We’ve been blessed with two popes who were great teachers: John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Now we have Pope Francis who seems to create confusion and require retractions more often in two years than we had in the previous twenty. We’ve seen him retract his statement about not needing to breed like rabbits and when Scalfari misquoted him. I see Catholics on both sides of the theological divide who try to box Francis in as a teacher: they either pick and choose the teachings they like or they complain about how poorly he teaches. But what if Pope Francis doesn’t see himself as a teacher – at least primarily?
Pope Francis came from Latin America. We generally associate Latinos with an attitude of enjoying life while we Anglos tend towards work almost too much. Some might attribute Pope Francis’s tendency to shoot from the hip to this. However, I don’t think this is the main reason – especially considering he’s a Jesuit and Jesuits are generally just the opposite.
If you read the documents from CELAM (the Latin American Bishops’ Conference), we see documents that are quite different from those produced by the USCCB. For example, their primary document from their 1992 meeting has “New Evangelization” as the first word in the title. It goes so far as to list the evangelization as the first responsibility of the parish. Think about that for a minute: it’s hard to even imagine the American bishops listing evangelization as the parish’s primary duty (let alone put it in their guiding document). Jorge Bergoglio was one of the architects of these documents and he tried to implement them in his archdiocese. If the role of the parish is evangelization before all else, then the role of the Bishop and even the Pope, is also evangelization before all else.
As Bishop, Jorge Bergoglio tried to evangelize not just with words, but also with actions. He did not seek to instruct his priests how they should live, but to show them by his example. Instead of a teacher, he saw his primary role as a bishop as an evangelizer. (My use of “evangelizer” is intentional because “evangelist” is usually reduced to either one of the four evangelists or a preacher akin to a televangelist.) I think that he sees his role as Pope as an evangelizer and not as a teacher.
If we look at him this way, what he does will seem clear. He takes for granted that we have taught Christian dogmas, but he wants to do whatever he can to bring people to the experience of Christ – to evangelize them. When he focuses on evangelizing, his mind will be full with that so he isn’t thinking about the precise way to answer every question a teacher might be asked. The Pope’s role includes both teaching and evangelizing, but I think Francis is focused on the latter, while Benedict focused on the former. If we understand Francis as an evangelizer, we can overlook some slight missteps in answering questions.