Next week, Pope Francis will come to the United States for the first time since becoming Pope, visiting New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., even taking time to address Congress.
But unlike some other papal visits, Pope Francis will likely make headlines for more than just traditional Bible lessons and teachings. His messages have actively attempted to tear down the wall between sermons and calls to social action for helping the poor, the environment and people facing injustice. And though some might see these as political issues, for Pope Francis, fighting injustice and helping those in need are inseparable from his teachings.
Here’s a look at four of Pope Francis’ most challenging ideas—and how he connects them back to the Gospel.
Expanding What It Means to Be “Pro-Life”
Though Pope Francis has remained adamantly anti-abortion (as Cardinal Bregoglio he called Christians to “Defend the unborn against abortion even if they persecute you”), he has consistently challenged believers to expand their understanding of what it means to take a “pro-life” position.
A constant theme of his teaching is that pro-life means more than being anti-death. Over and over again, he has linked recognizing and appreciating the dignity of every human life—because he or she was created in the image of God Himself—with the values of pro-life ethics.
For example, this means standing pro-life idea that “All life has inestimable value even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”
Challenging Our Addiction to Consumption
In 2013, Time magazine branded Francis the “Pope of the Poor,” mainly focusing on his constant outreaches to those living in poverty and his challenges to the Church to do more to help them. But beyond simply being pro-poor, Pope Francis, is in many ways, anti-wealth—or at least anti-loving and chasing wealth. In his eyes, this fuels an addiction to consumption that is poisoning the Body of Christ.
The Pope sees the unhealthy need for economic consumption as a spiritual deception into which other evils can be tied to. Yes, it also contributes to environmental destruction (see below), but the issue is more complicated that that. His teachings warn that disposable consumption can change who we are and how we see God.
This “culture of waste” tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, are no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if they are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful—like the unborn child—or are no longer of any use—like the elderly person.
He’s warned that our system of “economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics” because “it is no longer man who commands, but money, money, cash commands … Nevertheless men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the ‘culture of waste.’”
In one particularly poignant analogy, he draws a parallel to how completely devastated a person feels when their computer crashes, but are relatively unfazed reading about death in the news:
If a computer breaks it is a tragedy, but poverty, the needs and dramas of so many people end up being considered normal.
He said, “Some homeless people should freeze to death on the street—this doesn’t make news. On the contrary, when the stock market drops 10 points in some cities, it constitutes a tragedy.”
Though Pope Francis does link consumption to caring for the environment—which he links to helping the poor and dignity of life—the issue is at the heart of how we frame our faith. According to him, it isn’t just a practical problem—it’s spiritual one, because earning wealth just to consume more puts the focus more on ourselves than what God can offer to us.
Framing Creation Care as a Justice Issue, Not a Political One
This summer, Pope Francis released his groundbreaking encyclical which almost entirely dealt with the idea of creation care. The 184-page document manages to link two of his most most frequent teachings themes—being “pro-life” and not falling pray to the seduction of consumption and chasing wealth—into a singular call to action: uniting Christians to care for the environment.
Though, in some circles, climate change and environmental activism are politically loaded issues, the pope’s approach is a little different. He makes the case that there is a moral and spiritual imperative that should stop Christians from taking a posture of inaction—particularly Christians in rich countries (as the Washington Post notes in these excerpts).
He wrote, “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.”
Essentially, he’s said that pollution, consumption and apathy has led to the poor being taken advantage of, preventing them from getting basic life-giving resources, which he again, links to his pro-life view, saying those who don’t have clean drinking water are denied the right to a life consistent with their divine dignity.
But, like other justice-related issues Pope Francis is known for, he links the issue back to a spiritual problem: We’ve broken a God ordained relationship. Citing Genesis, he says that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself.” He writes that after these relationships were “ruptured by sin” we “distorted our mandate to ‘have dominion’ over the earth (Gen 1:28), to ’till it and keep it’ (Gen 2:15).”
Again, his teaching takes a real-world, Gospel issue (caring for those in need), links into a real-world problem (poor environmental stewardship) that ultimately has it’s root in a spiritual deception.
Living with Constant Joy Even in a World Filled with Sorrow
Pope Francis is intimately familiar with the depths of human suffering, regularly ministering in the slums. And even though the plight of the world’s most desperate is a constant topic of his sermons, Pope Francis is an optimist. To him, maintaining joy despite difficult circumstance is a spiritual mandate.
Displaying constant joy isn’t just about happiness. It is the core of what he teaches: Christians are called to preach and embody Good News. That’s why we fight injustice, help the poor and preserve the dignity of life: God has shown us a better way through Christ; it that should be cause for joy.
As he explains, “We evangelize not with grand words, or complicated concepts, but with ‘the joy of the Gospel’, which ‘fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. For those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness’.”
The joy of the Lord is at the heart of evangelism for Pope Francis, not in spite of suffering, but because God offers eternal relief from it: Joy is rooted in the knowledge of redemption, which is at the heart of Gospel.
Evangelization can be a way to unite our hopes, concerns, ideals and even utopian visions. We believe this and we make it our cry. I have already said that, “in our world, especially in some countries, different forms of war and conflict are re-emerging, yet we Christians remain steadfast in our intention to respect others, to heal wounds, to build bridges, to strengthen relationships and to ‘bear one another’s burdens’. The desire for unity involves the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, the conviction that we have an immense treasure to share, one which grows stronger from being shared, and becomes ever more sensitive to the needs of others.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.