Ever since Pope Francis said “Who am I to judge?” when asked about the possibility that some gay clerics may be working in the Vatican, many have assumed that Francis was effecting a major sea change in Vatican politics and maybe even in doctrine.
A recent Politico piece suggested that the Pope was responsible for reining in the US bishops in the recent mid-term elections, and that his softening influence would continue to diminish their presence in the American “culture wars” through the general elections in 2016.
The essay cites an interview Francis gave last September in which he warned against the Church talking exclusively about “issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.”
“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,” he said.
It would be a mistake to think this means that Francis doesn’t consider these issues important, or that he disagrees with traditional Church teaching on any of them. He reasons, rather, that simply insisting on doctrine to the exclusion of pastoral outreach won’t bring more people into a relationship with God. Since the beginning of his papacy, Francis has chosen to emphasize the mercy of God, reaching out to people who feel marginalized because of mistakes they have made. He has insisted that we are all sinners, and that we all have need of the mercy that God generously and abundantly offers.
After the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which clarified Church teaching on myriad issues after the confusion following the Second Vatican Council, Francis clearly felt that doctrinal questions no longer needed the full spotlight, and that other core messages from the gospel could assume center stage.
What does this mean for the 2016 elections? Will Francis’ approach lessen the US bishops’ resolve to stand firm on issues that should concern morally conscientious voters? Not likely.
The Pope has himself been an outspoken critic of some of the very issues that he has been accused of neglecting. In recent months he has repeatedly denounced the “false compassion” of abortion and euthanasia, calling them “a sin against God the Creator.” In short, “it is not lawful to destroy a human life to solve a problem,” he has said.
Francis has warned of a modern-day “throwaway culture,” saying that the victims of such a culture are “the weakest and most fragile human beings — the unborn, the poorest people, sick elderly people, gravely disabled people… who are in danger of being ‘thrown out’, expelled from a machine that must be efficient at all costs.”
Regarding gay marriage, the Pope recently reiterated the right of every child “to grow up in a family with a father and a mother,” and that man-woman complementarity “is the basis of marriage and the family.”
Moreover, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Bergoglio was himself something of a culture warrior. A case in point was a 2010 bill proposing gay marriage in Argentina, of which the archbishop was a vocal opponent.
In June 2010, Bergoglio wrote that the proposed law that would recognize same-sex marriage would “gravely wound the family.” He went on to say that “what is at stake here is the identity and the survival of the family: father, mother and children. What is at stake is the life of so many children who will be discriminated against from the get-go, by depriving them of the human development that God intended through a mother and a father.”
But Bergoglio was just warming up.
He said that behind this project was “the envy of the devil, by which sin entered into the world, as he cunningly seeks to destroy the image of God: man and woman.”
“Let’s not be naïve,” the Archbishop wrote, “this is not just a political struggle; it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not merely a bill–this is only the instrument–but a move by the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
We need the help of the Holy Spirit, Bergoglio said, “to defend us from the enchantment of so many sophisms used to justify this bill, which confuse and mislead even people of good will.”
These are hardly the words of a cultural pacifist. They are not the words of a man who thinks bishops should be passive bystanders to social, cultural and political change.
As Pope and universal shepherd of Christians, Francis is emphasizing a creative approach to pastoral work and an extensive outreach to bring back lost sheep who no longer feel they have a place in the Church. At the same time, he knows that there are battles to be fought, and this Pope is no stranger to combat.
Thomas D. Williams can be followed on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome