He’s No Secular Saint: The Trojan Pope

Published December 3, 2013

Time Magazine

Last week, Pope Francis sparked a conversation, yet again, with his Evangelii Gaudium, his 50,000 word “papal exhortation” delivered to the worldwide flock. And again, the partisan clawing over every papal word missed the larger point about what’s truly novel, both about this document and this Francis. Evangelii Gaudium sheds new light on the seismic chasm between what many people think they know about Church teaching, and what that teaching actually is. And bridging that gap is what this creative pope and this exhilarating new document are all about.

Consider just one example that can be cited to back Evangelii Gaudium’s insistence that the Church has many doors to bring in the world: namely, Christian teachings concerning the non-human rest of creation. We live in an era when moral consciousness about the treatment of animal life is probably higher than ever before. More and more Western people tack toward vegetarianism and veganism. More and more of us, vegetarian or not, are mindful about where our food comes from, and many seek actively to reduce gratuitous cruelty in its production. And as many people don’t know but might be interested to hear, Catholic teaching has had plenty to say about the proper appreciation and concern for animal life – in fact, more and more so.

As Francis’s text made clear, the same denunciations of consumerism and a “throw-away” culture also apply to the situation of animals: “There are other weak and defenseless beings who are frequently at the mercy of economic interests or indiscriminate exploitation.” Similarly, the Catechism itself states that animals are owed moral treatment. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVIand Pope John Paul II, among other august figures, also connected the moral dots between the ethical treatment of human beings and the ethical treatment of the rest of creation.

And more recently, numerous Catholic and Catholic-influenced writers, predominantly traditionalists, have made similar points. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the most creative recent thinking out there on animal welfare these days is emanating from conservatives, or Christians – or both. Consider former speechwriter Matthew Scully’s recent manifesto at National Review; Caitrin Nichols’ “Do Elephants Have Souls?” in the New Atlantis; and theologian Charles Camosy’s new book For Love of Animals (disclosure: I wrote the introduction.)

As any Pope named Francis already knows, the bridge between the religious and secular world is obviously a two-way street. If it’s wrong to treat animals as mere things – if doing so is one more corruption born of a “consumerist” mindset – then how is it all right to regard unborn human beings under the blithe rubric of “choice”? Can a secular world be persuaded that compassion for living creatures of all kinds doesn’t start and end at the slaughterhouse door? Evangelii Gaudium, like the pope himself, minces no words on what it means to have a consistent ethic of life: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.”

In sum, what political partisans battling to claim Francis as their own don’t yet seem to understand is that neither Evangelii Gaudium nor Francis I himself is letting anyone off the hook for inconsistency. This includes the pope’s latest secular fans, who don’t yet see the quid pro quo being exacted from them in turn.

They will. It’s one giant wooden horse that this Bishop of Rome is wheeling into the secular square these days, and the attention it’s getting bears at least passing comparison to that story from long-ago Troy. Now as then, the oohs and aahs of the village are upon this remarkable thing. Now as then, those present point to it with curiosity and excitement. But do they really know what’s in that horse, and what it means to loose on them?

The more Francis I talks, the more we’re all about to find out.

Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of  How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press).

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