There is an unfortunate tendency during the current papacy to seek confusion and controversy where there really is none. All too often I see in my email and online Catholics complaining about various statements by the Holy Father, saying that they are unclear or confusing or contrary to the statements of earlier popes
My favorite recent pope is Benedict XVI. His clear and powerful writings resonate with me. Perhaps it's the legacy of my German ancestors. Benedict gave us a key tool with which to look at statements from popes and bishops, so that we can always "think with the Church" as St. Ignatius of Loyola put it. Speaking specifically about the Second Vatican Council, he contrasted two ways of looking at teachings of the Church over time: "On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us." The word "hermeneutic" is a fancy term for the way we look at things
In that spirit, let's look at one passage from Pope Francis' new document, his apostolic exhortation on holiness Gaudete et Excultate (nos. 101 and 102):
The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.
We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the "grave" bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have "complicated" the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed "like Christ", with a gesture of veneration; the poor and pilgrims were to be met with "the greatest care and solicitude".
Some people have looked at this passage through the "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture", thinking that Pope Francis has broken with the teachings of his predecessors and saying that abortion should no longer be seen as a paramount issue and that migration issues are just as important. The secular media has been guilty of spreading this misinterpretation, obviously because they wish that we would spend less energy fighting abortion and they love to sow disunity among us. Unfortunately, some Catholics have fallen for it, and think that Pope Francis is going soft on abortion
Actually, not. When we look at this passage through the "hermeneutic of continuity", we see that what the Holy Father is saying is that all the issues on which we do advocacy stem from the same source — the inherent dignity of every human person. He recognizes that abortion requires "clear, firm and passionate" defense, but urges us to make sure that other violations of human dignity are not ignored. The Holy Father is personally very concerned about migration issues, and he wishes that we all were too, but he is absolutely not telling us to desist from fighting abortion. He particularly is warning us against pitting one issue against another, as a cynical politician might do in order to get our votes. We can all cite examples of that
If this advice sounds familiar, it should. Here is what St. Pope John Paul II said in his great pro-life encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (nos. 3 and 10):
The Second Vatican Council, in a passage which retains all its relevance today, forcefully condemned a number of crimes and attacks against human life. Thirty years later, taking up the words of the Council and with the same forcefulness I repeat that condemnation in the name of the whole Church, certain that I am interpreting the genuine sentiment of every upright conscience: "Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator"….
And how can we fail to consider the violence against life done to millions of human beings, especially children, who are forced into poverty, malnutrition and hunger because of an unjust distribution of resources between peoples and between social classes? And what of the violence inherent not only in wars as such but in the scandalous arms trade, which spawns the many armed conflicts which stain our world with blood? What of the spreading of death caused by reckless tampering with the world's ecological balance, by the criminal spread of drugs, or by the promotion of certain kinds of sexual activity which, besides being morally unacceptable, also involve grave risks to life? It is impossible to catalogue completely the vast array of threats to human life, so many are the forms, whether explicit or hidden, in which they appear today!
St. John Paul went on in that encyclical to focus on abortion and euthanasia as particularly grave threats to life, but he made sure that we recalled that there are many other threats to life and dignity as well.
There is clearly nothing wrong with responding when the Holy Spirit is calling us to prioritize our efforts on one issue or another. So many people have dedicated their lives to fighting for the rights of unborn people, and others have done so on behalf of prisoners, migrants, victims of human trafficking, the environment, and so on. But what Pope Francis, and St. John Paul and Pope Benedict before him, is warning us about is our natu
ral tendency to ignore other issues, or — even worse — to denigrate them or oppose Church teaching about them, out of a misguided devotion to the particular issue that we favor or that is favored by our preferred political party
Serving the common good, which is at the heart of Catholic social teaching, requires that we work to eliminate all threats to human life and dignity, since all lives are equally sacred in the eyes of God. That requires each of us to focus our energies on particular issues, and to be grateful that other people are working on other issues. All of this is good — after all, "there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord" (1 Cor 12:4-5).