In a wide-ranging interview released last Thursday, Pope Francis explained why he has not spoken much on the issue of abortion and challenged those who seem to ignore other social and moral issues and seemingly want to turn opposition to abortion into a litmus test that determines one’s inclusion in the Catholic community. The pro-abortion rights group NARAL quickly thanked Pope Francis for his comments on their Facebook page and many pro-choice Americans were giddy, hopeful that the pope’s comments might usher in a change in the church’s position.
These hopes were quickly dashed on Friday, as Pope Francis strongly affirmed his belief in the sanctity of life, arguing that it was the ‘throwaway culture’ that preys on the weak and vulnerable which leads to the elimination of human beings, including unborn children. Were these statements to soothe conservatives who might have been disturbed by the pope’s statements the day before?
No. His defense of the sanctity of life and the worth of all people, including unborn children, align with his past statements on abortion and match one of the central themes of his papacy: the importance of human dignity and protecting the vulnerable.
In fact, this commitment to all life is partly responsible for his call to rebalance church teaching, to move it away from a legalistic focus on a handful of moral teachings, including abortion, at the cost of proclaiming the Gospel and welcoming new faces into the church.
Pope Francis warns, “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” This new balance does not entail an abandonment of church teaching on abortion, but a full embrace of the moral and social teachings of the Church, and a recognition that Catholicism is about more than a political agenda or even its understanding of justice in the contemporary world.
The elevation of abortion, gay marriage, religious liberty, and contraception into a special category of faith-defining, preeminently important teachings is a distortion of church teaching, undermining the unity of Catholic teaching. This is why Pope Francis has said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” and when “we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”
The prevalence of abortion is an enormous tragedy and a grave injustice. But other grave injustices and threats to human life also exist, from hunger and starvation to unjust violence to inadequate healthcare. Pope Francis has consciously tried to elevate other matters of grave concern to rebalance church teaching and show its fullness and cohesion.
Second, Pope Francis seems to be making the point that Christ did not come to promote a political agenda. Pope Francis warns against the faith becoming an “ideology among ideologies.” If the church is defined by its political agenda, it will inevitably be divisive and distort the true mission of the church.
An excessive focus on politics and waging a culture war will lead many to define church teaching using secular political labels like liberal and conservative that do not reflect the church’s understanding of human dignity and the common good. Those who identify with the political left or right will feel alienated when their views clash with the church’s social and moral teachings, instead of challenged by the difficult task of ensuring that their political positions reflect Gospel values. Meanwhile, those who share the church’s positions may feel triumphant and look to drive others from the church, instead of drawing them into it.
The core teachings of the Catholic faith revolve around the church’s understanding of God, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel. Pope Francis makes this clear when he states that “the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.” Pope Francis notes, “Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.”
This focus on the actions, life, love, and redeeming power of Christ and the God that Christ helps us to more fully comprehend is the true foundation of Catholicism, and these teachings should be seen as the core, central teachings of the church. As Pope Francis stated, “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.” To treat opposition to contraception as though it were as important as a belief in the resurrection of Christ is a deeply flawed approach.
Pope Francis warns that placing particular moral teachings above these foundational teachings threatens to disconnect support for these moral teachings from the Gospel, which should serve as the inspiration. Pope Francis explains how these should be properly ordered, saying, “The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
Finally, a disproportionate focus on particular moral teachings threatens a descent into legalism, the mentality that Jesus spent so much time challenging and condemning. Legalism and mercy cannot be fully reconciled. This is why Pope Francis stated, “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” Pastors are called to operate differently. As Pope Francis said, “The ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
For pro-life activists, was Pope Francis’ interview disappointing? Not for those of us who believe the protection of life requires more than opposition to legal abortion. To really stand for life means opposing the direct and indirect threats to life posed by inadequate healthcare, poverty, mass atrocities, euthanasia, lack of access to clean water, and countless other injustices, in addition to abortion. And opposition to abortion itself means providing support to families, pregnant women, and children, not simply supporting laws that restrict access to abortion. Pro-life efforts are strengthened by a more balanced approach from an ally who supports human life and dignity.
Catholic opposition to abortion is at the core of its moral and social teaching. This will not change. The fundamental worth and dignity of each and every person is the touchstone of this teaching. But Pope Francis recognizes that Catholicism should not be defined by its moral and social teachings alone. Only by focusing on the Gospel, the love of God, and the redeeming sacrifice of Christ can the Catholic Church renew its commitment to its central tenets and show the world the true face of Christianity.
Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, an online journal by millennial Catholics, and a fellow at Democrats for Life of America.