The Pope’s Pro-Life Declaration “in Context”

Do you remember all the chatter about the Pope’s first  “hundred days”? There was a lot of talk, then as now, about the Pope’s huge pastoral effectiveness; and at the same time a certain amount of discontent in some quarters about his apparent reluctance to speak out on particular issues, almost amounting, some said, to a conscious policy to avoid taking on the secular world.

John Allen was all in favor of this policy. “Perhaps the key to resolving the conflict [i.e. that between those who liked Francis’s pastoral effectiveness and those who thought the pope’s main job is to speak out on the issues] boils down to this: Francis seems determined to function as a pastor, at least as much as a primate or politician, so the right model may not be the one used to assess chief executives. Rather, it’s how Catholics tend to think about a parish priest. Their basic question usually isn’t what his policy positions are, but whether he inspires. Perhaps the root lesson of Francis’s first 100 days is that when it comes to spiritual leadership, sometimes style really is substance.”

My own comment on that at the time was that spiritual leadership, like any other kind of leadership, sometimes has to include firm guidance about what one should believe and what one should not do. Sandro Magister thought there were dangers in the Pope’s popularity precisely because, he thought, it was causally connected with his failure as a matter of policy to speak out on the issues: this he, believed, “explains better than any other [reason] the benevolence of worldwide secular public opinion toward Francis… — his silence in the political camp, especially on the minefield that sees the greatest opposition between the Catholic Church and the dominant culture. Abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage are terms that the preaching of Francis has so far deliberately avoided pronouncing.”

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I now quote with some relief what I then went on to say, because it has now been borne out. To Magister’s comment about the pope’s “deliberate” refusal to speak on these issues I commented “But that can’t continue indefinitely, can it? And I’m sure it won’t. Pope Francis is taking his time to ease himself into his papal functions, and I’m sure he’s wise to do so. It’s early days. I’m personally of a more impatient temperament, I want to see things happening. Of course, it’s pleasant to see our Pope so universally popular. But in the end, the honeymoon with the secular world will have to come to an end. It’s all about what Catholicism actually is, about its real vocation in the world. We are all of us (and above all the pope, whoever he is), in Pope John Paul II’s indispensable words, ‘signs of contradiction’—for if we are not, we are nothing.”

Well, now the Pope HAS spoken out, has indeed been a sign of contradiction: and on the most contentious secular question of all, abortion: so he wasn’t avoiding the big moral issues as a matter of conscious policy. That was what some thought he was still doing, in a long interview published September 19, which seemed to confirm Sandro Magister’s analysis. In case you missed reports of the interview, here’s part of it:

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.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. 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.

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. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

It really does sound from this, doesn’t it, as though accusations that he’s been evasive over issues like abortion, gay marriage and artificial contraception, as a matter of settled policy, were justified? I was about to write a blog saying that we all got it about the gospel being radiant, but that had moral consequences too, and these needed spelling out in terms of the issues, when just in time to save me from making a fool of myself he did indeed speak out on the most anger-fueled issue of all, abortion: and furthermore, he did it without sounding (dread word) “judgmental.” “We have to talk about [certain issues] in a context,” the Pope says in the interview I have just quoted: now he has found the right context for one of the most important of them, in a speech to a conference of gynecologists: he has made a major declaration on abortion and human life.  The timing was exactly right: and the pastoral touch absolutely pitch-perfect. The fact is, that Francis’s incumbency has sometimes seemed confusing; and it’s sometimes been a bumpy ride. But it turns out, after all, that Pope Francis actually does know what he is doing: it simply has now to be said that this pontificate is proving to be a class act. I quote an extract from Edward Pentin’s translation (you should read it all) of the full text in the National Catholic Register  (I think the only place so far to have published an English text in full):

A widespread utilitarian mentality, the “culture of waste,” which now enslaves the hearts and minds of many, has a very high cost: it requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker. Our response to this mentality is a categorical and unhesitant “yes” to life. “The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental—the condition of all the others.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion, November 18, 1974, 11). Things have a price and are sold, but people have a dignity, worth more than things and they don’t have a price. Many times we find ourselves in situations where we see that which costs less is life. Because of this, attention to human life in its totality has become a real priority of the Magisterium of the Church in recent years, particularly to the most defenseless, that is, the disabled, the sick, the unborn child, the child, the elderly who are life’s most defenseless.

Each one of us is invited to recognize in the fragile human being the face of the Lord, who, in his human flesh, experienced the indifference and loneliness to which we often condemn the poorest, either in the developing nations, or in the developed societies. Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world. And also each old person—I spoke of the child, let us also speak of the elderly, another point!—each old person, even if infirm or at the end of his days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded, as the “culture of waste” proposes! They cannot be discarded!

That is moving for several reasons, not least that it is so passionately felt. It is moving, most importantly of all, because its origins are so palpably in a personal faith which is essentially joyful and overflowing with the love of God: the faith which Pope Francis has for the last six months so convincingly conveyed to so many.

He ends (and so shall I) with the following strongly felt words:

Do not ever neglect to pray to the Lord and the Virgin Mary for having the strength to do your job well and bear witness with courage—with courage! Today it takes courage—the courageous witness of the “Gospel of life”!

Editor’s note: This column first appeared September 25, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: Andrew Medichini / AP)


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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