The U.S. media is abuzz with constant coverage of Pope Francis’ first visit to the U.S. I have stuck to news coverage from EWTN and other Catholic sites in order to avoid misinterpretations and agenda driven reporting. I encourage all of you to do the same. I have watched all of Pope Francis’ large public speeches to include the White House, Congress, and the UN this morning. I have learned a lot about Pope Francis, his style, and his approach. It is an approach that many people will miss or mislabel because he, like his predecessors, does not fit into any political mold. Far too many people, including Catholics, keep trying to fit Francis into the labels of “liberal” or “conservative”. What this does is reveal a profound confusion about the nature of the Church in politics, as well as limit the Church’s social teaching. Certain issues might take precedence in a hierarchy of morality, but things like abortion are intrinsically united to a holistic understanding of the dignity of the human person.
There is little doubt that Pope Francis is a defender of Church doctrine on the dignity of every person from conception to natural death. He has said it multiple times on his visit to the US. What many people forget is that within the understanding that abortion is murder and grave evil, comes an understanding that things like poverty are unacceptable. We Americans do not know a level of poverty that Pope Francis has witnessed. We do not have barrios and children living in trash heaps. While our poor may live in “ghettos”, they have more tools at their disposal than a child living in the bush in Africa. That type of poverty, as does poverty in the West, both material and spiritual, is soul crushing. It robs those individuals of their dignity in a most profound way.
So what exactly is Pope Francis trying to say? He is telling us that raping the planet is directly tied to poverty and vice versa. How we live on this planet, how we treat this planet, is connected to what it means to be human. He is also saying that when we throw away certain groups of people we harm the human family and the planet. What he is saying is nothing new. It started in Genesis when God gave dominion, which is really stewardship, over the earth. Stewardship implies a finite and responsible ownership. God is entrusting us to treat the natural world with respect, that includes making sure that every person has food, water, and a roof over their head. It is impossible for all people to have what they need if the powerful exploit the world’s resources, land, and people.
In the West, China, and many other countries, abortion is a serious and grave offense that occurs daily. There is little doubt just how damaging abortion has been to humanity. Over 1 billion unborn babies and counting have been murdered worldwide. Most people, unless they are willfully ignorant, know what the Catholic Church teaches on abortion, especially in the West. We are constantly painted as backwards and enemies of women in the media. Instead, Pope Francis is calling attention to an issue that many of us in the West forget and one that is deeply connected with the Culture of Life, and that is extreme poverty.
First World nations are forcing Third World countries to submit to overpopulation control policies that include abortion, sterilization, and contraception. Many women have been sterilized without their knowledge. These countries are at the mercy of the developed world. Their dignity has been stripped and they no longer have a say. They lack freedom. How do they attain freedom? By being given the chance to develop and to share, not submit, in the goods of this world we have been given. They must be given the right to share and lead their own destiny. That is a paraphrase of what Pope Francis said this morning at the UN.
Pope Francis has the Culture of Life on his lips at all times. It may not be in the direct manner that many people would like, but many people are missing out on his message because they are too busy being upset about their own pet projects. This man has experiences that you and I in the West cannot fathom unless we have traveled to extremely poor nations. My husband works with people in Argentina and their government is once again nearing a coup and the poverty there is unbelievable. Many people there still have dirt floors in their homes.
Pope Francis’ address this morning to the UN General Assembly was also very telling in how he views his Pontificate. He explained that he sees his mission as a continuation of his predecessors. That is the Catholic understanding of the papacy. He is in full agreement with all of those things said about marriage, abortion, etc. In fact, he gave a long quote from Pope Paul VI’s address to the UN that included things like protection of the unborn. Pope Francis is merely bringing to light those issues that have lacked serious emphasis as of late. Abortion, marriage, have been a battle for decades. The Church has railed against these grave sins repeatedly. We know those things are gravely evil. We must continue to fight against abortion and the redefinition of marriage. But, how much have we considered to poor?
Whether we want to admit it or not, the US is a throwaway culture. We waste things in a serious manner. I see it in myself when I waste food or don’t reuse an item that I could use again out of laziness. Pope Francis is from a culture that values what has been given. They reuse items like containers, clothes, blankets, etc. Things that can be re-purposed are used to help the community. That is very foreign to Americans. We buy it, use it, and toss it in the trash. We go to restaurants that give us portions of meals that could serve a family of 5. It is not that these things are necessarily evil, rather, Pope Francis wants us to consider how we do things and to remember the poor in our choices whether they be in policy, our daily lives, or as nations united on this one world we have been given.
What I really have begun to understand about Pope Francis is that he is above all a pastor. He is not a scholar like his predecessors. He is a man of action. He is a man who feels the cry of the poor deeply. He does not like or engage in confrontation, he just does. The most powerful statements of his visit were not in words, they were in actions. After President Obama appalled the Catholic world with his comments on religious freedom to our Pope and Pope Francis did not respond in anger. Instead he went and ministered to the persecuted Little Sisters of the Poor. This is more profound than any words he could have uttered. He then turned down lunch with top politicians in order to eat lunch with 500 homeless people in DC.
The time for words is over. The time for action is now. It is not that we can’t engage in discourse. That is an important part of conversing and evangelizing, but Pope Francis is calling us to live the Christian life. He is telling us to stop fighting and to go out to those in need. If we want hearts and minds to change, then we must serve. Yelling and ranting at hardened hearts will accomplish nothing. Many of these people who have been in attendance at his speeches have souls that are dying or dead. They need a real encounter with the Risen Lord. In our service to those who suffer and who need, we are the face of Christ. That is what Pope Francis is for the world. He is the face of Christ. That is what the Church is. She is the sign of Christ to the world through the unity of her 1 billion followers gathered at the Eucharistic table.
It is time for us to stop trying to put Pope Francis in a box of our own design and desires. No Pope is “liberal” or “conservative”, except maybe in certain theological schools, but your average Catholic has no idea what that even means. To be Catholic is to rise above human limitations, including those in politics. The social teaching of the Church is wide and deep because it incorporates the fullness of the human person. It is not just abortion or economics or marriage. It is all of those things rightly understood through Revelation and Tradition. When we pigeon-hole Church teaching, we limit ourselves and we forget some of the most vulnerable around us. Just because Pope Francis talks more about the poor than abortion does not mean that he is not concerned. It means that he is trying to draw attention to another serious matter that many of us have forgotten in our tunnel vision. He is not claiming that abortion is not the supreme human rights violation of our day. He knows that many of us are working on the ground to put an end to this atrocity, but we live in a world that is ravaged by war and poverty. Europe is about to experience a humanitarian crisis like it has not seen in years, if ever.
Church doctrine does not change. That is why hanging on the Pope’s every word can be counter-productive if it leads a person to obsess or moan every time the Pope says something. If you know the Church’s teaching then go live it. In those moments of confusion and despair, turn to Jesus Christ. Go to Mass or Eucharistic Adoration. Don’t rely on Pope Francis for your faith. That leads to papal idolatry. Rely on Christ, Scripture, and Tradition. If you trust and rely on those then you will have the peace in knowing that the Holy Spirit has everything well in hand, even if the Pope misspeaks or is misinterpreted. Our world is suffering greatly. It is time for us to go out as disciples, instead of sitting around bickering in our homes on the Internet. God bless.