Once again, Pope Francis’ straight talk is making waves in the media. Two Vaticanisti, Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi, highlight his forceful condemnation of gender theory in a recent Italian book entitled Pope Francis: This Economy Kills, (Questa economia uccide), not yet available in English.
Last January, in a press conference during his return from the Philippines, Francis condemned the efforts to colonize developing countries with gender ideology. In one of the interviews provided in this new book, which had already been partially published but is only now made fully available by Tornielli and Galeazzi. Francis expands upon that condemnation.
With his full set of recent statements, including those brought together with this new book, Francis forcefully criticizes the attempt by gender theorists to impose programs of indoctrination that deny the naturally inherent differences between boys and girls, and between men and women, in exchange for development funds. Francis compares gender theory’s rejection of the essential role of complementary sexual difference in forging personal and social identity to genetic manipulation, nuclear weapons, and to the tyrannical political programs against humanity of Herod in ancient Jerusalem, and even to the 20th century fascists Hitler and Mussolini.
These three tyrants used power and ideology to deny nature and nature’s law that requires universal respect for our inherent human dignity. The “Herods” of every historical period destroy and “plot designs of death, that disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation.” In contrast, respect for our divinely endowed human dignity requires respect for the “design of the Creator … written in nature”.
The Pope’s blunt denunciations may seem harsh, even out of character, but, on deeper analysis, they are of a piece with his gentle gestures of cordial acceptance shown to individuals.
Defending the marginalised
Francis pulls no punches when defending the personal freedom of the marginalized from the powerful forces of homogenizing globalization, especially when organized by top-down strategies coordinated against ordinary people striving to exercise the demands of human nature in trying circumstances.
While defending the poor and the outcast, Pope Francis continues to cause controversy, provoking criticism from the left and from the right, from within the Catholic Church and from outside it. As a transformational change agent leading the oldest existing institution, he confounds standard categories, especially those emphasized in facile media sound-bites. He is leading with his personal example by truly shaking things up.
Pope Francis attracts crowds and moves hearts because he exudes authenticity and tenderness. Many see Jesus in him. He emphasizes mercy, not rules. He calls for conversion, not self-righteousness, and directs his challenge first to the Vatican itself and then to the whole world.
To appreciate the depth of those personal gestures, one must see him within historical context. He is no longer just Jorge Mario Bergoglio. His hard-charging efforts to reform the Vatican demonstrate his acute awareness of the weight of his office as successor of Peter at the head of an organization that is nearly 2000 years old and composed of over a billion members.
Act 2 of the “dictatorship of relativism”
Indeed, in a private conversation with a friend of mine, he recently declared: I am continuing the teaching of Benedict XVI regarding the dictatorship of relativism by extending Benedict’s critique of our age to also condemn what I call the throwaway culture.
Indeed, Pope Francis strives to reform the church in continuity with her rich millennial tradition. Like his predecessors, he holds to both faith in divine revelation and to the claims of human reason.
He is rationally convinced by traditional claims of objectivity. We are what we are. We don’t live in a make believe projection of our personal wishes. Our deepest dreams and hopes are shaped by our bodily experience. We humans possess a nature that specifies our capabilities by opening us to perfections that require our striving for the infinite, in accord with our reason and will, all while being limited by our bodily condition as humans, male or female.
So, where does natural law fit into Francis’ plans?
Breathing new life into natural law
Today, many see natural law as an old-fashioned and rigid theory, a medieval ruin overcome by evolution and other modern scientific discoveries – as if Darwin had defeated Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. Modern science strives to overcome the boundaries and constraints of human biology with the power of reason – as if human creativity could surpass fixed objective truths of nature and universal norms.
Moreover, the post-modern mind prizes subjectivity, personal conscience and chosen identity. Drawing from the mindset of modern science and from the philosophical prejudices of post-modernism, many media pundits have characterized the Pope as not just a reformer but a revolutionary rule changer. Some seem to wish that the Pope could use his authority to change objective human nature so that what was once considered self-destructive and sinful behaviour could now be accepted, even celebrated by the Church. In fact, they go so far, that some seem to question the need that the Pope be Catholic.
Stewards of Nature
But recent interviews with Francis and his in-the-air press conferences reveal the depth and breadth of his views and their harmony with his pastoral tactics. For Francis, respect for nature and respect for human dignity go hand in hand. The Pope’s approach to nature and nature’s law appreciates science, without veering into scientism, and subjectivity, without collapsing into subjectivism.
For this reason, he sees stewardship of the environment as a trans-generational responsibility. Respect for humanity requires respect for our environment, and vice versa. Given our bodily nature’s openness to life, on account of sexual attraction and commitments of love, respect for humanity requires respect for the family, based on marriage between one man and one woman. Married love is so great and holy that it must always transcend the couple and remain open to the gift of life.
Francis’ emphasis on tenderness entails his priority of concern for the weakest: the sick, the unemployed, but especially the elderly and the youngest members of the human family, the unborn.
In his upcoming encyclical on the environment, we should expect Francis to continue his development of Benedict XVI’s critique of post-modernity. When Benedict addressed the Bundestag in Berlin, he drew from the political success of the German Green Party in defending the environment to develop a philosophical argument for the need to protect nature in all humans, including the most vulnerable.
The Pope’s challenges and denouncements are not harsh. They are a prophet’s audacious, yet affectionate, call to conversion so as to participate in the joy of Jesus’ mercy. Pope Francis’ second encyclical will probably continue Benedict’s critique of the dictatorship of relativism by defending the weakest among us from the ultimate social and legal rejection constituted by the pervasive throwaway culture, now employed to plunder the environment.
All humans deserve to be defended by respect for the universal laws of nature, including those regarding sexual difference and complementarity. To protect every boy and girl, in his or her most tender years of formation, requires fostering the unity of mother and father in marriage.
Natural law protects from the arbitrary application of ideology, that the Pope calls “ideological colonization”. Natural law is not an extrinsic imposition against human freedom. It is a guide for love, perfection, and happiness. Credible media reports claim that the Pope recently embraced a transgender person who had felt rejected by the local parish. Pope Francis wants the Church to welcome all by offering them, with all of us sinners, the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus. To defend natural law is to defend the rights of all persons.
For Francis, tenderness and mercy require defending the weak from ideological colonization and therefore require the protection of universal laws. Law and tenderness must go hand in hand. Without the protection of exceptionless rules, we are all at risk of being violated by the next ideology which, with today’s technological progress, may be more fearsome than those of the 20th century.
On the other hand, natural law is a safeguard and a protection that fosters a civilization of love capable of protecting the rights of all, whatever their creed, colour, or conviction.
Rev. Robert A. Gahl, Jr., is Associate Professor of Ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, in Rome.