The Pope on a Plane

September 13, 2017

And so the Holy Father was asked for his view about President Trump’s recent suspension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. [1] This is getting to be a common occurrence: Pope Francis takes questions from reporters in flight, a controversial question is proffered, the pope answers said question, and the answer itself makes news.

There are certain partisans who wish that he would not speak so extemporaneously, and it cannot be denied that remarks to reporters are far more subject to subsequent pundit manipulation than words in an encyclical. On the other hand, the words of encyclicals don’t get quite the media dispersal that are afforded direct comments in front of reporters. Thus we observe people, including many Catholics, who think that Pope Francis represents some radical departure from Church teaching, when, in fact, the things that he says, both in official writings and on airplanes, are completely rooted in the Catholic teaching that preceded him.

Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation)
For example, consider these words:

“Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.” (Sec. 36) [2]    

Anyone who thinks that this must come from Pope Francis, since it is taking aim at an unregulated market and using the dreaded “r” word (redistribution), is demonstrably wrong. In point of fact, it comes from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. That’s right, Pope Benedict XVI, who couldn’t buy a friend on the political “left,” and who is now looked back on fondly by some on the political “right” as having been a pope more aligned with that ‘true’ Catholicism that champions America’s rightful place in the world and supply-side economics.

The point here is that, in modern times, popes tend to become symbols for ideas and attitudes that give a distorted picture of the pontiffs themselves. Pope Benedict XVI was looked upon as a reactionary seeking to drag the Church back to reaffirming positions on the so-called pelvic issues that she never actually renounced, or ever came close to renouncing. Thus, when he wrote on the problems that arise from an unregulated market, as above, few heard him. Pope Francis has made his remarks on the unjust economy in more public settings (in addition to his formal writings), and has become known for them. This made him, for a time, a hero of the “left,” which inexplicably was surprised when it turned out that he was opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. But both pontiffs were and have been true to Catholic teaching and tradition, to include her social doctrine.

Kancelaria Prezydenta RP -
Now when asked about the DACA program, Pope Francis responded that he hadn’t studied the matter in detail. So, he spoke in more general terms, “saying that ‘to take away young people from their families is not something that bears fruit, neither for the young people nor for their families.’” He went on to say this: “’I have heard it said that the president of the United States presents himself as a man who is pro-life, and if he is a good pro-life [man] then he will understand that the family is the cradle of life, and that it must be defended as a unit.’” In other words, a true pro-life policy will not separate families.

It will be pointed out that a pope’s response to reporters on a plane is not magisterial. That’s true. But what follower of Catholic teaching can refute the logic? Surely Catholic teaching promotes the family, and opposes any measures that would damage it. Separating families certainly damages them. It follows that Catholic social teaching holds that governments should not engage in policies that separate families.

What is particularly significant is that the Holy Father identified this as the pro-life position, which is reflective of the fact that the entirety of Catholic social teaching is pro-life. This is because the entire body of Catholic social teaching identifies each living human being as an end in himself. The family shares in this, because it is the organic foundation for all human life. The state, on the other hand, derives its legitimacy from the manner in which it promotes human flourishing.

The entirety of Catholic social teaching is pro-life. There are not distinct pro-life portions that can be separated out from the entire body of it. All of Catholic social teaching is directed to the flourishing of human life as an end in itself. And this may be the most important thing to take away from the Holy Father’s recent remarks.

Jack Quirk