I’d been on the road for much of the past week and hadn’t been very carefully following the news. But I woke yesterday to the heartening news that Pope Francis had strongly condemned selective abortion and the various attempts to redefine marriage as something other than a life-long commitment between one man and one woman.
Even more, he did so off-the-cuff, departing from the text he had prepared to deliver to the Forum delle famiglie, an Italian family association. It’s usually been on just such occasions – when he speaks spontaneously and “from the heart” – that he’s delivered the most troubling remarks of his pontificate. It was largely because of those remarks and his early criticism of Catholics who are constantly “insisting” and “obsessing” on life issues and marriage that he alienated and, sad to say, even lost the confidence of many active Catholics – even before the ambiguities and implied infidelities of Amoris laetitia.
He has, of course, condemned abortion and gay “marriage” on multiple occasions. But the world, Catholic and not, seemed to sense that his heart wasn’t in it. The coverage of his recent remarks in the main secular outlets was very brief, usually just reproducing parts of an Associated Press story – quite a contrast to the extensive coverage when he seemed to be moving towards modern culture.
The Wall Street Journal made the obvious observation  that the latest remarks were “unusually strong for a pope who has generally played down medical and sexual ethics and taken a strikingly conciliatory approach to gay people.”
The question arises: why now? There was the humiliating spectacle last month of the Irish overwhelmingly voting to rescind a law prohibiting abortion, after voting for gay marriage in 2015. Perhaps more to the point, just this past week, legislators in Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies approved a bill allowing abortion up to fourteen weeks by just four votes.
Pope Francis was silent about Ireland – a very odd reticence by a man who has no qualms about weighing in on public issues like climate change, fossil-fuel exploration, immigration, Middle Eastern politics, Buddhist persecution of Muslim Rohingyas, international economics – the list goes on. All these have moral dimensions, of course, though it’s hard to see what expertise or insight the Vatican brings to such complex situations. By contrast, allowing abortion in Ireland means the direct and immediate killing of thousands of innocents.
The pope was (perhaps) not entirely silent on this question in his native country. Back in March, he sent a letter to Argentina . It was only five paragraphs in length and mostly a thank-you for a letter he had received congratulating him on completing five years as pope. It was quite mild and, even when he turned to the question of abortion, mixed together multiple issues:
I ask you all that you be channels of the Good and the Beautiful, that you lend your support in defense of life and justice, so that peace and fraternity may appear, so that you make the world better by your work, so that you care for the weakest, and share with full hands all that God has given you.
You would have to be an Argentinean to know for certain whether this was read as strong opposition to impending abortion changes, or whether this was the right tone given the way particular nations respond to papal comments – but the official Vatican News account  didn’t even mention abortion.
Perhaps that was one reason why the latest comment was not at all subtle, more in keeping with what many Catholics expect from the occupant of the Chair of Peter. Pope Francis went to the modern touchstone of evil, comparing “selective” abortions (usually because of fetal abnormalities, sex, etc.) with the Nazi eugenics program of race purification. This time, he says, we are doing the very same thing “with white gloves,” as if it’s just a medical procedure. (If you read Italian, there’s a transcript of the spontaneous remarks as well as the prepared speech here .)
Though it comes too late for the millions of innocents who will die now in Ireland and Argentina, still, it’s good that Francis gave this full-throated affirmation. We might add it wasn’t only the Nazis who practiced eugenics in the named of racism: Margaret Sanger, hero to so many American abortion advocates and founder of Planned Parenthood, took the same view – though maybe she wore lace-gloves.
It’s interesting that Francis was also so vocal about marriage. The off-the-cuff remarks refer a lot to Amoris laetitia, the very text that many of us feel both seeks answers to current troubles with marriages and – despite the announced intention of pursuing a path of mercy and discernment – weakens, perhaps implicitly contradicts, Our Lord’s strong words about the indissolubility of marriage. And will likely lead to even further confusion and breakdown.
Still, there are very good things in the recent remarks: “Life in a family: it’s a sacrifice, but a beautiful sacrifice. Love is like making pasta: you do it every day. Love within matrimony is a challenge, for the man and the woman. What’s the biggest challenge for a man? To make his wife more a woman. More woman. That she grow as a woman. And what is the challenge for a woman? To make her husband more of a man. And thus they go forward, both of them.”
This insistence on growing into being men and women will not win the Holy Father any awards at the U.N., or the E.U., or the various gender activist groups that have half-welcomed the tone he adopted from the first days of his papacy. There are other things in these off-the-cuff remarks less straightforward. But he’s affirmed “male and female He created them” and supported traditional marriage.
Where would the Church be now if only, as pope, he had stayed close to these sorts of peasant insights and not been drawn into the swamps of modernist German theology?
*Image: Pope Francis in the Clementine Hall on Saturday receiving and addressing the members and children of the Forum delle famiglie [Photo credit: ANSA]