During his all too brief tour of the United States over the last several days, Pope Francis gave multiple speeches each day covering a wide range of topics, but with several recurring themes. He spoke often of entering into dialogue with different viewpoints, ideologies, and religions–many of which are in direct opposition and some of which are antagonistic to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Most of all, Pope Francis recognizes the seriousness of the threat posed by the forces of secularism to the future of Western Civilization, but he is not afraid to engage with those forces on their own terms.
Many Catholics and non-Catholics on the political right have criticized Pope Francis for his apparent emphasis on subjects like protecting the environment and caring for the poor, but this misunderstands what Pope Francis is up to. The Pope is not a mere politician. Pope Francis has said in his own words that he wishes to enter into dialogue, so we should listen to him. In his speech to the UN, he said, “Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.” He also said in his remarks to Congress, “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” We care about the environment and the poor because we care about people.
In his remarks, Pope Francis again and again returned to the dignity of the human person. The Catholic Church exists to carry forth the Gospel and preserve the sacraments, but also to perform the works of spiritual and corporal mercy. Moreover, the teachings of the Catholic Church with regard to the sanctity of human life and marriage are essential to carrying out those works. There is no mercy in killing the unborn or the elderly. There is no mercy in abandoning the souls of people tormented by addictions and passions. There is no mercy in tolerating evil, and certainly not in celebrating it.
The Venerable Fulton Sheen once wrote, “It may take a long time for Western civilization to realize that the good it is seeking is the good that it left,” and it was Flannery O’Connor who spoke of the “Christ-haunted” culture. The priorities of modern liberalism in the United States would not even be possible if not for the influence of Christianity on Western philosophical and political thought. The founding fathers were mainly Deist free-thinkers of the Enlightenment, but they were informed by our universal cultural patrimony of centuries of Christian exegesis and scholasticism. More recently, the progressive movement owes its entire existence to various Christian denominations which advocated for social concern as a moral imperative in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When Pope Francis engages in this dialogue on subjects of great interest to the secular and largely anti-Catholic American left, he is in a way employing the Socratic method and forcing secular liberals to ask the question: “Why?” Why do we care about conservation of natural resources? Why do we care about feeding the homeless? Why do we care about the plight of immigrants and refugees? As Pope Francis has alluded, technology allows people to make a superficial show of enthusiasm, emotion, or sympathy for these popular causes, but how many have asked themselves about the deeper ethical and moral propositions that are implied by such frothy sentimentalism? The entire history of Western Civilization cannot be summarized in 140 characters, much less a lame hashtag.
As an example, environmentalists often ask the question, “What kind of world do we want to leave for our children?” Before we can get there though, we should start by asking what kind of world we want to make for our children today. In his address to Congress, Pope Francis said, “I also want to dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations, who are not led astray by facile proposals, and who face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults.” Where we see the decay of infrastructure and of morals, it is because the family is being assaulted and destroyed by our popular culture, our laws, and most of all, by our own apathy and laziness.
The greatest struggle of the 21st century will be for the rights of children. Children have the right to be born. Children deserve to know and to be loved by both a mother and a father. Children need parents who teach by example how to become respectable adults. Unfortunately, this is desperately lacking in our feel-good culture of moral relativism, anything-goes carnival of government corruption, and the Hollywood freak-show of bottomless depravity. As a consequence, for too many people, children are treated as an afterthought, a commodity, or simply as a burden. This is a culture with no future.
Pope Francis spoke emotionally and powerfully in his native tongue to the Festival of Families in Philadelphia of the antidote for this secularization and atomization of Western Civilization. He joined generations of conservative writers from Burke to Buckley who have all pointed to the family as the most important and basic foundation of society. Pope Francis called young people to have the courage to build families, and it will take courage, because building strong families takes work–a lot of work–and it is hard, thankless, and even exhausting. However, we must do it, because this is the price of civilization.
Above all, Pope Francis is an optimist. He is not afraid to say that Western Civilization–Christian civilization–is capable of great things. We should be able to use our resources more efficiently. We should be able to bring prosperity to more people. We should be able to ensure peace for future generations. However, liberals are mistaken if they think for a moment that we can achieve anything towards these worthy goals unless we first learn how to love and care for one another in the protecting embrace of strong families guided by a firm reliance on divine providence. Liberals forget that the Golden Rule is prefaced by an even greater commandment: to love and serve God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds. Only if we get that right do we have any hope in the field of human endeavor.