Pope Francis, your honeymoon with the Western press is over.
Of course, media accolades and praise were never his motivation. In fact, he has directly warned against the cult of celebrity, which is in danger of missing the point: the Gospel of Christ that he affirms in gesture, word, and deed.
But when Rolling Stone put him on its cover earlier this year, the piece inside was actually a secularist libertine warning: Don’t disappoint us. Don’t be another one of those guys reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
And now the Holy See will be appearing before a United Nations committee on torture. The appearance is voluntary on the part of the Holy See and normal for anyone who has signed the Convention against Torture. And yet there is a disturbing ideological push on the U.N.’s part where the Catholic Church is concerned. This is the second sign this year that the United Nations, in the name of human dignity, is actually on a crusade against the foremost protector of human life and flourishing.
In February, the U.N.’s Committee on the Rights of the Child made accusations against the Holy See that were based on misunderstanding, ignorance, and politics and that undermine the credibility of the U.N. and betray its agenda. In 2003, the Boston Globe did the world — and the Church — a service when it exposed the depths of a culture where priests were moved around instead of being turned over to secular legal authorities when they committed crimes. The U.N. bases its accusations on that culture, one that no longer exists, as independent audits here in the United States make clear. With the time and money for screening and training that the Catholic Church now puts into protecting children, it is a different world today from the one the U.N. insists still exists. Further, the same U.N. report made clear that any evidence the Church might present won’t be considered convincing because there’s a campaign in progress: Factions at the U.N. believe that the problem is Church teaching on the complementarity of women and men — the idea that each sex might most naturally be made by God with an inherent dignity and with differences from the other sex that are ordered for love and procreation. And this is the danger of secularism today: Cloaked in rhetorical tolerance, a tyrannical streak is a temptation.
That same month I spoke to a Catholic women’s group in Denver, ENDOW. In the audience were a few women religious from the Little Sisters of the Poor. We gave them a standing ovation, because they are among those who have filed suit to protect their religious freedom: the freedom to not have to surrender to Caesar’s mandate and succumb to sexual-revolutionary values by providing to their employees insurance coverage for abortion drugs, contraception, and female sterilization. Caesar does not have the right to coerce them into violating their consciences. Caesar assumes that conscience as the Little Sisters of the Poor live it is dead. But it’s not, and Caesar isn’t going to put conscience in chains. That’s not religious freedom. That’s not Caesar’s place. Like Pope Francis, those women are the last people looking for personal attention. But they know they have to stand up for our God-given rights.
Much of the media coverage of what sounds very much like a torture show trial to come makes accusations about the Church and child protection that are stuck in the past, ignoring what works today, and missing what’s right in front of our eyes. When Pope Francis says we can never work hard enough to protect children, he isn’t just talking, but reflecting the policy directives now in place in schools and churches and chanceries, with the United States leading the way.
And don’t miss who the pope is and what he has been doing. Embracing, admonishing, renewing, reforming. Pope Francis is embracing the Gospels, encountering Christ Himself so that he might share Christ’s merciful love with anyone who is within the sound of his voice, or who can see his tender invitation. In his daily homilies and many addresses he admonishes sinners — himself, all of us, and in a very direct way those who work for the Church and most certainly those who are priests. You must be fathers, he exhorts them, if you are called “Father”! Protect your children, help your family flourish. It made headlines in recent days when Pope Francis asked forgiveness from victims of abuse. To think that this is an isolated incident is to miss his papacy entirely. He is being advised by, among others, Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, who has been a healing pastor for a deeply scarred and scandalized people. He has brought in lay people, abuse victims, and independent consultants for further reform work and guidance. And the big picture of most everything Pope Francis is doing and saying is integral to authentic renewal.
Scandal happens, Pope Francis has said, when there is no living relationship with God. Anyone — and most certainly, dear Heaven, a priest or anyone else trusted with the care and teaching of children — who perverts that relationship or overlooks evil (and illness) is most obviously not living the Gospel but has rejected it. Priests who committed gravely evil acts were not being Catholics, were most clearly not being the tender fathers so many of the holy men I know in the priesthood are, shepherding their flock in true relationship with Christ, knowing their own need for God’s strength and protection, welcoming others to Him.
Everything Pope Francis has been doing since he was elected pontiff points to real Christianity. And it’s not simply being nice and good. It’s a radical surrender to a self-giving, sacrificial love for others out of love of God.
Church teaching about the discerning life, one of human flourishing in a surrender of freedom to God’s loving will, involves proposals based in faith and reason about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Unlike Caesar (whether an Obamacare mandate or a U.N. summons), God doesn’t coerce but proposes. The Church should be free to teach and preach and live these proposals. That freedom is in danger. Those are the stakes in courtrooms in the U.S. today, in the mob pressure that led to the ouster of Mozilla’s CEO over a campaign contribution in support of marriage, and in United Nations hearings.
Our hearts yearn for love and peace, and this is what the Church exists to bring people to. It would be torture to live without joy, to not see and hear proposals about the way to live it. Mercifully, even the U.N. doesn’t have the power to kill conscience.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.