Pope Francis’s tendency to use colorful expressions and abrasive adjectives in commenting on ideas, habits, and practices of which he disapproves have puzzled Catholics for over eight years now. Is this how popes talk? From my own study of papal history, I can easily believe that Pope Pius XI had a few choice (even brutal) words to say on occasion. But his verbal smackdowns were always delivered behind closed doors, while many of Pope Francis’s most memorably deprecatory locutions have been quite public.
There is one thing to be said for this current papal habit, though, especially in light of the endless media effort to spin the pope into a softie on the life issues—most recently in light of the U.S. bishops’ efforts to address the incoherence of self-professed Catholics who reject a fundamental truth of Catholic faith by facilitating the slaughter of the innocent unborn. Thus it’s worth remembering the quite robust terms in which Pope Francis has condemned abortion, most memorably at a Vatican conference in 2019. There, the Holy Father asked, “Is it legitimate to take a human life to solve a problem? Is it permissible to hire a hitman to solve a problem?” So-called “therapeutic” abortions that willfully destroy unborn children who suffer from some illness or deformity were, the pontiff insisted, a matter of “inhuman eugenics.” He added that “human life is sacred and inviolable and the use of prenatal diagnosis for selective [i.e., abortive] purposes should be discouraged with strength.”
All of which seemed a bit odd to the New York Times reporter covering the conference, for, as he wrote, the pope had previously downplayed issues like abortion “in order to promote his pastoral and inclusive vision of the Church.” The assumption here, of course, is that doctrinal and moral clarity, on the one hand, and pastoral sensitivity and inclusiveness, on the other, are mutually exclusive. That has been nonsense since Jesus’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery, in John 8:1–11; it remains a gross falsehood today; and indulging it demeans the inclusive and sensitive work done by thousands of religiously-inspired crisis pregnancy centers throughout the country, which offer women something better than a lethal “procedure” that often causes long-term emotional damage.
Media imagery, alas, is like bamboo; once it’s implanted, it’s virtually impossible to root it out. Thus early in his pontificate, Pope Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” comment, addressed to the particular case of a repentant priest who was trying to live an upright life, was stripped of all context and turned into media bamboo, the endlessly repeated claim being that this pope is not a moral hardliner (subtext: unlike his predecessors).
I submit, however, that anyone who compares an abortionist to a Mafia hitman—and who in January 2014 deplored a “throwaway culture” in which aborted children are “discarded as unnecessary,” declaring it “horrific even to think that there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day”—is no moral relativist. Typically, however, the BBC reporter covering that papal address found this denunciation in contrast to “the Pope’s stance favoring mercy over condemnation.” (Memo to the BBC: It was John Paul II, author of the passionately pro-life encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), who spread the Divine Mercy devotion throughout the world Church, who wrote an encyclical on God the Father entitled Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), and who made the Octave of Easter “Divine Mercy Sunday.”)
Media distortions are not simply annoying; they can have serious public effects. Just before the bishops voted overwhelmingly to address the question of the Church’s eucharistic integrity (immediately spun by most reports into merely an attack on President Biden and other pro-abortion public officials), the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the religious freedom right of Catholic Social Services (CSS) of Philadelphia to decline to place foster children with same-sex couples. In his lengthy addendum to the Court’s opinion, Justice Samuel Alito noted that a Philadelphia public official had derided “the Archdiocese’s position as out of step with Pope Francis’s teaching and 21st-century moral views,” suggesting that it “would be great” if CSS “followed…Pope Francis.”
I seriously doubt that the Philadelphia Department of Human Services commissioner who got Pope Francis so spectacularly wrong is a regular reader of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. He got the nonsense with which he badgered CSS from American media sources. I hope the fourth estate gets its act together as the bishops develop their statement on the meaning of the Eucharist. But I’m not sanguine about that. Bamboo is bamboo.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
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Image by Catholic Church England and Wales via Flickr. Image cropped.