What to make of Pope Francis?

There has been much talk recently about Pope Francis. In the early days of his Papacy the blogosphere has been interpreting his words and actions in a manner the Catholic left finds congenial and the Catholic right finds nerve wracking. This is been aided in abetted by partisan media coverage.  (The main stream media wishes the Catholic Church would stop pointing out the sinfulness of the zeitgeist’s favored sins, in particular those sins that in some manner connect to disordered sexual behavior, and focus more on vague structures of sin and social justice which can of course be used to give religious cover to left wing politics.) This is mindless nonsense of course. It is obvious that one can end up in hell from committing adultery, or from cruelty to the poor and destitute, so the Church has an obligation to preach about both.   

To some extent it is a little early to fully characterize the way Pope Francis will handle the Papacy and I will not try.  I will simply concede the observation that at this juncture Pope Francis has been less interested in discussing abortion and same sex marriage and more interested in talking about social justice.  He has seems to want to find a way to open the sacraments to “divorced and remarried Catholics” or so the story goes. In reality Pope Benedict XVI raised this issue as well, and it concerns more the pastoral issue of recognizing that in our age many people do not enter into marriage with the necessary understanding of its nature and thus may not be actually in a sacramental marriage when divorced. This is a topic for another day however. More to the point for this post is that  He advocates social justice themes in a fashion the left seems to “like”. I think this is largely because the left has so co-opted the phrase as to make it the equivalent of socialism lite and thus drained it of a useful meaning.

I want to make a few comments about this:

First, one fact that has not been mentioned is that the current Pope is from a world very different than the United States.  In Argentina the situation regarding abortion while not perfect is much better than in the United States and in fact most of the rest of the world. Unborn children in Argentina are actually protected in law to a much greater extent than they are in the United States which basically allows abortion pretty much for any reason at any stage of pregnancy for all practical purposes.   Conversely Argentina knows poverty to a much greater extent than the United States, many very poor neighborhoods in the United States have satellite television, and virtually all have electric power, and indoor plumbing. In Argentina some of the very poor live in tin roof shacks. In this setting it is not a shock that this pope might view the most vexing problem to preach about differently, than a United States resident would.

Second, the Jesuits are liberals, the Pope is a Jesuit, I would not be shocked if this Pope turned out to have liberal political proclivities, but no Pope will suddenly reverse Vatican II and declare abortion is ok. Pope Francis already has noted that he is not going to reverse any teachings, and in fact reaffirmed the all time ban on Women priests, declaring that the door to this was definitively closed by Pope John Paul II. 

Third, there is no reason or need to agree with the Popes priorities. Recently in the Catholic blogosphere there is this sense that the Pope must be “right” regardless of topic and this leads to very strained interpretations of his actions. A typical example of this is the illustrated by other some conservative bloggers who would characterize the most tangential and general statements about “life” as being about abortion. A typical example of this kind of rhetorical reach is illustrated by the blogger and NCR columnist Simcha Fischer, here .  Actually the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, is protected from error only when teaching formally about things that concern faith and morals. Therefore as I noted above, there is no chance, none, zero that the Pope will declare abortion or same sex marriage “ok”.  If he did then Papal infallibility would be out the window since we would have Popes disagreeing with both each other (As John Paul II called abortion murder) and a Church council (Vatican II called it unspeakable crime.) If Church councils and Papal infallibility are errors than the Catholic Church would be shown to be a fraud since it defines itself as the Church instituted by Christ to transmit his word.  Still the pope can teach ineptly or inarticulately, he can choose priorities poorly, and make all kinds of poor judgments.  Even Blessed Pope John Paul II, whose papacy history will likely regard as transformative given its role in the eradication of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain, and who the Church will regard as a Saint, made some blunders. John Paul II’s support of the disgraced founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel is one of these, and kissing the Koran in a show of solidarity with Islam is perhaps another.  I think John Paul II on the whole was a truly great Pope, just as Lincoln was a great president, but both made errors in judgment and governance. The difference is only that the Pope cannot teach error; even “bad” Popes cannot do this. The Church survived the Borgia Popes who regardless of their alleged personal infamy did not say… “You know adultery and fornication really are not sins”. In fact it is a kind of evidence for Gods protection of the Church that such popes did not argue that sins were not sins. Therefore it is quite possible that Pope Francis might not elect to speak forcefully enough about the “life issues”. He might choose to speak more about duties to the poor, or faith in general, or God only knows.  He is a Jesuit after all and the Jesuits as an order although formally stating they are pro-life have not been huge defenders of the unborn. If the Pope does this, he may simply be guilty of poor judgment, or perhaps God working in his own way is using him in a manner that for us poor mortals is obscure.  I hope and pray he chooses otherwise, as I feel like Vatican II stated abortion is an “unspeakable crime”, and our attitude toward human life at its inception sets the tone our view of man in general, but it is a little early to say what will be the tenor of his Papacy.  John Paul II who wrote the definitive pro-life encyclical, Evangelium Vitae and is regarded as a pro-life hero, did not speak about abortion all that much in the first few months of his Papacy either.

A little more about how to interpret the Pope in our next post.

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