I’m not your typical liberal Catholic Francis-lover. But neither am I the typical conservative Catholic Francis-doubter.
Who is? Despite the tenor of many recent conversations, the Holy Father’s late summer cannonball into the U.S. sent ripples in more than two directions. There are more than two kinds of people in the Church, as in the world.
Take pro-lifers, for example. Some were catechized so thoroughly in Catholic school they simply cannot condone the destruction of a child of God. Others are fueled by disgust for what they can see only as the selfish choice to terminate a pregnancy. Some have experienced or witnessed the traumatic effects of abortion and want to spare women (and men) those particular sufferings. Some spend every free moment lobbying their representatives in government; others lean in a libertarian direction and wouldn’t overturn Roe v. Wade even if given a genie’s lamp.
Some pro-life advocates emphasize the gravitas and urgency of the abortion issue; others want the movement to broaden, to encompass refugees, death row inmates, undocumented residents, and members of other marginalized groups. Life is life, these latter pro-lifers argue. And, especially after his address to Congress, this group touts Pope Francis’ emphasis on the environment and other public concerns as evidence of their righteousness. He is “on their side,” according to the narrative. In a recent column for the New York Times, Ross Douthat writes that Francis “has given the religious left a new lease on life. He has offered encouragement to Catholic progressives by modestly soft-pedaling the issues dividing his church from today’s liberalism—abortion and same-sex marriage—while elevating other causes and concerns.”
Originally, people loved Francis for doing away with the ermine coat, but this is what landed him on the front page of Time magazine. He represents, or is trying to represent, the “seamless garment” approach to social justice. He is a Jesuit, after all. In an interview with America magazine, R. R. Reno claims that Francis is “not a synthetic, systematic thinker. Instead, he’s a poet of the faith.” Don’t get me wrong; I love Francis. His beautiful witness is fraught with challenges, though. Reno continues, “We may look back on this papacy as a kind of moment of clarity, of simple Gospel truths that renew in a powerful way. But I believe the next pope is going to have to sort through this kind of scattershot witness that he’s provided.”
Come what may in the next papacy, I think Francis is going to have to deal with the divisions he is fueling, especially in the realm of sexual ethics.
I am fully prepared to grant that individual pro-life advocates may be hypocritical, or narrow-minded, or politically incorrect, when they focus on abortion to the exclusion of other issues. I cannot admit, however, that since “life is life,” all issues seriously impacting human beings are equally urgent.
All issues concerning human life are not morally equivalent. Institutionalized, publicly funded practices that end millions of innocent lives each year are undeniably not interchangeable with institutionalized, publicly funded practices that end dozens of adult lives each year.
In his famous essay, “Christ and Nothing,” David Bentley Hart writes that in modern Western society, “we take as given the individual’s right not merely to obey or defy the moral law, but to choose which moral standards to adopt, which values to uphold, which fashion of piety to wear and with what accessories.”
Cafeteria Catholics are not likely to go away anytime soon. Some people care more about the environment, some more about the unborn, and they will live their lives accordingly. Given this reality, how can we foster increased respect and communication among these various camps?
First, we need to acknowledge that there are intelligent, respectable people with good intentions and decent arguments on both “sides.” It is ridiculous to argue that “conservative” Christians’ sexual ethics derive from their desire to wage war on women’s health. It is likewise ridiculous to assert that “liberal” Catholics want to push the green agenda primarily to draw attention away from the abortion issue because they’re all secretly radically pro-abortion. Let’s be fair.
Second, we need to fight the temptations to pick off the low-hanging fruit, because much of it is rotten.
The pro-life movement is not well served by vehement reactions to the recent Planned Parenthood video series. In his Public Discourse article, my childhood classmate, Carlos Flores of UC Santa Barbara, says the series “has reminded the public that Planned Parenthood is a repugnant enterprise that profits from the killing and commodification of human beings.” The pro-life public, maybe, who previously believed that the unborn are human beings with rights. How the videos reach the hearts and minds of conscientious, reasonable pro-choice advocates, I have never heard. Flores’ statement assumes that being uncomfortable with body parts being sold for luxury vehicles is enough to convert the nation. Again, let’s be fair. Some people may be moved, but they will likely be motivated by disgust, not by the love of Francis, the love of Christ.
We should follow Saint Augustine and Abraham Lincoln’s example. Augustine’s formula for evangelization, as summarized in Patrick Manning’s “Truth and Truthiness,” is as follows: “delight the heart, instruct the mind, persuade the will.”
Addressing a group of religious temperance activists in 1842, Abraham Lincoln said, “A drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” Later, he adopted very moderate stances towards the defeated secessionists for the same reason. He had learned that a house divided could not stand.
I would love almost nothing more than to see Roe overturned in my lifetime. But most important is that the individual members of the kingdom of God on earth stand united in these trying times, and remember what Francis is trying to teach us—that love is the prerequisite for all good fruit.
Becca Self is a senior living off-campus. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.