Pope Francis caused quite a stir in a recent interview in which he said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” Some heard this message and suggested that the Pope had changed church teaching in one fell swoop. Others were more circumspect in their evaluation of his message. These observers noted a subsequent line, in which the pope said, “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” The pope seems to be offering a corrective, but what kind?
The new evangelization is part of a larger frame surrounding these remarks. A few lines later he said, “The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.” The message–form and content–must be suited to the community where it is preached.
From the perspective of Catholic social teaching, taken in its full scope, its breadth and depth, the pope’s message is especially relevant. At times, purveyors of the tradition may become stuck on one or another issue, whether that is related to abortion and human sexuality or poverty and nonviolent responses to conflict at home and abroad. The tradition is bigger than any particular nest of issues.
Thirty years ago, speaking to the U.S. context, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago spoke about a “consistent ethic of life” and, later, a “seamless garment” in order to illustrate the coherence of Catholic teaching across a multiplicity of social issues. Taking the principle of “right to life” as an example, Bernardin explained that just as taking the life of an innocent, unborn child is always wrong so is it always wrong to intentionally and directly target civilian centers in war (12).
Bernardin acknowledged that this concept would be divisive both inside and outside the church. These are questions freighted with emotion. They are polarizing. He also recognized that the public dimension of this debate requires non-religious language. Inside and outside the church, he called for dialogue. For Bernardin, the way we enter into these debates matters. He wrote,
As we seek to shape and share the the vision of a consistent ethic of life, I suggest a style governed by the following rule: we should maintain and clearly articulate our religious convictions but also maintain our civil courtesy. We should be vigorous in stating our case and attentive in hearing another’s case; we should test everyone’s logic but not question his or her motives (14).
His was a plea for ongoing engagement between church and world through civil dialogue that seeks the transformation of attitudes and worldview, from a culture of death to a culture of life.
Pope Francis seeks a similar transformation today, both within the church and in the world at large. Like Bernardin, Francis believes that the style of communication matters.
The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Poclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
Effective communication of the gospel of life in contemporary culture does not require rash alteration of church teaching but it does require creativity, discernment, and respect for the fundamental dignity of all people.
To read the interview with Pope Francis visit America magazine.
Cardinal Bernardin’s speech, “A Consistent Ethic of Life: An American Dialogue” can be found on pages 7-14 in The Seamless Garment: Writings on the Consistent Ethic of Life, edited by Thomas A. Nairn and published by Orbis Press, 2008.
Submitted by N. Rademacher, Associate Professor, Religious Studies.