As often happens in situations like this one, in which a prominent figure with some legitimate pretense to moral leadership makes a lengthy, complex, and articulate statement, people in the commentariat seize on a particularly quotable few lines and run with them.
In the facti species, the prominent figure this time is the Roman Pontiff, and the source document from which the quotable sentences have been pulled is his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate, on the call to holiness in today’s world. Whatever else there is to say about the document — there is much, much more to say (in other words, stay tuned) — and regardless of one’s personal, spiritual, or intellectual disposition toward Pope Francis — it is fair to say the Holy Father has touched a nerve. The lines are:
We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ”, with a gesture of veneration; the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude”. (§102)
The New York Times proclaimed, “Pope Francis Puts Caring for Migrants and Opposing Abortion on Equal Footing”, which is not quite right, but fair enough for headline writing. The story by Jason Horowitz is better than the headline, though it suffers from a lack of real understanding of both Christian spiritual dynamics and ecclesiastical politics. All that is beside the point, however, which is that there is a need to unpack the Pope’s point in order to see what he is and is not saying in the quoted lines.
It is possible to receive the Holy Father’s Exhortation in a spirit of docility, and then to hear it saying things needful of our hearing, with a view to serious self-critical reflection and practical application. Any such exercise will require patient listening to what Pope Francis says — to his ipsissima verba — and careful attention to what he does not say.
The purport of the Holy Father’s remarks in the quoted lines is that Christians are called by the faith they received in their Baptism and compelled by the promise of eschatological judgment to care for the least of their brothers and sisters. That is true, and that is terrifying — or ought to be — for Our Lord shall determine whether we shall be eternally happy or eternally wretched according to our discharge of our duty to the smallest and the weakest.
Nor can Pope Francis be accused of down-playing or soft-peddling the importance of opposing abortion, which is always deliberate and deadly violence against the very weakest and most vulnerable of mankind. “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate,” he writes in the section immediately preceding the lines quoted above, “for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.”
That is true, as well, and something that people in the Church, whose energies are dedicated to advocacy and work in other areas, forget at their peril.
The plain, painful fact of the matter is that each of us can only do so much. Some of us will be committed to one cause or a few, others of us to another, or others. Where and when we can support each other, we ought to do so. Where and when we cannot, we must be out of each other’s way. We cannot allow our dedication to one cause under the impetus of charity and in true service of the Gospel to lead us to despise another, still less into denigration of our fellows, who are in the service of that other cause or causes. We shall disagree from time to time over how best to serve the Gospel. We cannot build the kingdom by destroying and devouring one another.