If you haven’t yet read Robert Christian’s excellent piece in the Washington Post about Pope Francis’ interview in America Magazine, I highly recommend that you do so. It is one of the best commentaries that I have read to date on the recent interview (and I’m not just saying that because he is the editor of Millennial!). Two things in particular stick out to me: Francis’ implicit appeal for a recovery of the consistent ethic of life and his emphasis on the need to preach the Gospel above all else.
Recovering the Consistent Ethic of Life
The first thing that strikes me about Christian’s article is his succinct iteration that, contrary to some commentary, Francis is reaffirming the Church’s “consistent ethic of life” and not downplaying the Catholic commitment to protect human life and dignity.
In their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Catholic bishops write:
The consistent ethic of life provides a moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life and, rightly understood, neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues. It anchors the Catholic commitment to defend human life, from conception until natural death, in the fundamental moral obligation to respect the dignity of every person as a child of God (#40).
This message that both human life and human dignity form the foundation of all that we now call Catholic social teachings is essentially what Francis said in the interview: although the “moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent [. . . w]e cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods [. . .] it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
As Christian points out, Francis is not reducing the importance of the Catholic commitment to life and dignity, nor downplaying what many refer to as the “core” life issues. Rather, Francis is criticizing those who have become “obsessed” with reducing the fullness of Catholic Social Teaching to a handful of narrow issues, and making an appeal for the Church to recover the awareness that many contemporary social issues—from extreme poverty to climate change—threaten to compromise the Church’s commitment to protect human life and dignity. Pope Francis is essentially making a plea for Catholics to “find a new balance” of attention to issues of human life and dignity, and this is a welcome appeal to those of us who for too long have felt that our contributions to promoting the social mission of the Church on issues other than abortion, gay marriage, and artificial contraception are less urgent or important, and therefore less worthy of energy and action.
Preaching the Gospel
In addition to pointing out Francis’ implicit appeal for a recovery of the consistent ethic of life, Christian’s article highlights another theme that is central to Francis’ interview: the need for the Church to preach the Gospel message of love and mercy above all else. Throughout the interview, Francis insists that “[t]he most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” Francis believes that “from this proposition [. . .] the moral consequences then flow,” and laments that some in the Church today begin with “the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines” rather than the foundational proclamation of Jesus’ love and mercy.
Francis seems to mourn this situation not only because it causes the Church to “lock itself up in small things, in small-minded rules” and lose the fullness of the Gospel message, but also because, as Christian says, “a disproportionate focus on particular moral teachings threatens a descent into legalism, the mentality that Jesus spent so much time challenging and condemning.”
Although Christian writes that Francis’ message can be understood as directed primarily at “those who seem to ignore other social and moral issues and seemingly want to turn opposition to abortion into a litmus test that determines one’s inclusion in the Catholic community,” it is important to recognize that Francis’ message is a good reminder to all Catholics not to lose the forest of the Gospel for the trees of a particular social concern. Anybody who feels a passionate vocation to address a specific aspect of the Church’s social tradition—indeed any aspect of the Church’s tradition, e.g. liturgical, canonical, pastoral, etc.—should be encouraged to do so, but also reminded not to become disproportionately focused on their area to the exclusion of the larger Gospel message. Aware of this potential danger, Francis’ message is therefore an important reminder to all Catholics involved in any type of ministry.
As the media’s initial focus on attention-grabbing headlines begins to wane, Catholics are now left with the challenging process of reflecting more deeply on the fullness of Francis’ interview and its implications for the Church in the 21st century. Robert Christian’s recent article makes a valuable contribution to what will necessarily be a lengthy process of discernment, and his attention to both Francis’ implicit appeal for a consistent ethic of life and invitation to preach the Gospel above all else provides Catholics with two key insights that can provide entry points into deeper reflection about Francis’ extraordinary message to the Church and to the world.