Cynthia M. Allen: Francis knows his flock, seeks to reach them

By Cynthia M. Allen, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

By Cynthia M. Allen, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Pop quiz.

What is the source of the language, below?

Hint, the author is a significant, contemporary religious figure.

“The promotion of human dignity is linked to the right to a healthy environment, since this right highlights the dynamics of the relationship between the individual and society … The danger of serious damage to land and sea, and to the climate, flora and fauna, calls for a profound change in modern civilization’s typical consumer lifestyle, particularly in the richer countries. … The world’s present and future depend on the safeguarding of creation, because of the endless interdependence between human beings and their environment.”

If you guessed Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, you would be wrong.

That passage was crafted by one of his predecessors, none other than Pope (now saint) John Paul II — a hero of the conservative Reagan era — in a letter issued in celebration of the World Day of Peace in 1999.

It’s likely you’ve never read it before, but it certainly sounds consistent with the current pontiff’s letter released earlier this year regarding stewardship of the planet. Yet Pope Francis’ encyclical instantly made him a hero of the American political left while John Paul II was revered largely on the right.

In the week since the Holy Father’s historic visit to the United States, during which he addressed a joint session of Congress, pundits have been twisting themselves into pretzels trying to make heads or tails of the pontiff’s remarks.

For those keeping score, the pope’s focus on climate change, open borders and his call for the abolition of the death penalty seemed to signify a monumental shift in the political posture of this pope versus his immediate predecessors.

It wasn’t, but perception matters.

Oblique references to abortion, such as the pope’s call to “defend life at every stage of development,” and the conspicuous omission of a strong statement on religious liberty during the pope’s most widely viewed speech in America left many religious conservatives — who have remained steadfast in support of the church’s many counter-cultural teachings — feeling ignored. And political conservatives have found themselves struggling to defend a man and an office they had long assumed was a natural ally.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that Francis’ policy positions are not the radical departure from his predecessors that many purport them to be. In terms of doctrinal shifts, there is no daylight to speak of.

Still, speaking before Congress — and thus America at large — an audience of mixed religious and ideological make-up, the pope chose to emphasize issues of great import to the secular world, which, to be candid, is dominated by progressive thought.

Instead of giving religious conservatives a very public shot in the arm, he privately greeted the Little Sisters of the Poor, whose challenge to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate has become symbolic of the battle for religious liberty. And he surreptitiously met with the much-maligned Kentucky county clerk who chose jail over issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in violation of her conscience. Their encounter wasn’t even reported until Francis was back at the Vatican.

Many observers have used the pope’s actions, words and in some cases his silence to draw all sorts of conclusions about the pope’s priorities.

It seems clear to some that Francis would much rather be the pope associated with environmental stewardship and immigration than abortion and traditional marriage.

Perhaps it’s optimistic to assume his reasons for this preference are not political but pastoral in nature.

As a contemporary leader of a traditional institution, the pope’s role in the culture war is inescapable. And he has thus far exhibited stalwart support for the church’s sometimes difficult counter-cultural teachings on sexual morality. He hasn’t abandoned the faithful, and he seeks quiet opportunities to acknowledge their conviction.

But as a religious leader who likened his church to a “field hospital” and famously questioned his own authority to judge sinners, Francis also knows that to inspire the skeptics, attract the non-religious and call home those who have left the church, he must find common ground with powerful secular forces that regard the institution he leads with disdain and even hostility.

Francis wants to reach people — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — who resisted the call of the gospel in the past because they perceived the priorities of John Paul II or Benedict XVI as deal-breakers. With the message Francis sent while in America, many of those people may have just run out of excuses.

By Cynthia M. Allen, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Cynthia M. Allen, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at [email protected].

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at [email protected].

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