Pope Francis raised some eyebrows in his recent interview published in America magazine when he expressed concern that many see the Church’s teaching and proclamation primarily in terms of moral prohibitions. The mainstream media suggested that the Holy Father might finally be changing what it regards as antiquated and heartless rules. Some conservative Catholics, on the other hand, worry that the pope is not proclaiming the “hard truths” often enough, as indeed he mentions in the interview. In examining whether these two reactions flow from a true understanding of what Pope Francis is saying, it’s helpful to turn to one of the most important contemporary treatments of morality: After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre.
MacIntyre explains that calm and objective moral discourse is impossible in this day and age because of the effect of emotivism on our culture. Emotivism is a system of philosophical ethics that developed in early twentieth-century England. It promoted a subjective basis for ethics by positing the idea that moral utterances are expressions of one’s preferences rather than anything objective. The culture, then, chafes at rules because they become a burden and an unnecessary hampering of one’s freedom, an imposition of someone else’s preferences over its own.
For this reason, the point that Pope Francis is making—that Jesus Christ is at the heart of the Gospel—is all the more important to keep in mind. If someone is going to interpret every “Do this” or “Don’t do that” that you throw at them as merely your personal preference, then you’re likely wasting your breath in your attempt to set them on the “straight and narrow.” In an emotivist culture that has largely forgotten its Christian foundations, starting with moral prohibitions is not only ineffective in spreading the Gospel, it’s positively damaging. Pope Francis reminds us that “the proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
John Senior, a Catholic professor from the University of Kansas known for the conversions that he and two colleagues inspired in the course of their teaching careers, once said: “If you want to be good, be happy.” Friendship with God is the greatest source of happiness there is. If we find our true happiness in God, we will be moved to do what is good out of love for Him. We will want to hold on to “the fruit of the Spirit,” which St. Paul says “is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22–23).
It is this right ordering of the proclamation of the Gospel that Pope Francis was emphasizing in his interview. He is not afraid to teach what others find unpleasant, but he wants to remind us that “the most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”
Image: Rembrandt, Christ Preaching