Pope Francis made news with the publication of a long interview accorded to Father Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica. For one thing, he offers a potentially transformative perspective on gay issues: “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person." While he does not propose an explicit revision of Catholic teaching, his stance that "I am no one to judge" is in itself a significant departure, as is his insistence that the Church has focused too much on gay issues, abortion, and contraception. I can't help recalling what I wrote in "Love on the March" last year: "It may be, as John Cardinal O’Connor once intoned, that the Catholic Church will be teaching that homosexuality is a sin 'until the end of time.' Recent history suggests, however, that change can happen blindingly fast."
I also can't help noticing that the Pope talks about Wagner. (I'm working on a book about the composer's influence on culture and intellectual life.) In part, this is by way of naming some of his favorite works of art and music. He mentions the Furtwängler La Scala Ring and the 1962 Knappertsbusch Parsifal as prized recordings. He is known to be a Furtwängler enthusiast; earlier this year, Angela Merkel presented him with a Furtwängler box set. But he also makes a broader point about intellectual rigidification and self-deception, using Wagner's works as points of reference: “When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.”
These are surprising analogies, to say the least. If I'm not mistaken, Pope Francis is comparing "decadent Thomist commentaries" to Klingsor's magic garden — a seductive illusion covering a wasteland. Could the Pope's emergent philosophy of unadorned compassion have been influenced in some small way by Parsifal, that attempted renovation of religious thought through musical ritual? "Through pity, knowing"? "Redemption to the Redeemer"? Possibly, but there are limits to his aestheticism: "Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing." This is a remarkable man.
Illustration: Odilon Redon's 1891 "Parsifal."