What the Pope Was Really Doing With Those Lines on Same-Sex Marriage and Abortion

Pope Francis is applauded as he arrives to speak during a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on Sept. 24, 2015.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

After reading some of the coverage of Pope Francis’ Thursday speech to Congress, a person could be forgiven for thinking that the pope was an American politician, dog whistling to his conservative base about his opposition to same-sex marriage. The headline on my Outward colleague Mark Joseph Stern’s post read, “Pope Expresses ‘Concern for the Family’ Before Congress in Allusion to Same-Sex Marriage.” (The Advocate went with something similar.) While the pope was indeed almost certainly alluding to same-sex marriage when he said: “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family,” taking the line out of context misses the larger point the pope was making in that section of the speech. In this case, missing that point risks missing a key theme of the speech itself.

Here’s the relevant passage in full:

I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse, and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they, too, are dissuaded from starting a family.

See what he did there? After feinting toward same-sex marriage, the pope moves in an unexpected direction—toward the ways that child abuse, violence, and the lack of a hopeful future impact young people. These are the problems he calls for us to face, and to seek solutions for—not same-sex marriage, which is never mentioned directly. It’s almost as if Pope Francis thinks the most urgent threats to family life are violence, abuse, and lack of opportunity.

The use of this rhetorical technique is significant, because it’s not the only example of this pattern of feinting toward a familiar (and familiarly divisive) issue, then pivoting to a topic that has been relatively ignored in contemporary American politics. Elsewhere in the speech the pope made an allusion to abortion, and this reference was structured in a very similar way:

The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.

Here, again, the specter of a divisive social issue is raised only as a precursor for a move toward less well-trodden territory. In this case, however, the media at least seems to have figured out what the pope was doing. Most of the stories that mention this line also include the pivot toward the death penalty.

When it comes to the larger takeaways from the speech, however, the focus has been on which issues were advocated for and how strongly. NPR even made a list of the “10 Most Political Moments in Pope Francis’ Address to Congress.” Much of the coverage of the pope’s entire visit has focused on the extremely narrow question of which politicians the pope is “good for” and which ones he is “bad for.”

What the pope was doing when he signaled a right turn only to veer left was not to indicate a relaxing of his convictions about same-sex marriage or abortion, and it certainly wasn’t a show of support for Democratic politicians. Rather, it was part of a larger attempt to prod U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle to see beyond the narrow sets of issues that obsess the country during its election cycles and to abandon the factionalism this narrowness engenders so they can solve more pressing problems. It shouldn’t take careful reading or the ability to hear dog whistles to understand this, because he stated it quite plainly long before he mentioned threats to the family or protecting life at ever stage of its development:

A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.

The fact that this central point has largely been missed is a sign of how badly the message itself is needed.

Hat tip to Slate commenter SPGxGPS@gmail.com, whose ideas inspired this post.

See more of Slate’s coverage of Pope Francis’ U.S. visit.