Pope Francis challenges the world

The Holy Father’s address to Vatican diplomats integrates global challenges, and thus challenges both the world and political ideologues

In the latest annual New Year's address by the reigning pontiff to the Corps of Diplomats Accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis offered a stunning example of the integral nature of Church teachings, founded on the eternal truths of the gospel. With something to please and unsettle everyone, the talk covered a wide array of ills—from nuclear armaments to human trafficking, to climate change and ecological protection—and he connected all their solutions to the fundamental need to love thy neighbor.

In a classic example of “new evangelization,” the pontiff consistently links the 1948 document from the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with Church teachings, most especially with the 1963 encyclical by Saint John XXIII, Pacem in Terris—an earlier papal plea, in part, against nuclear warfare.

Building on the UN language on human rights, Pope Francis both applauds and criticizes how the contemporary understanding of rights—including “new rights”—is often at the root of so many contemporary social and political crises. He also strongly championed the right to religious freedom, as well as criticized international pressures to bring artificial contraception and gender ideology to those cultures that do not wish it.

“Somewhat paradoxically,” the Holy Father states, “there is a risk that, in the very name of human rights, we will see the rise of modern forms of ideological colonization by the stronger and the wealthier, to the detriment of the poorer and the most vulnerable.”

Every Catholic should read Pope Francis’s address. (And John XXIII's, too.) Whether you have or have yet to, I would offer the following three observations to consider when doing so.

1. The primacy of life, human dignity, and the family

In characteristic papal fashion, Pope Francis championed the truth that the common good of all societies can be protected only by first defending the fundamental right to life and valuing the families that bring life into the world.

It is not only war or violence that infringes [on human] rights. In our day, there are more subtle means: I think primarily of innocent children discarded even before they are born, unwanted at times simply because they are ill or malformed, or as a result of the selfishness of adults. I think of the elderly, who are often cast aside, especially when infirm and viewed as a burden. I think of women who repeatedly suffer from violence and oppression, even within their own families. I think too of the victims of human trafficking, which violates the prohibition of every form of slavery. How many persons, especially those fleeing from poverty and war, have fallen prey to such commerce perpetrated by unscrupulous individuals?

Further along, Pope Francis delivers a powerful defense of the natural human family.

Unfortunately, it is a fact that, especially in the West, the family is considered an obsolete institution. Today fleeting relationships are preferred to the stability of a definitive life project. But a house built on the sand of frail and fickle relationships cannot stand. What is needed instead is a rock on which to build solid foundations. And this rock is precisely that faithful and indissoluble communion of love that joins man and woman, a communion that has an austere and simple beauty, a sacred and inviolable character and a natural role in the social order.

Note the language in these passages. Note the examples given. Now try to force their author into a pre-defined ideological box. You can’t, because of the second consideration:

2. Breaking ideological stereotypes

Sadly, it’s become something of a cottage industry to see Pope Francis as a leftist ideologue who is unsympathetic to traditional pro-life issues—which some people (Catholics included) may applaud while others lament. This erroneous view is usually proposed by ideologues on both sides of the right-left spectrum, which are equally wrong in their assessment. Like his predecessors, Pope Francis is quite clear that the Church’s social teachings do not fit the hardline views of either the right or the left, for they transcend that false duality—that byproduct of fallen human nature.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts,” the Lord God speaks to Isaiah (Is 55:8). And this is just what Pope Francis shows us by balancing issues and views that so many seek to place at odds.

We saw this issue-integration in the quotes above, and indeed this Catholic understanding of the world courses through the pontiff’s talk like fresh spring water through an arid and dying landscape.

And so, we come to the third consideration to keep in mind…

3. The integral nature of everything

Continuing his successors’ teachings on the links between human life and societal justice (locally and globally), the Holy Father hammers home teachings that formed the core of his eco-encyclical Laudato Si’, and, indeed, is defining his pontificate—teachings that see all men and women, all our problems, and all of our advancements as connected, integrated, and, thus, a means to bring about unity.

With this in mind, Pope Francis concluded his talk with some of the most beautiful papal language of late:

The spirit that must guide individuals and nations in this effort can be compared to that of the builders of the medieval cathedrals that dot the landscape of Europe. These impressive buildings show the importance of each individual taking part in a work that transcends the limits of time. The builders of the cathedrals knew that they would not see the completion of their work. Yet they worked diligently, in the knowledge that they were part of a project that would be left to their children to enjoy. These, in turn, would embellish and expand it for their own children. Each man and woman in this world—particularly those with governmental responsibilities—is called to cultivate the same spirit of service and intergenerational solidarity, and in this way to be a sign of hope for our troubled world.

What more can one add?

Perhaps just this: In this talk to the Corps of Diplomats, Pope Francis is being more than just diplomatic. He is offering the faithful—all of us—a way forward, together, to build up the common good, to find common ground and shared concerns, and in doing so, still the dark, divided turmoil of our age.

Now, if you haven’t already, read this address.

Photo: Flicker/European Parliament

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.