When Pope Francis said in his recent interview that Catholics should not focus so much on abortion, homosexuality, and birth control, many Catholics were taken aback by his comments. It is easy for us to nod our heads in approval when a pope or clergyman tells us that we need to be nice people or combat a habitual sin or sinful tendency that we don’t struggle with. If we are challenged not to be gluttonous when we are temperate and moderate in our eating and drinking, it is easy for us to pat ourselves on that back, maybe even to give thanks that you do not struggle with gluttony. What Pope Francis gives us is a hard saying, so it is only natural we should be rather taken aback. When one is greatly involved in the pro-life movement and one encounters remarks reduced by media coverage to “don’t emphasize abortion”, one is taken for quite the shock.
Rather than see this as the Catholic equivalent of saying something shocking for the sake of merely being shocking, we ought to take Pope Francis’s remarks to heart. We cannot focus solely on these issues alone, as if homosexuality, abortion, and contraception were all that the Church had to say to the world. The Church’s mission is about bringing hope into a world beset with despair, subject to futility and death. Christ came to transform our lives and those of others. But we cannot do this by focusing our vision on these topics alone, approaching them with a narrowness of vision. Rather we must see them as part of the Christian good news, along with the other aspects of Christ’s message as elucidated by Catholic social teaching, which corresponds neither to the utopian ideals of a liberalism or the reactionary nostalgia of conservatism. If the prophetic aspect of Christianity includes the messages that correspond with the agenda of the political Right, then we must also include those we find in that of the political Left. We should preach more than just those moral issues with which we are comfortable. Christianity is all about making us uncomfortable, asking us to step outside of our comfort zone by going the extra mile.
In his fine book “Bad Religion”, Ross Douthat traces the history and schism of the twentieth century Christian social justice movement that led to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. One half aligned itself with the Democratic Party that helped legislate many of the reforms of the Great Society, and soon began defending abortion rights when it became a pet cause of the women’s right movement and of the Democratic Party. The other half reacted by supporting the Republican Party, and soon began to neglect the rights of workers, with some even going so far as identifying with the evil philosophy of Ayn Rand (You cannot serve both God and Rand). Both sides have wonderful, commendable values and goals, but they also advocate positions that are in serious conflict with Christianity. That is not to say a Catholic cannot be a Republican or Democrat, only that one cannot compromise or neglect those non-negotiable aspects of the Christian life.
That is what Pope Francis is calling us to: the original message of Christianity, which is about far more than the hot-button issues. The primary message of Christianity is Christ’s redemptive work upon the cross, bringing salvation to mankind, and these other issues derive their place in Catholic social teaching because of Christ’s great love for humanity. It is a love which is neither Gentile nor Jew, neither servant nor free, neither liberal nor conservative.