Discerning Pope Francis’ “Obsession?”

Pope Francis’ remarks on the Church and abortion, contraception, and gay marriage—which comprise a handful of sentences in a veryshutterstock_137345084 lengthy interview—are being greeted by the left like a thunder bolt from the heavens, a rising spiritual-cultural tsunami. For secular progressives, the pope’s comments are cause for wondrous elation, a most-assured political game-changer for America, the West, and the wider world. They have dawned a new era in “tolerance” and “change” from Rome and for the planet.

In its early report on the remarks, a breathless New York Times thrilled: “Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church … with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown ‘obsessed’ with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.”

For the secular left, the New York Times is daily bread. Give us this day our New York Times. Thus, this report was surely read by millions (it was the first report I read on the pope’s comments) and accepted as gospel truth. It must be taken seriously. And among its words, the word “obsessed” certainly gave me pause. The impact of that one word alone will be enormous.

Of course, to just read the New York Times is calamitous. So, I quickly read the full interview with Pope Francis, posted at America Magazine, the prominent Jesuit publication. In that translation, the pope’s remarks are not nearly as alarming, though they do prompt some concern. Here is the controversial passage: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

That’s the passage in full, uninterrupted. I see the word “obsessed” in there, but not quite the same way the New York Times and other liberal/progressive enthusiasts see it and have run with it full speed, full throttle.

The Times added: “The pope’s interview did not change church doctrine or policies, but it instantly changed its tone. His words evoked gratitude and hope from many liberal Catholics who had felt left out in the cold during the papacies of Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, which together lasted 35 years.”

Here again, I don’t think the Times has this precisely right. The Times was accurate in noting that the pope did not change church doctrine or policies. We should be thankful, I suppose, for that crucial clarification. But did Francis initiate an instant change in tone? Or is such “change” being advanced by secular/left enthusiasts hoping to mold Francis’ papacy into their personal Vatican II?

The Times added this, which is spot-on accurate: “Some lapsed Catholics suggested on social media a return to the church, and leaders of gay rights and gay Catholic groups called on bishops to abandon their fight against gay marriage.”

Of course they did.

Finally, according to the Times, the pope stated: “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time…. We have to find a new balance.”

Here again, though Pope Francis used the word “balance,” I didn’t see it in quite the same way the Times did.

That said, what do we make of these comments by the leader of the world’s largest Church?

Well, that’s just one crucial question. The other equally interesting question is what others will make of these comments.

I’ll begin with my first question:

There’s no doubt that this pope, as he himself acknowledged in the interview, has “not spoken much about these things.” Many of us have certainly noticed. I noticed right away.

As a case in point, indulge me as I share excerpts from an article I wrote last April for a major Catholic publication, but which wasn’t published—and which now makes more sense in light of Pope Francis’ statements:

When I converted to Catholicism eight years ago, one thing that drew me was the Church’s and the pope’s fearless pro-life stance … the papacy’s unrelenting, courageous defense of unborn children. The Death Culture was and is literally killing us, and among all the churches and denominations worldwide, the only one that I could consistently depend upon to speak out against abortion was the Roman Catholic Church. I joined the Church with the assurance that I never needed to worry about a pope who didn’t vocally defend the unborn child….

I could count on the Bishop of Rome condemning this scourge.

The new Bishop of Rome is, of course, Pope Francis. He’s pro-life, too, of course. But liberal Catholics are confident that he’s one of them, and, as such, he will dispense with all this retrograde nonsense about the “Death Culture” that his “conservative” predecessors obsessed over. Will they get their wish? Well, thus far, they have reason for optimism.

The Mass inaugurating Pope Francis’ Petrine ministry occurred March 19, on the solemnity of Saint Joseph. Definite signals would be sent to the world regarding this pope’s interests.

The pope’s homily was thus about Joseph the protector, or, as Pope Francis put it, Joseph “the ‘custos,’ the protector.” Pope Francis began by asking: “The protector of whom?” He noted Mary, Jesus, and the “universal Church.” But he didn’t stop there. Francis then listed many things that Joseph protected and that we should protect. Oddly, however, he never once listed the one thing that Joseph protected first and foremost: the unborn child.

The new pope’s homily underscored the need to protect the environment (twice); the poor (twice); the “weak” or “weakest” (twice); and “creation,” “creatures,” or “created” (eight times). But never the unborn child….

As I listened to his homily, I thought he would mention the unborn in this passage: “Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and our hearts are hardened. Tragically, in every period of history there are ‘Herods’ who plot death, wreak havoc, and mar the countenance of men and women.”

This was an ideal moment to mention Joseph’s and the Church’s and humanity’s mutual interest in protecting the unborn….

Pope Francis pressed on with more things worthy of protection: “Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political, and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment….”

Here, he singled out “hatred, envy, and pride,” and highlighted yet more things we need to protect against, including “our emotions,” “our hearts,” and “evil intentions.” And still more that need protecting: “the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.”

But never the unborn child.

This omission is so obvious that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t intentional….

Of course, I’m sure that Saint Joseph cared about creation and the environment and the poor—as do all of us, conservative Catholics included (despite what liberals say)—but he foremost was concerned about guarding and protecting the unborn child. So, why not a single mention of the unborn child by the new pope?…

Certainly, Pope Francis, who is clearly pro-life, regards the unborn as God’s “creatures” and part of “creation,” and among the “weak” and “vulnerable” needing protection. I don’t doubt that. But the unborn weren’t identified anywhere in this homily, and no doubt to the great pleasure of “pro-choice Catholics” like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. In fact, Pelosi herself, on previous occasions, has publicly invoked the intercession of St. Joseph for all sorts of liberal agenda items, from the environment to Obama-care. But not the unborn. She assiduously avoids the unborn among what she wants St. Joseph to help protect.

If I was Nancy Pelosi or a “pro-choice Catholic,” I would have been doing cartwheels over Pope Francis’ homily: “We got it! A progressive pope! No more of this ‘unborn child’ nonsense!” This is precisely the affirmation they have been seeking.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning whether our new pope is pro-life. But I’ve encountered many pro-life priests who have never dared give a pro-life homily. The results among the laity have been disastrous. What the Church and its leaders choose to emphasize is vital. In the case of the abortion issue, it’s literally a matter of life and death. And this is the worst possible moment for the Bishop of Rome to go silent on the greatest killer of our time.

For Pope Francis, this was just one homily of many to come. But as a first homily, on no less than Saint Joseph, the “custos,” protector of the unborn child, I was very discouraged at what was omitted.

More recently, Pope Francis gave the annual Urbi et Orbi message. This time, the focus wasn’t on St. Joseph, protector of the unborn child. So, the imperative to at least just once mention the unborn child wasn’t as essential. I suppose that’s just as well, because it didn’t happen again.

But the omission, again, wouldn’t be so glaring if not for everything else the new pope mentioned praying for. This time it was “every house and every family,” “hospitals,” “prisons,” “persons,” Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Africans, Nigerians, Iraqis, Asians, Koreans, “innocent people,” “human trafficking,” “drug trafficking,” and, overall, “the whole world.” This is far from a complete list….

Francis noted in his Urbi et Orbi message that “we are guardians of all that the Creator has given us,” but he was talking about the environment, about “creation” and “justice,” not the unborn. He mentioned “creation” twice and “justice” twice. More than that, he mentioned “love” and “peace” 14 times each, and “life” nine times, but never unborn life.

An interesting coincidence: In between these two homilies by the new pope, the Urbi et Orbi and St. Joseph message, data was published by Human Life International estimating that there have been 1.72 billion abortions worldwide over the last 40 years. This means, as we already knew, that there has been literally no greater killer on the planet than abortion.…

So far, Pope Francis has mentioned protecting or praying for just about everything on the planet, with nary an animal or blade of grass escaping his purview—with one exception: the unborn.

I hope this silence changes very soon. I’m frankly pretty depressed by how American liberals have run roughshod with abortion legalization, funding, and everything else. The only thing left for me to count on is my universal Roman Catholic Church. If my pope goes silent on this … that would be a disaster.

That was the piece I wrote back in April. It was turned down by an editor after careful consideration and consultation with reviewers. They felt I had jumped the gun. They were right. It was too early for such bold assertions. I thanked them for saving me from myself.

I did, however, publish a very short version (about 340 words) for Catholic Exchange. The reader comments were not kind. I was dismissed by a couple of readers as a mere “conservative” Catholic who was being laughably paranoid and reactionary—and jumping the gun. Perhaps I was.

And so, I began a folder that I’ve been carrying in my briefcase. It is labeled “Pope Francis Pro-Life Statements.” I decided I would collect such statements and write a sort of mea culpa. Unfortunately, that folder remains very thin. I haven’t been able to write that piece. I’ve collected some pro-life actions by Pope Francis, but not many quotations.

My thin folder reflects Francis’ own admission that he hasn’t talked much about these things. (Ironically, within 24 hours of the release of the controversial interview he made a very strong statement against abortion.)

I also, in the interim, wrote a widely read piece on how we need a modern Humanae Vitae on marriage, given the extraordinary surge of “gay marriage.” I said that this particular pope had the unique respect to deliver such a message. The West is absolutely aching for that moral leadership from Rome right now.

But here, too, Pope Francis has said very little, with certainly no encyclical forthcoming. When Protestant friends ask me for evidence of his opposition to gay marriage, I’ve had to refer to statements (very strong ones) he made as a cardinal several years ago—before he was pope.

In short, all of this does indeed seem to suggest at least a change in emphasis by Francis. How could it not? He himself concedes that he hasn’t talked about these issues much.

But here’s the bigger problem: Liberals and liberal Catholics and secular progressives will run hog-wild with Francis’ remarks, exaggerating and exploiting them for their completely contrary ideological, political, and cultural purposes. That loaded word “obsession” will be especially ripe for their abuse.

To that end, unless some clarification or corrective is provided by the Vatican—which, even then, probably would not be sufficient—the progressive left will use these remarks against faithful orthodox Catholics (and their Church) with great emotion, aggressiveness, and militancy.

They believe we’re not only crudely and uncaringly wrong about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception; they believe we’re wrongly obsessed with those issues. Liberal Catholics, in particular, believe that. And they’ve now convinced themselves that the Holy Father himself is in their corner.

Sure, we’ll counter them by carefully re-dissecting and re-presenting the pope’s comments. We will note that the pope himself is pro-life and against gay marriage (or at least he said so before he was pope), and that the Church’s position on these things hasn’t changed—nor has the pope’s. Yet, they’ll counter by insisting, “Yeah, yeah, but you guys are still obsessed with this stuff. Even the pope agrees!” The words are already ringing in my ears: “Quit writing about gay marriage! Even the pope says you’re obsessed with that. Pope Francis says not to judge!”

Those of us who care deeply about these issues will now hear this exact objection unrelentingly. It will be applied to Religious Ed directors who want to deal with these concerns, to leaders of Catholic study groups, to teachers, to public officials, to faithful priests, and on and on. The ripple effect, given how liberals will abuse it, will be intense and long-lasting. Prepare yourself.

Again, the pope hasn’t changed our Church’s teachings. He hasn’t rejected them. But if Pope Francis indeed wants a change in tone and emphasis, well, it has arrived.

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Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His books include “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”

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