Rorate Caeli

Rorate Editorial: The Pope in the United States - Ambiguous on what should be clear, clear only on his political priorities

Pope Francis' visit has shown us once more that he can be clear and unambiguous on his priorities, and vocal and forthright in saying what he wants to say. He did not hesitate to make direct statements on immigration, on the environment, on the abolition of the death penalty and in praise of religious liberty (that is, religious liberty as understood by the Western secular consensus rather than the defense of the Church's right to proclaim the truth in any society). There was no question left about the importance he placed on these issues. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the importance he accords to the defense of the unborn and of true marriage.

We affirm -- and we are not alone in doing so -- that the entire papal visit to the US and the UN was a series of missed opportunities and a monumental failure to affirm Church teaching precisely where it is under greatest threat from public opinion and secular power. These will come back to haunt the very same Catholics who have tried so hard to justify all of the Pope's omissions in the past week. 

"But he spoke against abortion! He spoke about the right to life! He spoke about the need to defend marriage and the family!" Of course he did. Equally clear is that he treated these issues as having marginal importance. No one can in all honesty point to his brief and often vague reminders on abortion and declare that the defense of the unborn was one of his primary interests during his visit. Even less can it be said that he gave a clear and ringing defense of true marriage as only between a man and a woman. During his main address on the topic of the family -- the address at the "Prayer Vigil for the Festival of Families" in Philadelphia -- the Pope focused on the material needs of families rather than the defense of the very essence and identity of the family. At least the Pope had mentioned the word "abortion" in the course of his visit, but on the defense of true marriage he was never as forthright.

It is true that he visited the Little Sisters of the Poor -- privately, unofficially, in an unscheduled detour, without his words being published. It is equally true that an openly "gay" celebrity who is vocally supportive of pseudo-"marriage" was given a high-profile role in a Mass during the papal visit. It should have been easy to see which gesture would be more visible and have a greater impact on the public. Henceforth it will be considered "more Catholic than the Pope" to exclude publicly practicing homosexuals and opponents of Church teaching from being lectors (and by analogy from many other important lay roles), making a mockery of the meaning of what it means to be a Catholic in good standing. 

Some Catholic pundits have defended the Pope by saying that it was completely his prerogative to choose his words and his points of focus. We do not contest the Pope's prerogatives, but neither should we hide the cost of his choices to the defense of truth. By choosing to focus on issues that easily attracted the applause of the world, by choosing to spend the bulk of his time speaking about these issues, Francis has given a clear example to the American bishops and to the clergy to soft-pedal the defense of Church teaching on "unpleasant", "divisive" and "unpopular" teachings even more.

Pro-lifers and the defenders of true marriage should ask themselves in all honesty if the papal visit will encourage the bishops and the clergy to speak even more forcefully in defense of the unborn and of marriage. The more the Pope's well-meaning advocates defend his omissions, the more they tell the clergy that there is nothing wrong with downplaying or saying very little about Church teachings on sensitive topics. Instead of pretending that the few bones the Pope threw in their direction was a lavish feast, pro-lifers and the advocates of true marriage need to think hard about how to overcome the even greater clerical apathy that will now surely be their lot. 

It is also a fact that the Pope's lack of clarity made it easy for the enemies of human life and of true marriage to applaud his words without in any way acknowledging their Catholic meaning. Many Catholics expressed perplexity at known pro-abortion politicians applauding the Pope when he briefly mentioned the defense of human life during his speech at Capitol Hill, but this should not have surprised them. "The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development" may sound unambiguously pro-life to Catholic ears, but to secular ears it does not necessarily cover the unborn; it could be plausibly (even if mendaciously) "heard" by a rabid supporter of abortion as pertaining only to life after birth.

To a Catholic, the Pope's frequent praises of marriage and family (sans qualification) can only pertain to true marriage between a man and a woman; but to "gay activists" these could just as well apply to homosexual "marriages" and "families" made up of two persons of the same sex and the children they have "adopted". We are not saying that the Pope was surreptitiously supporting abortion and homosexual "marriage"; what we are saying is that his words on marriage and the defense of the unborn were not sufficiently clear so as to prevent these from being "heard" with a completely different meaning, contrary to any Catholic intention. This is why in the defense of the unborn and true marriage there can be no space for ambiguity, no hold given to the other side that will allow them to twist what has been said. We cannot afford to preach the Gospel of Life in terms that either side can interpret to its liking. There can be no verbal ecumenism with the culture of death.

A final note to Catholic apologists: don't attack the secular media for highlighting what the Pope himself highlighted rather than focusing on the brief statements that he made on pro-life issues! Don't condemn the secular media for refusing to focus on what the Pope himself treated as of peripheral importance! The secular media's coverage of the Pope's words and priorities in the US has been, on the whole, far more honest than that of the Catholic mainstream media.