Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran a major story detailing a poll conducted by Univision, which reportedly examined the views of 12,000 Catholics from twelve countries. The survey revealed that of those polled, a majority of Catholics in the developed world disagreed with Church teaching on contraception and abortion, while those in Africa and Asia were largely faithful to Church teaching. Ronald Ingelhart, head of the World Values Survey, concluded, “Right now, the less-developed world is staying true to the old world values, but it’s gradually eroding even there. [Pope Francis] doesn’t want to lose the legitimacy of the more educated people.”
This assessment is problematic if one looks at the poll from a Christian perspective. It is not a tenet of the Catholic faith to say that because one is “more educated,” one is more enlightened. Nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus indicate this. This is not to say that the truths of faith are not intelligible: The rich intellectual tradition of the Church illustrates the opposite. But in the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly gets through to those who are not educated: to the prostitutes, sinners, and children. He says, “Unless you become like children you will not enter the Kingdom of God.” (Mt 18:3). It is the Pharisees, those who were well-versed in the Jewish law and tradition, who missed the boat.
To become child-like does not mean to remain ignorant or to be “childish.” Rather, it is to put on a spirit or disposition to trust and obey someone who you love. That “someone” is not an old man in Rome or anyone else who has held the chair of Peter before him. It is Jesus, with whom one has a personal encounter, and who has promised to be with his Church.
Pope Francis himself said in a homily on January 30, 2014, that “it is absurd to say that you follow Christ but reject the Church.” He said:
Fidelity to the Church, fidelity to its teaching; fidelity to the Creed; fidelity to the doctrine, safeguarding this doctrine. Humility and fidelity . . . we receive the message of the Gospel as a gift and we need to transmit it as a gift, but not as a something of ours: it is a gift that we received. And be faithful in this transmission. Because we have received and we have to gift a Gospel that is not ours, that is Jesus’, and we must not — he would say — become masters of the Gospel, masters of the doctrine we have received, to use it as we please.
The Post claimed that Pope Francis has his work cut out for him in order to maintain the unity that he has inspired among Catholics. But Pope Francis will merely continue what he has been doing: to go to the margins and to invite everyone to the table to partake in the banquet, in all of fullness and beauty. His “legitimacy” concerns have nothing to do with the world, but everything to do with the countercultural Gospel of Christ.
And it may just be that those clinging to “old world values” are the freest of us all — whose lives have been illuminated by the gift of faith and accept the fullness of Church teaching. It will not be news to anyone who is familiar with Pope Francis’s near-year of service or the Gospel itself, that we have a lot to learn from the poor. They may just lead us to an enlightenment.
— Elise Italiano is a high-school bioethics teacher in Washington, D.C., and a volunteer for Catholic Voices USA.