On the eve of next week’s World Youth Day celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, the seeming fascination on the part of much of what we might call the mainstream secular news media with the day-to-day doings of Pope Francis continues without abatement. The Holy Father made the international cover of Time this week, where he has been dubbed “The People’s Pope.” In the most critical of ways in this age of a 24-hour news cycle, our present Successor of Peter is doing the most important thing that he can do to keep the Church relevant in an age where the skeptics discount God Almighty as a delusion and where young people seem to be falling away from the faith at an alarming rate: The Pope is keeping himself and the Church in the headlines in a positive way. A read of the piece in Time by writer Howard Chua-Eoan, which is very well-written, reveals something that was written of in this space a couple of days ago, however. What the writer manages to show us is that try as they might, the secular media will never quite understand the nature of ministry in the Church or among God’s people. For example, consider this incident from the past of then-Cardinal Bergoglio that supposedly caused such “scandal” for some:
Francis brings his experience with Argentine evangelicals to the Brazilian stage. Argentina’s Protestants love him. “Whenever you talk to him,” Juan Pablo Bongarrá, president of the Argentine Bible Society, a Protestant evangelical organization, told Christianity Today, “the conversation ends with a request, ‘Pastor, pray for me.'” As Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio reportedly once attended a prayer meeting of evangelical preachers and, kneeling in front of a congregation of nearly 6,000, had Protestant pastors lay hands on him to pray. (Conservative Catholics are still shocked over it.)
Why is this a problem? Visiting an evangelical Protestant meeting and asking those present to pray for you? Cardinal Bergoglio didn’t do anything that a lot of people-and not a few Catholics-in the South have not done. It doesn’t mean that the Holy Father agrees with evangelical theology, but it does mean that he was and is grateful for evangelical prayers, and he doesn’t attempt to assert God’s role by falsely assuming that the Almighty can’t hear their prayers. Yes, some Catholics were “shocked,” but many more doubtless understood that the Archbishop was fulfilling his role as supreme pastor and priest of his diocese. He was responsible for the care of all souls in his diocese, even the Protestants. Hence, as bishop he would go and see them. Even if they did not understand that the Cardinal had this role for which he was accountable both to God and the Church, he knew that he had that role.
Chua-Eoan seems to commit the same sort of fallacy that secular news writers are often unwittingly guilty of when writing about the Church, breaking down every difference within the Church as something “liberal” or “conservative.”
He has also apparently withdrawn from active participation in debates over sexual morality and biology, raising few public arguments over the right to life and making only passing reference to gay marriage despite loud protests from the French church as Paris legalized it. The singer Elton John, who is gay, has praised him.
It is not that Francis is about to change church doctrine on those matters–he is not.
The Holy Father will not “change Church doctrine” on morality because he cannot. He is the Vicar of Christ, and that means that it is his job to uphold the teachings of Christ to the world. He swore the same thing that all of the other cardinals did when he entered the conclave, and that was that if he were the one elected, that he would uphold the deposit of faith.
The secular press and world once tried to put the so-called “liberal” tag on the Venerable Pope Paul VI. Pope Paul was the pope of social justice and didn’t care about all of that nasty morality, that’s the picture that was often painted and those who lived through that time period speak of the confusion and chaos that seemed to reign. People spoke of what was now “allowed.” Then, as if on cue (which we can be sure he was on cue from the Holy Spirit), Pope Paul released the encyclical Humanae Vitae and reminded Catholics the world over just what God said was not allowed. No, you may not just up and decide not to have children merely because kids are an inconvenience to you. No, you are not free to pervert the marital act because it feels good. God says so, the Church says so, and the Pope says so.
Similarly, Pope John Paul II had the “conservative” label applied to him, yet he spent an inordinate amount of time travelling the world and addressing the needs of the poor and the marginalized. He was deeply concerned that working people should have a wage or pay that is just according to the day’s work that they put in. Further, he made it crystal clear that the Church could not ignore the economic and social concerns of the poorest and most marginalized in the world, and that to do so was in itself a gravely immoral position to take. Put bluntly, political labels cannot be applied to Church teaching because the Church is interested in what is true and what is right, and it matters not whether that truth offends those on the political Left or Right. Nations, empires, political ideologies and systems all rise and fall, but Holy Mother Church rolls on and on while unending ages run.
Yes, Pope Francis is concerned with the plight of the very poor. He is concerned with them because Jesus is. The Holy Father, as the secular world will soon learn, is concerned with morality and how we ought to live, and he will be concerned with morality because Jesus is. Jesus Christ is whose Vicar Francis is.