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Think Pope Francis is a Liberal? I Don’t Think You’re Paying Attention

Think Pope Francis is a Liberal I Dont Think Youre Paying Attention Alberto Pizzoli AFP

Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

John V. Gerardi - published on 04/21/14

Recommendation: don't get your theology from the secular media.

Following his election to the Papacy, Pope Francis quickly gained a reputation in the media as a kind of liberal superstar.  This was fueled, in large measure, by the “big interview” he granted to Jesuit publications, as well as by his famous “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?” quote following World Youth Day.  However, more and more, the Holy Father is speaking clearly and decisively on important social issues, and belying the simplistic caricature the press has drawn of him.  More and more, he is demonstrating a continuity between himself and Pope Benedict, and showing himself to be perfectly Catholic on the crucial moral questions of our time.

The perception that the Holy Father was somehow more progressive than his predecessor on questions like abortion or gay marriage hit full throttle during his interview with Jesuit publications, when he said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.  This is not possible.  I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that.  But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.  The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

At the time, most liberal media outlets believed the Holy Father was hereby “distancing” himself from the Church’s more controversial moral teachings.  They attempted to portray this as a break from Pope Benedict, who was painted as an inflexible archconservative in contrast to the more kindly Francis.  

And yet, more and more, Pope Francis keeps making headlines for opposing abortion.  On April 11, Pope Francis issued his strongest condemnation of abortion yet to a gathering of Italian pro-lifers.  In his address, he quoted the forceful words of the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et Spes: “Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.”  He praised the work of the Italian pro-life movement, urging them to continue their work in saving unborn children and upholding “the first and fundamental right of life.”

This is one of several public statements by the Holy Father in opposition to abortion since his election.  Another such statement was his address to a gathering of Catholic gynecologists last September, in which he declared, “In the fragile human being, each of us is invited to recognize the face of the Lord, who in his human flesh has experienced the indifference and the loneliness to which we often condemn the most impoverished, both in the countries of the developing world and in affluent societies.  Every child that is not born, but condemned unjustly to being aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord…”  [emphasis added]

Furthermore, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, widely heralded by the left for its criticisms of modern capitalism (criticisms, I will add, that were not too different from those offered by Benedict XVI and other Popes), the Holy Father gave another strikingly clear statement in opposition to abortion, declaring,


“Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.”

The Holy Father does not appear to talk about abortion every waking minute, but it is clear that he is not afraid to discuss this and other moral questions clearly and frankly.  How does one explain this in light of his commitment in the “big interview” to talk about controversial moral questions less often?

I think the answer can be found in an interview that Pope Benedict XVI gave back in 2006.  A German journalist asked Pope Benedict, following a visit to Spain, why he had not brought up gay marriage, abortion, or contraception at any point during his visit.  The Holy Father’s exchange with the journalist was quite revealing:

Question: A month ago you were in Valencia. Anyone who was listening carefully noticed how you never mentioned the words "homosexual marriage," you never spoke about abortion, or about contraception. Clearly your idea is to go around the world preaching the faith rather than as an "apostle of morality." What are your comments?

Benedict XVI: Obviously, yes. Actually I had only two opportunities to speak for 20 minutes, and when you have so little time you can’t say everything you want to say about "no." Firstly you have to know what we really want, right? Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer … I believe we need to see and reflect on the fact that it’s not a Catholic invention that man and woman are made for each other, so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know this. As far as abortion is concerned, it’s part of the fifth, not the sixth, commandment: "Thou shalt not kill!" We have to presume this is obvious and always stress that the human person begins in the mother’s womb and remains a human person until his or her last breath. … But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way.”

This approach sounds almost identical to Pope Francis’ viewpoint from the “big interview.”  Both are committed to a positive, holistic explanation of the truths of the Faith, and to present the Church’s moral teachings more often as a positive than a negative.  On the great moral clashes affecting our culture, it is clear that the “rift” between Francis and Benedict is more one of media perception than reality.

John V. Gerardiis a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School. He currently works as an associate for a law firm in Massachusetts. He writes on issues relating to law, politics, and ethics for online journals such as Aleteia, Ethika Politika, and his own personal blog, johnvgerardi.wordpress.com.

Tags:
CatholicismPope Francis
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