially in Europe, Fr Carrón is optimistic.

I’m completely optimistic, because of the nature of the faith itself. I’m an optimist based on the nature of the Christian experience. It doesn’t depend on my reading of things, my diagnosis of the sociological situation. The problem is that to be able to start over again from this absolutely original point of departure, we have to go back to the roots of the faith itself, in what Jesus said and did.

If there’s a case for pessimism, it’s that too many times we’ve reduced Christianity either to a series of values, an ethics, or simply a philosophical discourse. That’s not attractive, it doesn’t have the power to seduce anyone. People don’t feel the attractive force of Christianity.

But precisely because the situation we’re living in today is so dramatic, from every point of view, paradoxically it’s easier to get across the novelty of Christianity.

This is consistent with the diagnosis which Benedict XVI put forward, says Fr Carrón. In fact, he describes the last three Popes – John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis – as “a great symphony”:

Pope Benedict always said that at the origins of Christianity, it’s not a doctrine, it’s not a teaching, it’s an encounter with Christ. The form of the Christian ‘event’ is this encounter, not in a virtual way or just as a proposal someone makes. No, it’s an encounter so powerful that you don’t want to lose it for the rest of your life.

So why do some Catholics feel uncomfortable with Pope Francis? It may be that they do not grasp the challenge that Christians face at this moment in the 21st Century. Instead of preaching to “fallen-away” or rebellious Christians, often they find themselves speaking to people who have a vacuum in their lives. This is an “epochal change”:

Our capacity to understand [the pope] depends on our capacity to understand the nature of the challenge that’s before us. Sometimes certain gestures of the pope may not be understood because we don’t understand the full implications of what he calls an ‘epochal change.’ It’s like thinking a tumour is a simple case of the flu, so taking chemotherapy would seem too drastic. But once you understand the nature of the disease, you realize you’re not going to be able to beat it with aspirin.

The Pope grasps the fact that many people today do not respond to ethical theories and rational demonstrations. They need the witness of a joyful Christian life:

I think what’s missing sometimes is a deep understanding of the human challenge we’re facing. Sometimes [critics] just want [the pope] to repeat certain phrases, certain concepts, but they’re empty for most people and have been for a long time. Or, they want a list of rules to follow, as if that’s going to heal the human person or lead anyone to ‘verify’ the faith in their experience. 

For Fr Carrón, the chance meeting of the publican Zacchaeus and Jesus is a paradigm of what should happen in Christian evangelisation:

Jesus had no problem going to the house of Zacchaeus, without explaining all his theology or moral rules. He went because the truth was incarnate in his person. The problem is, what people are meeting when they meet us? If what they meet in you is simply a manual of things to do, they already know that and they’re still not able to do it. But if they find themselves in front of a person who offers love, they’ll start wanting to follow that person and be like them, which is what happened to Jesus.

Is this approach practical, or is it just a theory? Fr Carrón draws on some experience from Communion and Liberation to contend that it is possible:

Too often, we think the choices come down to either saying nothing or being ambiguous. I knew a group of couples, families, that involves about 18 to 20 families, and no one is married, all for different reasons, sometimes with understandable reasons. Some of our families involved in Communion and Liberation spent time with them, without saying anything about their ‘irregular’ situation. Over time, they all got married! They found themselves in front of people who were living family life in a way that just couldn’t leave them indifferent. In the end, they all got married not because someone explained the rules or Christian doctrine on marriage, but because they didn’t want to lose what they saw alive in these other families. 

These are fascinating interviews, and good antidotes to the negative image of the Pope projected in some blogs and websites.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet  

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.