A wide-ranging interview with Pope Francis, conducted by his fellow Jesuit Rev. Antonio Spadaro, has just been published in various journals. Some Catholics have expressed to me their alarm that the Pope seems to be downplaying the Church's emphasis on pro-life and pro-family activism. But I do not share that alarm at all. In fact, when I first received a request to comment on his interview, I was actually with him in the dining hall of the Casa Santa Marta, where he lives. A few hours earlier, I had given a speech at a Vatican conference about the Church's role in defending human life, and the priority of confronting the problem of abortion. I have had the opportunity to speak to Pope Francis twice about my pro-life work within the Church, and have received nothing but encouragement. My work with Priests for Life is aimed at assisting the Church to be more effective in responding to the tragedy of abortion.
So what was the Pope's point about the Church's teaching on abortion?
It is actually a point that I make all the time, namely, that our teachings about abortion and our efforts to end it are not an optional, "extracurricular activity" added onto our Faith by those who feel so inclined. Rather, they are integral to our Faith and flow directly from our most basic beliefs about God and salvation. In the interview, the Pope said, "The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives." Of course, that is true, and it is true not only of our teaching on abortion but of our teaching on every moral issue.
The Pope has practiced what he is preaching here. Take, for instance, his homily on the worldwide "Day of the Gospel of Life" that he held on Sunday, June 16 with a Mass in Saint Peter's Square in the presence of pro-life leaders and activists from around the world. I concelebrated that Mass, and after it was over, some were expressing concern to me that the Pope did not explicitly mention abortion in the homily.
But here is what he did say: "The Scriptures everywhere tell us that God is the Living one, the one who bestows life and points the way to the fullness of life…The commandments are not a litany of prohibitions -- you must not do this, you must not do that, you must not do the other; on the contrary, they are a great "Yes!": a yes to God, to Love, to life."
That is what the Pope means in his interview by putting the abortion teaching in context. This actually protects and strengthens the Church's teaching on abortion -- and other moral issues -- because by basing these stances on the fundamental affirmations of the Faith, and in this case on the very nature of God. By doing this, the Pope is not simply saying that abortion is wrong, but showing us why the stance of Faith can only lead to that conclusion, and no other. If a person rejects the Church's position against abortion, they are not rejecting merely an opinion or a political stance; they are rejecting the Faith itself.
The Pope, in fact, in that June 16 homily, said that failing to respect life is the same as idolatry. "All too often," he proclaimed, "as we know from experience, people do not choose life, they do not accept the "Gospel of Life" but let themselves be led by ideologies and ways of thinking that block life, that do not respect life, because they are dictated by selfishness, self-interest, profit, power, and pleasure, and not by love…As a result, the Living God is replaced by fleeting human idols which offer the intoxication of a flash of freedom, but in the end bring new forms of slavery and death."
From the beginning of his pontificate, I have been encouraged by the approach of Pope Francis to pro-life issues. For him, it is all about integrating the Church's teaching and practice of faith and morals, and it all centers on connecting with the human person as we connect with Christ. His desire to wash the feet of prisoners and walk among the poor is precisely the spirit that connects him and all of us with our poorest and weakest neighbors, the unborn. The Pope's emphasis on "context" and "balance" is precisely what prevents us from saying that his focus on the poor and marginalized means less focus on the unborn. This is precisely the kind of disconnected thinking the Pope opposes.
Context includes the context of human reason, which shows that abortion claims more human lives than anything else, and the context of all the teaching documents of the Church, which teach that our most fundamental right, and the condition for all the others, is life itself. It also brings us to the context of mercy, which is why, in one of my conversations with Pope Francis, he praised in particular the work of Rachel's Vineyard, of which I am the Pastoral Director. This is the largest ministry for healing and forgiveness for those who have had abortions. Saying yes to life is saying yes to mercy.
So no, I am not alarmed by the Pope's interview, or by a perceived "backing off" from the emphasis on abortion. He is doing no such thing.
Read more commentary from Fr. Frank about the Pope's words
The Pope, Abortion, Mercy and Context