Cheer him for the teachings you like, and you risk seeing the truth in teachings you don't
Many people who like to criticize the Church seem to have been cheering Francis because they think he’s undermining those Catholic teachings they don’t like, and that’s actually all right. They’ll realize soon enough that the Catholic Church remains the Catholic Church. If they misunderstood Francis’ presentation of the gospel, they still heard the gospel, and as God said in Isaiah, his word will not return to him empty.
Let me explain. Journalist Jones doesn’t like the Church’s unyielding defense of unborn human life. He’s thrilled when the pope talks to Congress about the death penalty instead. “This pope’s got his priorities right,” Jones thinks. “Take that all you pro-lifers!”
You remember the quote. Francis declared that we must “protect and defend human life at every stage of development,” a clear reference to the unborn, but not only to the unborn. Then, when everyone expected a lecture on abortion, he spoke against the death penalty. A lot of people took that (wrongly) as a rejection of the Church’s strong defense of unborn human life. The very happy editors of the New York Times called it a “pivot.”
Had I written the speech, I would have used the word “abortion” because I know how the American press would react to its absence. They’d react the way the editors of the New York Times and Journalist Jones did. But I think I know what the pope was doing. Francis’ “pivot” is a writer’s technique, and one many writers and speakers use without thinking about it. It’s an instinctive move. The good writer or speaker knows that people tend to tune you out when they think they know what you’re going to say. The pope has seen his audience’s faces go slack and their eyes wander when he says the expected. And he was speaking to a tough audience, powerful people who (with some exceptions) come to hear the pope not as little children but as the scribes and Pharisees.
Most people think they know what the pope is going to say when he says “human life at every stage of development.” Pro-lifers get ready to applaud. Pro-choicers get ready to not applaud. It’s all by the book. Points are about to be scored, and for many sitting before the pope that’s the important thing.
So what does the speaker in that situation do? He gets the listener to pay attention by pointing him in one direction and then going in another. The speaker knows his listeners will be thinking “Oh yeah, that again,” so he changes directions without warning. The listener whose eyes were beginning to close will suddenly sit up and think, “Hey! What?” It will work on those who agree with you and those who don’t.
In fact, here the switch to the death penalty was the second move, the first one having been aimed at the other side. It’s as if he faked left to lose one defender and then faked right to lose the other.
Francis had been talking about immigrants and invoking the Golden Rule in a way political liberals would endorse. They would take him as scoring points for their side. Then he said: “The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
In other words: everything you’ve just agreed to requires you to protect the unborn, which you’re not doing, and for that failure you will be judged.
Francis’s reasons for opposing the death penalty have to do with the grace of God. As he said, “every life is sacred; every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity.” He’s not making a secular argument. His reasons reveal something about the love of the God who made human life sacred and endowed man, including the unborn, with inalienable dignity.
Some people will see this, and see it because Francis “pivoted,” twice, and one of those pivots surprised them. They may realize that on a point on which they agree with the Catholic Church, the Church offers more, and that more has to do not only with fairness and justice, but with human dignity given by God, and with the forgiveness of sins, including theirs.
God can take the littlest spark and blow it into a fire. He asks only for an opening. When the opening is given, a great critic of the Church who cheers the pope for his position on the death penalty may eventually wind up inside the Church, simply because Francis knew better than to say what everyone expected him to say.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.
See ethikapolitika.org today for more on Pope Francis — and Bernie Sanders — from David Mills.