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Pope Francis: Not so much do as I say as do as I do.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 24, 2015

For my money, the most important thing Pope Francis has done so far while here in the United States has been to make a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are busy fighting the HHS Mandate. That visit, if it were understood, would focus more attention on the key problems facing American society than just about anything else.

To both President Obama and Congress, the Pope stressed the issues of openness to immigration and care for the environment. Those are significant issues, but not issues on which the Pope’s priorities differ greatly from those of a great many Americans, including a great many American politicians. Similarly, matters about which even Catholics can disagree, such as the Pope’s recommendations for best practices on capital punishment, are not really the best topics for prophetic witness.

Of course there is a tradition in papal diplomacy (really, in all diplomacy) of attempting to situate desirable goals within a country’s putative (or even largely mythic) traditional strengths. Thus the reminders about immigration obviously fit well with the American experience, despite its deficiencies. And in many ways, at least apart from over-consumption and its possible impact on climate change, the American environmental track record is already comparatively fairly good.

Pope Francis has also alluded to the importance of religious liberty more than once, but as I’ve pointed out before (The religious liberty defense can, and probably will, obscure the truth), the question of religious liberty cannot be considered properly apart from the natural law. It will take a teacher both brilliant and subtle to drive that point home. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had that sort of mind, but this does not seem to be a strength of Pope Francis.

Francis has also pointed out, without pressing the matter too much, that America has grave problems when it comes to the family—whether abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, or other influences which tend to diminish family life. As I said, he has not pressed this too much yet, but in his speech to Congress he said, among other things, “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”

In fact, the Pope reminded everyone that the focus of his visit to the United States was the family, as represented by his participation in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. He stated (warned?) that the family would be the chief topic of most of his talks while in this country.

When visiting in another’s country, there is always the question of how one can convey important Christian insights without alienating one’s hosts. But I confess to yearn for a Pope who is particularly good at speaking truth to power. This task entails stressing the particular truths that the powerful do not wish to hear.

Nonetheless, the current Pope’s claim to greatness, and perhaps even his salvation, may be less likely to be won through words than through his flair for significant gestures—for gestures that are intended as a direct guide to moral action. Hence the dramatic importance of his unplanned visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor. Here we find Pope Francis especially recognizing a religious community noted throughout the United States for two things: (1) Intensely humble and sacrificial service to the poor and the elderly; (2) A courageous refusal to bend the Christian conscience to the power of the State on the central life issues of our time.

Once again, for my money, the most important thing Pope Francis has done so far is to visit the Little Sisters of the Poor. We should consider that this Pope will almost certainly never counsel us to “Do as I say, not as I do.” Most often, I think, his actions speak more loudly than his words. His gestures are nearly always both a simpler and a clearer guide to the lesson he wants us to learn.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 28, 2015 3:43 PM ET USA

    The other blogs I subscribe to did not miss the point the Holy Father made. As one noted, he "Poked [President] Obama in the eye" with it.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Sep. 25, 2015 1:31 PM ET USA

    I too am pleased that Pope Francis visited the Little Sisters. I also think it's the most important thing he's done. He is quoted as saying that there is no point in being divisive. Afraid divisiveness has already been initiated against faithful Catholics. We need, as you noted, a John Paul II or a Benedict XVI. I feel that many of the Pope's actions amount to a type of grandstanding. Drive the 15 year old car that I drive and pray every morning that it doesn't break down. Then come talk.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 24, 2015 8:08 PM ET USA

    There are plenty of folks making kind gestures; there are plenty living exemplary lives. The question is why are so many folks expressing frustration about Pope Francis' words- not simply to Congress, but while in Cuba and in South America? Why do Catholic and non-Catholic analysts alike point to the inconsistency that speeches in South America sounded "Marxist" but in DC were much more moderate? "But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes ' or 'No, no'"... Matt 5:37. Teach, govern, sanctify.