Pope Francis: Some Clarifications

There were many feel-good moments during the pope’s visit to New York City yesterday. He stopped in the morning to pray with representatives of other religions at the 9/11 memorial on the site of the World Trade Towers. And he spent a fun hour in the afternoon with schoolchildren at an East Harlem “partnership school” (where, if he was wondering whether we have people in America who speak Spanish, he learned that they’re here, and in abundance). It was friendship across religions at Wall Street, and engagement across cultures and races in Harlem.

But popes don’t travel for good feelings alone – or mere friendship – though Francis has received a tremendous welcome in Washington and New York. He came, as he’s mentioned both in Cuba and here in America, to talk about the culture of life and the defense of the family at a time when we have reached a crisis of civilization. The World Meeting on Families in Philadelphia, let’s recall was the reason for his decision to come to America. He arrives in Philadelphia this morning. We may hope that he will speak here with as much eloquence and enthusiasm about families as he did in his final day at Santiago de Cuba.

That message, as several commentators have observed, however, seems to get lost in his enthusiasm for other matters, most notably: the environment, immigration, inequality, and what has to be called a rather gooey appeal to kindness and brotherhood without much real content. Sometimes, as in his 9/11 remarks, this universal brotherhood seems almost to eclipse the pope’s Catholicism and to take on greater importance in his words than commitment to any particular faith. That’s a common stance in the modern world, but quite odd coming from what the Congressional sergeant-at-arms the other day called the Pope of the Holy See.

But let’s bracket all that for the moment, and look precisely at the most substantial presentation he’s made to date: his speech at the U.N. General Assembly yesterday. More heads of state were present, from all parts of the globe (or at least that’s what we’ve been told), than at any other U.N. meeting in history. If we filter out the other papal enthusiasms – climate change in particular seeming to be a subject he’s chosen to help unite a variety of concerns – is there anything that Catholics nervous about the pope’s vagaries might look to in his U.N. address that would reduce their anxiety?

There’s actually a great deal. But to be frank, it has to be sifted out from much else. It’s not that current environmental concerns don’t have a strong Catholic character. In Genesis, we read that on the Sixth Day:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

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So dominion and stewardship go back to the very beginning. It’s the current environmental ideology – most conspicuously at the U.N. and among the international elite – with its population control, abortion fetish, gay reign of Terror, and Will to Power that is not in line with Genesis. It would have been good if Francis had made clearer how real believers feel threatened by that unnatural post-modernism.

Even so, he was not exactly AWOL on this front, though he soft-pedaled the Catholic differences, as has become his all too predictable habit. Still, we had things like this:

the defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman (cf. Laudato Si’, 155), and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions (cf. ibid., 123, 136).

Note that the pope said that the defense of the environment demands the specifics about human nature – and man and woman in Genesis. Why he is unable to communicate this part of his overall vision to the secular world remains a mystery.

Perhaps it’s because he tends to shy away from explicit language when it might put him sideways with the international elite. Witness another passage from his speech:

while regretting to have to do so, I must renew my repeated appeals regarding to the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other African countries, where Christians, together with other cultural or ethnic groups, and even members of the majority religion who have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly, have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement.

Good overall. But regretting? Does he have to apologize for simply telling the truth about the most murderous element in world affairs today: Muslim fundamentalism? Would it have gone beyond the bounds of charity to say not “even members of the majority religion” but “Muslims”? To translate this from the papalese: as we know, even Muslim believers die in great numbers because of Isis and Al Quaeda – and need to be seen as victims themselves of murderous sectarianism.

It’s not hard to formulate the pope’s meaning. Our president seems unable to say Islamic terrorism, but surely the successor of Peter can speak the truth, in season and out.

The Holy Father also understands that modern states threaten essential civil society institutions: at the U.N. he defended the rights of parents to educate their children in the way they see fit, the role of religion in educating not only about practical matters but spiritual truths. And he asserted, if in a bit of an unfocused way, that individualism and statism are twin evils that we must combat. He even spoke of a kind of neocolonialism – efforts by the U.N. and developed nations – to force developing nations to adopt things in contradiction to their cultures, religions, and popular traditions.

He meant it, too. But it’s difficult to square this awareness of threat with his boundless praise for the U.N system. Would it have been too impolite to say the hard words needed to make this clearer: an international elite is seeking to impose postmodern imperialism – on abortion, homosexuality, “gender identity” – in many parts of the world that resent it bitterly? Especially since international aid is conditioned on acceptance of these things.

Pope Francis mystifies Catholics because they see him being applauded by non-Catholics and outright anti-Catholics. There’s a reason for this: it’s not merely a failure of rhetoric, but tentativeness about speaking real truths. We see the consequences in the way that his public stances have emboldened people who have no good will towards the pope – or his Church – to think that he’s on their side. And it’s worth thinking about how, exactly, they get that idea.