Is the Pope Catholic? For some of Pope Francis’s friends and admirers, the answer is no longer an unhesitating Yes. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v Hodges and after skulduggery by Planned Parenthood was exposed by undercover journalists, same-sex marriage and abortion were headline issues across the United States.
But although the Pope’s opposition was crystal clear, he still declined to anathematize abortionists and “marriage equality” during his recent trip. Instead, in a speech before a joint sitting of Congress, he took aim at the death penalty, global poverty, the international arms trade and responsibility for the environment.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who often speaks for “conservative” Catholics, felt betrayed. Pope Francis, he wrote, “has been a gift to liberals who are also Christians, to religious believers whose politics lean left”. It remains to be seen, he concludes, “whether, after the cheering ends, the same winter that enveloped liberal Protestantism after the 1960s will claim Franciscan Catholicism as well.”
This just about hits the gong on the grouch scale and, I think, is almost entirely unwarranted. Let me explain.
Although it is hardly unique to Americans, they are particularly susceptible to dividing the world between good and evil, between liberals and conservatives, between friends of America and its foes. Having clearly defined enemies makes the world easier to understand and easier to grapple with.
Its corollary is the rhetoric of denunciation. The killer argument is knock-out punch which sends an opponent to the canvas. It wins the applause of your friends – even if it fails to persuade your enemies.
But Pope Francis is committed to a different kind of rhetoric. It’s not overly simplistic to say that he is trying to win souls, not arguments.
As Douthat pointed out, the Francis Effect is going to fade in a couple of weeks. What difference would thunderbolts from the Bishop of Rome have made in American political life? Zilch.
Francis has a completely different strategy for changing the culture. Instead of arguments, he wants Catholics to offer the witness of a consistent Christian life. Instead of denunciations, he wants them to open up a personal dialogue with opponents. As he told Congress, to much applause, “there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners”.
If you want to understand the Pope’s strategy for cultural change, the best text is not his speech in Congress, which attracted most of the media’s attention, but his address to Catholic bishops. He is aware that they are in the front line of the culture war, but warned them that a political framework is not the way to pass on the Christian message:
“I know that you face many challenges, that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.”
And he gently rebuked the rhetoric of confrontation. “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart,” he said. “Although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”
In his mind, the Christian way is to win people, not arguments:
“And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter … Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love …. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. … Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.”
This approach, which privileges grace over rhetoric, dialogue over confrontation, and personal friendship over media duels, is harder than lecturing from the bully pulpit. But it is the way that Christianity triumphed over the Roman gods. Why couldn’t it work a second time?
Ross Douthat can chill out. The Pope is Catholic. But he wants his flock to evangelise with handshakes, not haymakers.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.