Francis, Medicine Man

by Kathryn Jean Lopez
The Church as field hospital for our time

Heal wounds, warm hearts. That’s what one sinner said the Catholic Church needs to do in the world today. 

That sinner, as he describes himself, happens to be the pope. 

Every time Pope Francis makes headlines — praying with over 3 million young people on Copacabana Beach in Rio, writing to G-20 leaders, praying for peace — there are multiple layers to his prayers and his messages. The most recent instance, of course, is the first extensive interview Francis, the first Jesuit pope, has given since his election. Originally published in the Italian Jesuit magazine, La Civiltà Cattolica, it was quickly disseminated among Jesuit publications in several countries. As the editor of America, Father Matthew Malone, put it on MSNBC’s Morning Joe the morning after his magazine published the English-language version, “We are created and redeemed and loved. Everything else . . . only makes sense in light of that reality.” That has been the message Pope Francis has repeated ever since he was elected. And it’s a safe bet he will repeat it until he no longer has a voice. 

On the same day the interview was published, National Review and the Independent Women’s Forum held an event in Washington, D.C., to debate whether there isn’t more of a “war on men” going on than the “war on women” the Obama administration and its abortion-industry allies have insisted is raging. Kirsten Powers, who worked for Bill Clinton and is on the left side of Fox News Channel panels, cautioned that in addressing injustices against boys and men in our culture, we must not do what feminism has done: pit women against men. As Pope Francis talked about women in his interview, he warned a bit about this too: Female machismo isn’t something the world needs; what we need is a recognition of the genius of the feminine that will bring more peace to the world. There’s a glorious complementarity in men and women as we are, in the world together. Let’s embrace that, and tell that story to the world. 

On the same panel, Judy Bachrach from Vanity Fair affirmed my right to oppose abortion, but echoed a widespread misunderstanding when it came to the topic of contraception. Those who oppose the federal government’s mandate that employer-sponsored health-insurance plans cover contraception (along with abortion-inducing drugs and female sterilization) are not seeking to assert control over women’s destinies, as Bachrach put it. She welcomed the pope’s interview, interpreting his words on love and mercy and balance to mean that this is not an issue the Church should be bothering anyone with.  

First of all, to believe that contraception isn’t best for a woman or a marriage isn’t beyond the realm of civilized society. Second, in the current U.S. debate, it’s a matter of the religious freedom that citizens who run businesses and religious institutions are in court fighting for — no small-business owner with a conscience that keeps him from contributing to these services is doing so because he is looking to control women’s destinies. Third, as for the pope, Church teaching on sexual morality is about fruitfulness and surrender. That won’t be understood if catechetical fundamentals aren’t — and none of it will make any sense if Christ’s love isn’t encountered. This is clear from so much of Francis’s preaching and witness as pope.

The pontiff did not say: “Go forth and contracept.” He did not say: “We have changed our minds about abortion and homosexuality.” The Church doesn’t quite work that way. And nothing in the life and words of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, suggests that that would be his inclination. What he is saying with his daily words and witness, is: The Gospels are for everyone; taste and see. God created you and loves you and wants you to be at peace with him. Pope Francis is saying what popes say. He is challenging everyone, conservatives and liberals — everyone who claims to be Christian — and highlighting the dignity of every woman and man.   

“The anxiety underlying all modern anxieties arises from someone’s trying to be himself without God or from his trying to get beyond himself without God,” the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote in Peace of the Soul. “Anxiety,” he said, “stems fundamentally from irregulated desires, from the creature wanting something that is unnecessary for him or contrary to her nature or positively harmful to one’s soul. Anxiety increases in direct ratio and proportion as man departs from God. Everyone in the world has an anxiety complex because each of us has the capacity to be either saint or sinner.”

To be a saint! That’s what we sinners are called to. That’s what the Church exists to help with — to help make miracles happen; to bring people straight to the heart of Christ, to live in union with the Trinity, alert to God’s presence in the world and in our hearts. That’s the context in which the world needs to be able to hear the Word. And this is the preoccupation of Pope Francis. When he prays for peace it’s so much deeper than anything we tend to debate on talking-head shows.

The pope is a world leader, and so we tend to listen to what he says and to try to fit it into our standard categories. But he’s fundamentally a priest, a pastor, a shepherd of souls. This is something this pope emphasizes when he celebrates daily Mass in the Vatican guesthouse and approaches people as the bishop of Rome, as a priest serving his Church. He gets letters from people in pain, and he gives them a call. He hears confessions. He knows the wounds of the world in the most intimate way, as confessors do. And this is what he is trying to communicate: that the “field hospital” that is the Church is inviting all to enter in, and it must go out and love and serve all.

In a new book, These Beautiful Bones, Emily Stimpson writes: “Our culture’s deeply confused understanding of human sexuality can’t be separated from its deeply confused understanding of all that makes us human and how, as humans, we’re called to live.” John Paul II left us a set of teachings about “what it means to be a human person,” known as “The Theology of the Body.” It covers sex, but it is so much more – it is “about what it means to be a union of body and soul, about what it means to be a man or a woman, about what it means to be made in the image of God.” That’s what the Church is for, healing wounds and proposing that which might just allow us to make sense of life. It offers proposals — practical, with eternal possibilities — that the world needs to hear, illuminating all our debates and anxieties. And the pope is intent on making sure we know this everlasting proposal, so help us, God.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez, a director of Catholic Voices USA, is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.