Certain ritual encounters have now become standard operating procedure for a new pope. In each of these meetings, Pope Francis has done something surprising, in his low-key, gentle way.
In a Mass celebrated in the Sistine Chapel with the College of Cardinals on the day after his election, the Holy Father raised cautions about clerical ambition—a yellow warning flag that reflected the concerns he had expressed during the papal interregnum about “spiritual worldliness” corrupting the Church, and an unmistakable call to a more energetically evangelical exercise of the priesthood and the episcopate.
In a meeting a few days later with thousands of journalists, the pope reminded his rapt audience that the Church cannot be understood, or reported on, as if it were simply another political agency; the Church has to be understood from the inside out, as “the holy People of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ,” without whom “Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist.” And then came a subtle but unmistakable challenge: Journalism, Francis insisted, “demands a particular concern for what is true, good and beautiful.” It can’t be all buzz all the time, and if journalism vulgarizes itself and becomes buzz only, it loses its soul.
And then came the meeting with the representatives of power, the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See. Here, the Holy Father took the opportunity to explain, once again, his choice of papal name, while using that exercise to make two important points.
Stressing the Church’s care for, and work with, the poor throughout the world, the pope reminded his audience in the Vatican’s Sala Regia that Francis of Assisi knew that there were various forms of poverty. There was the Franciscan work, which belongs to all Christians, to serve “the sick, orphans, the homeless and all the marginalized”; that work is a gospel imperative that also helps “to make society more humane and more just.”
And then there was a different form of poverty: the “spiritual poverty of our time”; that poverty is most evident in wealthier societies and manifests itself in what Benedict XVI often called the “dictatorship of relativism”—the worship of the false god of me, myself, and I, imposed by state power, often in the name of a misguided and coercive concept of tolerance.
This second form of poverty had to be challenged by a second Franciscan imperative, the responsibility “to build peace.” Yet, as the pope immediately continued: “There is no true peace without the truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.”
The last phrase—“the nature that unites every human being on this earth”—was the money quote here. For that is precisely what so much of the spiritually impoverished world of radical secularism and lifestyle libertinism now denies: that there is any “human nature” which public policy and law must respect. That’s what those who continue to support “abortion rights” deny. That’s what those who insist that “marriage” can mean any configuration of consenting adults deny. That’s what those who regard children as an optional lifestyle accessory deny. And that’s what those who insist that maleness and femaleness are “cultural constructs,” not givens that disclose deep truths about the human condition, deny.
Those denials, Pope Francis suggested, lead to a spiritual impoverishment that can be as devastating as material poverty. And those denials can lead to conflicts within societies that shatter peace just as much as conflicts between societies.
Pope Francis is no “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” romantic. As an experienced pastor and a man of keen intelligence, he knows that reality-contact is as important for societies as it is for personal mental health. He’ll make the case in a different way than Benedict XVI. But you can count on this pontificate to challenge the dictatorship of relativism in the name of authentic humanism.
George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author, most recently, of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.