The election of Pope Francis in 2013 was a bit of a surprise. Francis is not quite like his most recent predecessors; consequently, his papacy has been atypical. He has been celebrated as a more down-to-earth pontiff who eschews the luxuries enjoyed by previous popes. Unlike his predecessors, Francis seems to have made headlines for far more controversial things.
Francis has been accused of promoting “Chrislam,” a merging of Christianity and Islam. He authorized Islamic prayer and Qur’an readings at the Vatican in 2014, referred to Muslims as brothers and sisters, stated Muslims worship the same God as Christians, and has called evangelism a “poison.” Francis also says immigrant’s rights should override national security concerns and that he is in no position to judge homosexuality as wrong. With statements like these, the Vatican must be paying their PR people lots of overtime.
Public involvement and the papacy have gone hand in hand for centuries. Innocent III (1160-1216), one of the most powerful popes ever to hold the office, often asserted his influence over European monarchies. He made frequent use of interdict–the excommunication of an entire region or nation–to bring kings into submission. Benedict IX (1012-1056) was the stereotypical profligate tyrant, accused of everything from homosexuality to murder. He essentially sold the papacy to his godfather John Gratian, who became Gregory VI. Popes during the Ottoman Dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire had deep connections in German politics. They were so immoral that one historian called the papacy at this time the “pornocracy” (as he put it, “the reign of the porno popes”).
The political influence of the papacy continues today. Pope John Paul II roundly opposed communism, perhaps because of his experience in his native Poland. Swinging to the opposite side, Francis has been critical of capitalism – unsurprising considering that he hails from Argentina, where socialism has been held in high esteem (despite its utter failure worldwide throughout the 20th century). Either way, does the pope have any business in politics? Since one of the Pope’s titles is the Vicar of Christ (a vicar is someone who acts as a substitute or an agent for a superior), what would Jesus say to the United States?
Francis had this opportunity on 24 September 2015. He could have provided a resolute condemnation of abortion, an industry that has claimed roughly 60 million lives in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade in 1973. It has been front and center in the American news for months, especially after the release of horrid videos of Planned Parenthood staff members speaking frankly about the value and sale of fetal body parts. Predictably, Planned Parenthood advocates stress their compliance with legal and medical standards. But following federal law is not the same as following God’s law. It would seem that only the scoundrel would resort to saying, “I’ve done nothing illegal” rather than, “I’ve done nothing immoral.” The two are not the same.
If the Pope mentioned abortion at all, it was only in a veiled reference. He said “if we want life, let us give life” and stated the Golden Rule “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” This was blunted by the fact that he immediately turned to a much more lengthy denunciation of the death penalty (contrast this with Gen. 9:6). He should have called for a repeal of the execution of those in the womb who have harmed no one else, caused no offense, and committed no crime.
There are New Testament precedents for addressing the moral concerns of figures in positions of political authority. Paul instructs believers to pray for those in government (1 Tim. 2:2), but we also have examples of John the Baptist condemning Herod for his unlawful marriage (Matt. 14:3-4; Luke 3:18-20), and Paul reasoning about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” with Felix (Acts 24:25).
A recent Pew poll shows that 23% of Catholics do not view abortion as a sin. A Gallup poll claims that 51% of Americans believe abortion is legal under certain circumstances, while 29% believe it is legal regardless of circumstances. It is unfortunate that Francis chose to say almost nothing about one of the greatest evils in the world today. His influence might have spared lives. Even if it had been only one, that one would have been enough.