By Charlie Johnston
(This article has been updated to correct several errors)
Once again, Pope Francis has rattled folks with off-the-cuff comments he made on a plane heading back to Rome.
According to news reports (which I never completely trust), when asked if abortion or contraception could be considered the lesser of two evils when trying to combat the Zika virus, the Pope said there is a clear difference between contraception and abortion: that abortion is a crime and can never be considered a “lesser evil,” but that contraception in some extreme cases to avoid pregnancy is not an absolute evil. Pope Francis cited the case when Pope Paul VI approved giving nuns in the Belgian Congo contraception to prevent them from becoming pregnant during the frequent rapes they faced as an example of the type of extraordinary circumstances he was talking about. And yet, Pope Francis did not even actually say contraceptives may ever be licit. He said there can be good cause for avoiding pregnancy at times – and the media combined that with his comment that contraception is not always an absolute evil to mean he approved contraception.
Both of these Papal comments on the limited use of contraceptives over the last half-century have been focused on dire circumstances and extraordinary situations. Both of the Popes who voiced such conditional waivers remained adamant that abortion is always and everywhere a crime against humanity.
One need not agree with Pope Francis to acknowledge his comments were neither unprecedented nor inconsistent with the policy of a revered predecessor. Certainly, at the time Pope Paul VI made his allowance for nuns in a hideously dangerous country, contraception almost exclusively meant condoms or the pill. Some modern products called contraceptives are actually abortaficients, so Pope Francis might have made explicit that those are never licit – but he did say that abortion is always a crime, so it certainly was implicit in his comments.
More worrisome were his comments that Donald Trump was not Christian “…if he wants to address illegal immigration only by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.” The word, ‘only,’ in this comment is an important one, I think. If that is your only approach, it is problematic, though I question whether it is so problematic one should virtually excommunicate someone, particularly when pro-abortion Catholic politicians like Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo and many more do not even get denied Communion.
More practically, when you are head of state of a walled city with some of the most restrictive immigration regulations in the world – as is Pope Francis – you might want to be a little restrained about casting into outer darkness those who claim to want to build a system almost identical to the one you enforce. Vatican City is entirely walled. I can see the TV ad now: Donald Trump standing before the walls of Vatican City and solemnly saying in the most stentorian voice he can muster, “Pope Francis, tear down this wall!”
I am not a fan of Trump, though I have a few friends I respect who are. Personally, I think he is the sort of banana-republic style strongman demagogue who almost inevitably rises when public confidence in social institutions has collapsed. I am delighted to be assured that our next stable national leader will not come from the electoral process. I see Trump as Juan Peron, Bernie Sanders as Vladimir Lenin without the brains, and Hilary Clinton as Evita Peron without the charm. Any one of them would only solidify our descent into complete lawlessness. Even so, I wish Pope Francis would be more careful about giving opponents such easy talking points whenever he talks off the cuff on a plane.
Truth is, I get very frustrated by the whole immigration debate. It has descended into a banal dualism that has no balance, as if the only potential solutions were a fortified wall or no standards at all. We are called to be our brother’s keepers – but that does not mean you are obligated to invite the homeless to take up residence in your children’s bedrooms. We are called to take care of the safety and needs of those given directly into our care first, and then do all we can to alleviate the need of those who suffer. But while we are called to care first and primarily for the needs and safety of those given formally into our care, that does not mean we should hunker down in a bunker shutting everyone else out. That applies to nations as well as families.
I have long been contemplating a piece on immigration and our proper duty. On the one hand, I am far more permissive than most conservatives on the matter. If you have no serious criminal record in your native country AND that can be verified, if you have a sponsor who will guarantee your support for the first three years, if you will learn the language and pass a civics test, if you will embrace the values of your new country and prove it by these tasks, I would dramatically streamline approvals for entry. On the other hand, I firmly believe a nation has not only the right, but the obligation, to protect its borders and assure assimilation, for to do so is to protect the existing citizens it is formally obliged to defend. So I would rigorously demand that those regulations were followed. I would demand that those institutions which shrilly demand open borders put their money where their mouth is – and offer sponsorships for those they would bring in, rather than posturing at others’ expense and at the expense of legitimate social cohesion. Under those circumstances, people are not a burden, but an asset – and the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free become a gift of God. But if all we are going to do is expand the welfare state we are killing our country and sapping people of their creative potential. I guess soon I must put that piece together in full.
This much is certain, though: Catholic doctrine is not formulated by off the cuff remarks by the Pope on plane rides. Still, I can’t help but wonder sometimes if maybe Pope Francis should travel by boat more often.