Francis, the Writer Unbound

We have recently marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a composition that some us can still summon from memory, and which we cannot speak again without being moved by it again.

The same week brought Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. The Holy Father sounded the cymbals and trumpets of joy in the Gospel – he invoked Isaiah: “Shout aloud and sing for joy!” John Paul II had prepared the way; Benedict proclaimed the need to get on more seriously with a new evangelization; and it appears that Francis, with his passion for doing, is bringing that project to a new plane of movement and urgency.

But the Holy Father welcomes candid engagement, and so I am sure he would not take offense if we notice that, in his extended exhortation, running over 200 pages, he did not exactly show the same powers of compression that Lincoln showed at Gettysburg. Nor, regrettably, the same clarity of teaching. Of course, he sought to cover a wider range of subjects. And along the way he had some ringing lines, as on moral relativism, including the relativism to which even pastoral workers may be prone as they recede from casting moral judgments.  

But the melancholy point is that Francis showed his powers of compression mainly on those matters at the core of the “culture war” that has been tearing apart our politics and our lives. Robert George was grateful to see the pope sound the case again for orthodoxy on marriage, but in a papal document composed of 286 numbered paragraphs, “marriage” was given no more than one paragraph. And it was a paragraph notably holding back from explaining the moral argument that has not been sounded in the courts, or heard more than rarely in the pulpits.

On abortion, the pope aptly warned that the “defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.” For one cannot treat flippantly the standing of this “human person” in the womb without diminishing in the same way the standing, and rights, of any other human person.

But then the Holy Father quickly turns to note that: 

it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?

Nothing the Pope says here offers permission for aborting the child in these circumstances. But given what he has famously said about holding back from casting judgments, will we be surprised if people read his silence here as offering a tacit forgiveness in advance for the abortions that would dissolve the problem?   

Francis surely knows that these cases have caused the most strain in explaining the position of the Church. This is the place where teaching is needed. He might have called back his earlier words and said, “I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.”  But he chose to remain silent on the matter, even after he had raised the question.  

We have been told this year that the pope’s positions are far more “nuanced” than they appear in the interviews, relayed through reporters. But here he wrote in his own name at length, where he had ample room to be as nuanced as the subject required. What he produced was a hefty document, regrettably wanting in nuance on these matters of marriage and abortion.

In some quarters, what has also caused the real gnashing of teeth in response to Evangelii Gaudium has been the sections on economics. And yet the pope was careful to note that “the option for the poor” is “primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, or philosophical one.” His case for the poor is for truly engaging with them, for they are anchored in the world with things to tell us. They may be closer, he thought, to “the suffering of Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.”

And yet he swept past his own cautions as he inveighed against the “autonomy of markets” and the “invisible hand” – as though the grand exponents of a free economy had ever detached the “market” from the moral restraints of the law. The law would ever be in place to mark off the limits to what a decent people could demand and supply in the market.

Francis celebrates the capacity of the gospels to make all things new. But what he sees now with a fresh charm, is the romance of pursuing a “better distribution of income,” shorn of its moral fallacies, and the mischief it licenses. He runs the risk then of bringing back the apostles of liberation theology with their gospel of redistribution. That is not the Second Coming for which we have been waiting.

A decent society will tax itself to protect the destitute and disabled from perishing. That is quite different from claiming to know what the “rightful income” should be of a doctor, a ballplayer, or a plumber.

I wish I could enter a plea to the Holy Father that the next time he gathers with advisers to wade into the moral domain of political economy, he might also call 911 for Michael Novak. His counsel would be, at once, savvy and reverential.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.