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Why does Pope Francis back liberal causes directly, conservative causes subtly?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 24, 2015

Pope Francis challenged Americans of both liberal and conservative political sympathies in his historic address to Congress on September 24. But his objections to conservative stands were clear and direct, while his criticism of liberals subtle and oblique. Why?

The Holy Father made no bones about his opposition to the death penalty, his support for immigration, and his concern about climate change. His strong statements on those topics will headline news coverage of the speech. Since it was, after all, a speech to a political audience—there’s nothing more political than a gathering of Congressmen—it is not unfair to consider the political impact of the Pope’s remarks.

On the whole, judging from the early responses, it seems that Catholic liberals were pleased with the Pope’s speech; Catholic conservatives were frustrated. Both groups, I submit, have reason to reconsider their initial reactions.

While the “money quotes” were about immigration and the death penalty, the general tenor of the Pope’s remarks should have been unsettling to liberal listeners. The Pontiff himself said that concern for the family would be a “recurrent theme” of his visit to the US, and when he lamented that “the very basis of marriage and the family” is being called into question, he was obviously referring to (among other things) the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Some conservatives have protested that the Pope never mentioned abortion. It’s true that the word does not appear in his speech, but when the Pope reminded legislators that “you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness of God on every human face,” no one should have missed the message. If anyone did, he came back to it a few minutes later, speaking of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”

The messages were there, evident to anyone who was ready to listen to them. But why did the Pope approach these topics indirectly, when he had dove straight into other political topics?

Here’s my theory:

Just the previous day, in his talk to the US bishops’ conference, the Pope had cautioned against a confrontational approach. “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor,” he said. When he spoke to Congress, I believe, the Pope was following his own advice.

Notice how the Holy Father approached the question of international terrorism:

We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.

The specific problem troubling the world today is not just any form of religious extremism, but Islamic extremism. However, to say that aloud is to invite a firestorm; remember how Pope Benedict XVI paid for his candid comments on Islam in his Regensburg lecture. Pope Francis evidently believed that he did not need to mention Islamic extremism in particular; he could count on his listeners to draw the obvious inferences.

But when he speaks on questions of American domestic policy, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, Pope Francis surely isn’t worried that a candid statement will provoke riots and firebombs. So why is he so careful to frame his arguments carefully, avoiding a head-on clash?

Is it because he knows that the American defenders of life and of marriage really are in sympathy with the Catholic Church, whereas proponents of abortion and homosexuality are fundamentally hostile? Because he knows that he must first establish some common ground with liberal secularists (including some who masquerade as Catholics) before he can expect any positive response? Because he realizes that he can encourage pro-lifers indirectly, and the message will come through loud and clear? Maybe the Pope is reaching out to the lost sheep, confident that the others will await his return.

Still I hope that before he ends his American sojourn, the Holy Father will find an occasion to reassure the stalwart Catholics who have been caught up for years in the culture wars, defending life and marriage. The World Meeting of Families would be an ideal occasion for the Pope to repeat, in his way, the message that the father of the Prodigal Son gave to the elder brother: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 12 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bruno - Oct. 13, 2015 9:50 PM ET USA

    I come back, again and again, to the missionary spirit of the Jesuits so well embodied in St. Jean deBrebeuf in 'Saint of the Huron'. He had to be an anthropologist and linguist before he could even start working on converting the natives. Once he could speak to them, his message started off very simply, "Fr. Jean loves you and wants you to be with God in Heaven someday." Pope Francis reminds me of this missionary speaking to a pagan people who "know not their left hand from their right."

  • Posted by: wmccormick9730 - Sep. 30, 2015 10:59 AM ET USA

    The recent news that the Holy Father (may have) met with Kim Davis privately seems to reinforce your argument.

  • Posted by: Jerz - Sep. 28, 2015 10:20 AM ET USA

    Phil, nice thoughts. It's very easy to find fault. I appreciate your trying to find the best theory.

  • Posted by: LCRich - Sep. 26, 2015 9:50 PM ET USA

    Personally, I do not think that Pope Francis spoke clearly, by any means, on the need to end abortion. His statement, "our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” would not prompt any pro-abortion advocate to think he was including abortion in that comment. A fetus is not human to pro-aborts. We believe that a child is a human being with a soul known by Almighty God from conception. I think he carefully choose his words for purposeful lack of clarity.

  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - Sep. 26, 2015 1:03 PM ET USA

    "those safe in the fold can hold their own for the time being. This reaching out...in the long run probably is what endears him to the secular world and may be more "profitable" with regard to conversions." This seems to be the perpetual attitude of our "leaders." And very few of those who have bailed seem to come back to the fold because of it. It's beyond time for the hierarchy to start encouraging those of us who have done the hard work of remaining faithful to Church teachings.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Sep. 26, 2015 10:06 AM ET USA

    No. Pope Francis has been very clear that he regards abortion as a low priority, concern for which he has described as small-minded and obsessive. If he is so attuned to authentic Catholic pastoralism, he would be able to answer the bewilderment expressed in his encyclical. Radical evironmentalists irrationally project disasters as a means to assuage their repressed conscience for their history of support for the slaughter of inconvenient life.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 25, 2015 10:40 PM ET USA

    After watching Pope Francis' address to the UN, I think I can answer the question I asked this morning. Was his speech to Congress appropriate or not? I have to answer that not only was it appropriate, it was brilliant. It was balm for a sick and increasingly decadent nation. He pointed out our historic flaws, then absolved us. His was fatherly guidance and compassion. Not so at the UN. There he fired both barrels. No pandering, no Mr. Nice Guy. He told it as it is. It was worth the wait.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Sep. 25, 2015 10:37 PM ET USA

    Say what?!! Pope Benedict's Regensburg address hit the nail so square it should be in the GBofR. He only "paid" for it because it blew liberal minds but the thinking folk on the Muslim side admitted the need for reflection. That address is, and will remain, far more significant and "historical" than Laudato Si will ever be. BTW, being subtle leaves only room for the imagination - and the pundits.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Sep. 25, 2015 8:04 PM ET USA

    I came to the same conclusion/theory that the Pope is reaching out to the lost sheep, confident that those safe in the fold can hold their own for the time being. This reaching out, I believe, is his way and in the long run probably is what endears him to the secular world and may be more "profitable" with regard to conversions.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Sep. 25, 2015 7:48 PM ET USA

    I have been much aware that my feelings about the Pope have been of the "elder brother" variety, so I appreciate your using that reference. It is so difficult not to feel neglected!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 25, 2015 7:07 AM ET USA

    Pope Francis' address to Congress followed along the lines of his answers to interview questions ever since his election to the papacy. Nothing in his speech should have surprised anyone. His exaggerated condemnations of capital punishment and polluters no doubt are an expression of his South American experience, where political injustice is an institution and rape of the Amazon rain forest has been unceasing for decades. His speech was political, not a moral discourse. Appropriate? Who knows?

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Sep. 24, 2015 7:43 PM ET USA

    I think faithful Catholic stalwarts will get what the Pope's real message with what comes out of the Synod on the Family next month.