The Pope has in effect said this to his Catholic flock: Let our rhetoric be liberal; Let us sound like a Church that is moving from harsh rigour to soft friendliness. Does that mean he seeks the reform of any of the Church’s traditional teachings? God knows.
He began his US tour in Washington, where he warned the bishops that there is a temptation ‘to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses’. They should try to persuade people ‘with the power and closeness of love’ rather than obsessively condemning ‘their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain’.
In his final address, in Philadelphia, he presented himself as the enemy of legalism, like Jesus railing at the Pharisees. ‘The temptation to be scandalised by the freedom of God, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, bypassing bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles, threatens the authenticity of faith. Hence it must be vigorously rejected,’ he said. To raise doubts about faith in those who are not ‘like us’ was wrong, he said. ‘Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith!’
Hmm. Does he really have the right to play the anti-legalist card when he is the leader of the version of Christianity that most obviously associates the gospel with moral rules? This is the religion that originated in a rejection of moral and ritual law – isn’t it dangerous for a pope to foreground the fact?
He seems to think that the Church needs an element of good-cop-bad-cop. I’ll be good cop, he says, and distance myself from the moral rules that make us seem so bad to liberals. Instead of confronting conservatives, he lets them assume that he wants them to continue to play their role. He doesn’t want too many of them to say ‘Who am I to judge?’ – he’ll do that bit. It’s a strategy that has worked so far. But soon people will say, Hang on, how good is a good cop who plays good-cop-bad-cop?