Lessons from what the pope didn’t say

Pope Francis has made a habit of a light touch with some issues while being specific about others. What can Catholic ecologists learn from his words thus far?

Climate change and abortion. There’s been concern today in a variety of circles about the pope not speaking with specific references to those issues when addressing Congress and the United Nations.

While he made his points without those words, climate advocates (like me) wanted to hear more of the word “climate” while many supporting the front lines against abortion (this would also be me) wanted to hear that word spoken, especially to the many pro-abortion members of Congress.

But the pope choose not to be so specific. What can we take form that?

Like his predecessor, Pope Francis has a way of slipping past people’s defenses to deliver messages that they may not wish to hear. After all, if you can build a relationship based on the things you agree on, it’s easier to talk about the things you don’t.

What Pope Francis wishes to dialogue about and offer all people is the Word entrusted to the Church to proclaim and to live. The pontiff's trust in the Word is profound. He's certain that those who encounter it will see the Person behind it. And then they’ll have to decide what to do next.

Catholics who are environmental activists can be yeast in the dough of specific and local communities that need to hear from the Author of Life.

Free will aside, the encounter must come first. And it is our responsibility, as the baptized, to go and make disciples by entering into our corners of the world and offering such engagement. This is, as Pope Francis reminds us, what Christ did.

All this takes us to the pontiff’s homily tonight in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. In it he stressed a great theme of his papacy: the need to live out our incarnational faith by entering into the messiness of the world.

Let’s listen to just some of what he had to say:

Go out to others and share the good news that God, our Father, walks at our side. He frees us from anonymity, from a life of emptiness and selfishness, and brings us to the school of encounter. He removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and he opens before us the path of peace. That peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.

God is living in our cities. The Church is living in our cities, and she wants to be like yeast in the dough. She wants to relate to everyone, to stand at everyone’s side, as she proclaims the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. And we ourselves are witnesses of that light.

With that, here’s my point: Catholics who are environmental activists (or regulators, or both) can (like all vocations) be yeast in the dough of specific and local communities that need to hear from the Author of Life. And let’s be honest. A great many in the eco-advocacy and governmental spheres are often not fond of everything the Church holds about moral and social teachings—let alone the True Presence or other dogmas of the faith.

It seems that Pope Francis is telling us that before we can defend the Church’s teachings on faith and morals, and even about issues like climate change—before we can speak of that Author and indeed before we can fully champion all life—we must first have a relationship with those who may not agree with us.

As much as the regulator in me would like Pope Francis to be more direct, especially in Congress—and especially about abortion (given what we’ve been learning here in the States)—I understand his desire to encounter all people by first not scaring them away.

Of course the pontiff still has the last leg of his apostolic journey before him. It will be there, in Philadelphia at the World Meeting of Families, that the pope’s words on the tough issues of life and marriage may be a bit more specific.

The next hours will tell how that encounter goes.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.