The Internet was all abuzz this week with news that Pope Francis had announced bold, sweeping changes to Catholic teachings on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Except, of course, that he hadn’t. Even a little bit.
This is the second time that Pope Francis has issued statements that amount to basically restating fundamental Christian theology, and has been met with awestruck praise from the mainstream press for revolutionizing the Catholic faith. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pleased (even as a non-Catholic) that everyone seems to love the New Catholicism so much. I’m just scratching my head because it is actually the same as the Old Catholicism.
Of course that’s a bit of an exaggeration: Pope Francis’s tone is markedly different. But that doesn’t actually justify all the “did you hear what the Pope just said!?!?!” coverage that is coming out, because the secular press is just as incapable of understanding the New Catholicism as it was of understanding the Old Catholicism. It hated the one and loves the other, but it understands neither.
Pope Francis has a particular style and focus, but the Gospel has not changed. It has always comprised of basically two facts. First: we are sinners in a fallen world. Second: Jesus saves. Pope Francis is teaching the same things that have been taught before. The media seems to take his emphasis on the second prong as a subtle hint that he is denigrating the first, but that’s a completely unwarranted assumption. In the original interview he stated “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church.” If that wasn’t clear enough, he has given his strongest remarks about abortion to date in the days following the reaction to that interview. He has reiterated the fundamental Catholic doctrines about the sanctity of all human life, and the incompatibility of abortion with that doctrine.
On the optimistic side, I’d love to believe that the world at large will give new attention to what it means to be “pro-life.” It has never been a synonym for “anti-abortion”. Being pro-life is about the belief that all human life is sacred, from conception to death, and it entails not only an opposition to abortion but also the Pope’s exemplary compassion and love for everyone, including the disabled, the poor, and–yes–the sinner. (We are all sinners, after all.)
Realistically: the mainstream media is a vapid and shallow institution that relates to the Pope’s comments the way a small animal relates to a squirrel in the park: something to be excited about for a moment, but quickly forgotten. Which is a shame. If they paid more attention, they might find something life-changing about a Christianity that is a deeper than just “be nice.”