The Corner

‘Preach the Gospel Always. If Necessary, Use Words.’

By all accounts, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a holy man with a profound spiritual life. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he lived a life of simplicity, eschewing many of the trappings and perks that come with being a Prince of the Church and spending a great deal of time among the poor. So it is fitting that, when he was elected the 266th Bishop of Rome, he took the name Francis — a name synonymous with humility, simplicity, and devoted service to the poor.

Pope Francis is also a man who, as a young Jesuit provincial, fought to curtail the corrosive influence of liberation theology among the men in his care and has incurred the wrath of Argentina’s mercurial president, Cristina Kirchner, for his firm opposition to her liberal social agenda. He is unswerving on questions of Church doctrine.

So many want to know: Will Pope Francis be a traditionalist or a reformer; will he focus on orthodoxy or social justice; will he emphasize the truths of the faith or the necessity of serving the poor? But these are the wrong questions. The fact is that Pope Francis will remind the world that Catholicism rejects those dichotomies as false and proposes a both/and approach. Anything less is simply not Catholic.

As my colleague George Weigel points out in his extremely timely new book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, the Church exists to evangelize. Evangelization — spreading the Gospel — involves the transmission of certain unchangeable truths (including moral truths) about human beings and their relationship to God. But evangelization is not simply an intellectual or theoretical task; it requires a living witness to the love of God rooted in friendship with Jesus Christ. As the new pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was reported to have said, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”

That kind of radical discipleship reformed the Church and changed the world. Eight hundred years later, it can do so again.

 Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

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