Pope Francis has recently made the apparently newsworthy suggestion that the Great Commandments matter more than other commandments, and that the church’s ethical concerns should be as broad as the Bible’s. Journalist after journalist have then breathlessly announced that the pope is going soft on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.
To be fair, Francis has been quoted saying more than a few things this last month that make one wonder about his full commitment to certain teachings to which the Vatican felt obliged to say afterward that he was, indeed, fully committed. Still, the Vatican did say those things, presumably with Francis’s approval, and it’s unlikely that he would disagree with his predecessors, let alone the tradition of the Church, on such sensitive matters in such apparently unguarded and relatively minor ways.
What is clear is that Francis remains what he was before and said he would be as pope: staunchly committed to the welfare of the poor and oppressed, and determined to lead his church to an engagement with the world that puts those basic commitments front and centre.
Many of the American bishops, understandably, are concerned, and some even dismayed–remarkably like the way many leaders in the Protestant division of the Religious Right were upset when other evangelical leaders emphasized a broader evangelical political platform in the last two presidential elections. Widening evangelical policy concerns to include care for the earth, immigration reform (especially regarding illegal immigrants), and human rights for persecuted believers abroad upset the politicos who wanted there to be just a Few Big Issues upon which to focus energies, resources, and attention. Given the lousy record of achieving significant advances on those agenda, however, and given the improvement of policy regarding the protection of religious rights, one has trouble agreeing with those aggrieved stalwarts even in terms of sheer political pragmatism. And in principle, the advocates of a “whole life” attitude to ethics–such as Ron Sider and the embattled former NAE staffer Richard Cizik–are just right. The Bible does have an awfully broad agenda for humanity: global salvation. To narrow political interests to one, two, or three seems narrow indeed, and unless you’re actually getting the Empire to, say, abolish slavery, it’s hard to justify such narrowness.
Well, Francis doesn’t want his church to be narrow. Given his roots in South America, he doesn’t share the American context of culture wars over issues that, yes, do matter (although I certainly don’t share the Catholic view of a lot of matters that matter to many of the hierarchs, whether contraception, male and unmarried clergy, Marian devotion, and more), but don’t matter to the exclusion of, say, child poverty.
Francis hasn’t been saying, in fact, that abortion doesn’t matter as much as child poverty. I don’t see how he could, frankly. Of course abortion matters: caring about children only after they have emerged from the womb has never struck me as ethically coherent. But once they have emerged, it is also incoherent not to care for them as much as we can. He seems to me to be saying that he wants his church to have an ethical concern as wide as the world, as wide as the Bible commands.
And that, even if the news media can’t always get that clear, is good news indeed.
The next question, of course, is whether anything will change as a result. Francis’s recent remarks certainly must have encouraged the many priests, monks, friars, and nuns whose ministries focus more on the financially poor than on the intellectually impoverished (versus the apologetical concerns of the previous two scholarly popes). And pep talks to workers on the front lines are valuable as far as they go.
Policy change, however, requires the consent and cooperation of all those layers of bureaucracy and authority between the Pope and the average priest, parish, and pew. We’ll keep watching to find out if this pope is as politically effective as he is ethically concerned.