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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“In older times we referred to humans as the human race, but according to this foundation we are being classed with the animals on the farm, the cow, the horse, the mule […] According to this foundation, I have no right to be born, for I am the youngest of 16 children, and God bless my mother for every one of them!”
— Archbishop Schrembs (d. 1945) vs. a foundation promoting artificial contraception

Pope Francis in Context
published 6 October 2013 by Fr. David Friel

HERE IS NO GOD. Is that a surprising statement? Not something you were expecting to read on this blog? Well, it is a quote right out of the Bible. It’s from Psalm 14: “There is no God.” Of course, if you read the whole verse, what it really says is this: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” The context changes everything, doesn’t it?

Nearly everyone is aware of the interviews Pope Francis has given in recent weeks, but surprisingly few have read the texts for themselves. The reality is that most Catholics are getting their sense of Pope Francis not from Pope Francis, but from the media, which can be dangerous. As the example of Psalm 14 shows, context really matters.

I’ve seen the news and read the interviews, and there is one thing that has disturbed me more than anything else. A number of headlines and articles mentioned that the Pope made remarks about “abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.” That is true. He said, “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” But, in the same sentence, a number of news outlets quoted the Holy Father talking about “small-minded church rules.” The obvious implication—what anyone reading the news story would think—is that Francis said that Church teachings on abortion, homosexual unions, and contraception amount to “small-minded church rules.” In fact, though, the two different quotes come from completely separate parts of the interview, many paragraphs apart. The two thoughts, in the context of the interview, are totally unrelated.

What did Pope Francis mean by “small-minded church rules”? I’m not sure, and I won’t presume to put words in his mouth. It is no surprise that the Church does have rules. For example: the faithful are required to fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion; Confirmation sponsors are supposed to be at least 16 years old; every Catholic must either abstain from meat or do another act of penance every Friday. I don’t view those rules as small-minded. The salvation of all the world may not hinge on them, but they are sensible rules.

But it is not a Church rule that killing children is wrong. That is a Divine Law and a dictate of natural reason. Neither is the invalidity of homosexual unions a Church rule, much less small-minded. It is not the rule of the Church, but rather the Law of God, written upon our hearts, that contraception is a grave moral evil.

Pope Francis is right when he said in his interview: “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” But we do have to talk about these things some of the time. In my role as a priest, and in every Christian’s role as a disciple of Christ, we cannot shy away from talking about important things, even when we know we might upset folks. Today is “Respect Life Sunday”—a good opportunity to talk about the importance of protecting and preserving human life. I think Pope Francis is challenging us not only to proclaim Church teachings on these topics, but also to explain the reason for them in fundamental, compelling ways. If people understood the immeasurable worth of the human person, they would never consider abortion a legitimate “choice.” If people understood what men & women are really doing when they offer each other the gift of themselves, they would never consider artificial birth control acceptable.

I have quoted a particular English hymn here on “Views from the Choir Loft” before. The title is “Help Us, O Lord, to Learn,” and I have found the lyrics to be quite thought provoking. The third verse goes like this:

Help us, O Lord, to teach the beauty of Thy ways, that yearning souls may find the Christ and sing aloud His praise.

Perhaps that is what Pope Francis would like us to do. Proclaim the unchanging truths of the faith, yes. But don’t forget to explain that these teachings are meant to bring us true happiness—in this life, and in the life to come. “Help us, O Lord, to teach the beauty of Thy ways”!