If 2014 was the year of media misunderstandings of the pope, 2015 was the year Catholics got him wrong.
It should have been a defining year for Pope Francis as a defender of Catholic doctrine. It was the year of many papal pro-life statements, the year the pope denounced “gender theory” within a week of Caitlyn Jenner’s debut, the year of a strong synod document on the family.
But it seemed that each season brought a new occasion for Catholics to feel deep suspicions about the pope.
It began with winter and rabbits
On the plane back from his Jan. 15–19 trip to the Philippines, Pope Francis told a reporter: “Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.”
Of course he was right — responsible parenting is absolutely essential. But the phraseology left many Catholics feeling like the pope had just slighted large families.
The pope clarified his remarks a few days later. Speaking to a meeting with large families, he praised large families in several different ways.
So what was the “rabbits” comment all about?
He was answering a journalist’s objection to his outspoken comments against contraception in the Philippines — comments that led one American writer to proclaim: “The news that Pope Francis has strongly defended the Church’s ban on artificial birth control left me, in a word, devastated. I had hoped for so much more from this man.”
Pope Francis’ rabbits message was not intended for those who embrace Church teaching but those who reject it. He wasn’t saying, “Too many people are having too many babies,” he was saying “Too many people dismiss the Church’s teaching on contraception as impractical.” And that needed to be said.
With spring came global warming
The May 24 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, starts out being very careful to say that “a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned” to global warming (No. 23). But then it seems to throw caution to the wind in its denunciation of “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries” (No. 51).
Catholics rightly wondered: Wait — isn’t it a bad idea for the Church to make pronouncements on scientific issues? That hasn’t worked out well for us in the past.
Maybe so, but Pope Francis’ urgency about global warming is nothing new. Both of his predecessors issued similar warnings. And it is important to note that he left a significant escape hatch for the Church in the encyclical, saying: “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts while respecting divergent views” (No. 6).
I have always been a global warming agnostic: There are people who are smarter than me on both sides of the question. If the threat is real, then thank God the popes are raising the alarm. If it isn’t, Laudato Si’s central point about the West’s self-destructive hyper-consumerism is nonetheless a point well taken.
Then came summer and South America