A Man of His Word: New documentary gives personal glimpse into Pope Francis’ pontificate

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How can the name and works of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the greatest and most inspiring saints, be performed in the 21st century? How is the Church called to address the signs of the times, develop its message without losing the essence of the teachings of Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and always?

We’re in the midst of Pope Francis’ sixth year of pontificate – the first Latin-American pope, the first Jesuit and the first to choose his name after Assisi’s 12th-century saint, whom Christ called to reform his Church.

The documentary titled Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which opened May 18, makes the pontiff’s human side and closeness visible, featuring the most striking images of his pontificate – his trips, audiences, main lectures and gestures of closeness to the people – in an interview with filmmaker Wim Wenders.

During the interview, the pope responds to questions regarding the environment, workers’ rights, family, the importance of parents’ walk with their children, the sins that shame the Church (as sexual abuse to minors by clergy), the need to live in simplicity and evangelical poverty, and the importance of prayer, among other aspects of relevance that are not foreign to the concerns the Church.

This interview makes Pope Francis a man of closeness that worries about each of the faithful in the Church. His care for the millions of men and women around the world, including those who don’t profess the Catholic faith but let themselves be influenced by his message, is also made clear.

A Man of His Word gives the impression that the pope is talking to you face-to-face, with a tired but lucid demeanor, with a thoughtful smile, sharing with you the joy of living the Gospel and encouraging you with simple words to live according to your faith.

The images in the documentary, which highlight his trips, lectures, homilies and audiences, pair excellently the striking words of the pontiff with the reactions of joy, surprise and fervor in the faces of those who listen and receive him throughout the world. The documentary, thus, compiles diverse trips to countries such as Brazil, the United States, Italy, Israel, the Central African Republic, the Philippines, Portugal and Bolivia.

Perhaps due to a lack of time, this production falls short in a few topics. It would have been great if the pope emphasized documents such as his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which is today an invaluable guide for many projects of evangelization around the world. The viewer could be led to think that the encyclical Laudato Si – on the care of our common home – is the only valuable document he has written.

Even then, I highly recommend it to everyone: to Catholics who admire and follow the pontiff and to people from other denominations who want to learn from this great leader, from his simple and wise words, from this pope who came “from the ends of the world,” showing always a human countenance, delving into the teachings of the Gospel and trying to bring to life those words he said to more than a hundred journalists at the beginning of his pontificate: “How I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor!”

COMING UP: Our first and most precious freedom

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Our first and most precious freedom

What four recent Supreme Court cases say about the present and future of religious liberty

Eric Kniffin

In September 2015, Pope Francis called religious liberty “one of America’s most precious possessions” and urged American Catholics “to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” For while “American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive,” the Pope noted “they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty.”

Five years later, the vigilance Pope Francis spoke of is needed now more than ever. Over the first half of 2020, the Supreme Court decided four major religious liberty cases. The first case will open Christian employers up to a whole new slate of discrimination lawsuits, but overall the Court has expanded religious liberty protections. On the whole, I remain optimistic about the future of religious liberty. But, as Pope Francis cautioned, we as Catholics need to be vigilant about protecting this most precious freedom.

Supreme Court Overview

The case that has caused the most consternation for the Church is the June 15 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender status.

The Court’s ruling sent shockwaves throughout the Church. Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, lamented “that the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively redefined the legal meaning of ‘sex’ in our nation’s civil rights law,” calling it “an injustice that will have implication in many areas of life.”

Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett agreed, predicting that Bostock may affect not only  Catholic employers’ hiring decisions, but also “universities’ residential-hall practices, sports-eligibility rules, government contracts and research grants.”

But while Bostock will certainly lead to more religious liberty conflicts, the Supreme Court’s other three religious liberty decisions demonstrate the Court’s strong commitment to what the USCCB has called our “First Freedom.”

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Court finally confronted the ugly anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant history of “Blaine amendments,” provisions found in 37 state constitutions—including Colorado—that block state funds from going to religious schools. The Court held that Blaine amendments violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, which “protects religious observers against unequal treatment” and against “laws that impose special disabilities on the basis of religious status.”

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania marks the Supreme Court’s latest foray in the nearly decade-long battle over the federal contraception mandate. The Court held that the Trump Administration acted lawfully when it created a broader religious employer exemption from the mandate, and affirmed that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) not only permits but requires federal agencies to consider whether regulations like the contraception mandate burden religious exercise.

The last religious liberty case of the term was Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. which asked whether teachers at two California Catholic schools qualified for the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” a doctrine that keeps the government from interfering with the Church’s most important personnel decisions. The Court said yes, affirming that the ministerial exception should be interpreted broadly to protect the right of religious institutions “to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”

Brokering a Fragile Peace

What do these decisions say about where we are as a society and the future of religious liberty? All four cases show the Supreme Court struggling with the reality that we live in a deeply divided, pluralistic society.

Luke Goodrich, Vice President at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, describes this standoff in Chapter 4 of his recent book, Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America. Goodrich notes that Christians believe in absolute truth, and among these truths are teachings about sexual morality and the nature of the human person. But an ever-growing portion of our society not only rejects these teachings, but sees them as bigotry that threatens the “pursuit of happiness” that is every American’s birthright.

Catholic leaders need to take advantage of good religious liberty decisions by taking concrete steps before conflicts arise. All Catholics should pray for our leaders, and that our nation will continue to honor our First Freedom.

How is the Supreme Court trying to manage this fundamental impasse? It seems the Court is willing to adopt the dominant progressive worldview, but with two important exceptions. First, the Court has continued to stand by our nation’s fundamental commitment to religious liberty. Second, it has refused to follow the left in condemning the Church’s teachings as hateful bigotry.

This is the same approach the Supreme Court took in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. That same decision also rejected efforts to conflate those, like Catholics, who believe in traditional marriage with racists: “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”

This fragile peace will be tested again this fall, when the Supreme Court takes up Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. That case asks whether the City can force Catholic Social Services to either place children with same-sex couples, in violation of its Catholic beliefs, or else abandon its foster care ministry altogether. The Supreme Court’s decision will be yet another test as to whether the First Amendment makes room for the Catholic Church to serve the public while remaining true to its unpopular teachings about the human person.

Practical Steps Forward

What do these high-stakes battles over religious liberty mean for Catholics today? The big picture concern, as Goodrich notes in Free to Believe, is that our “culture is changing. Religious freedom is not as secure as it once was.”

What does this mean for the Church and the Catholic faithful?  For the Church and other Catholic organizations, the fragile state of religious liberty means they need to take proactive steps to take advantage of available religious liberty protections. Goodrich urges religious leaders to take practical steps to “strengthen their witness and reduce their likelihood of conflict and loss.” “Far too often,” Goodrich warns, “religious organizations wait until a conflict is already upon them before seeking legal advice. By then, it’s often too late.” Goodrich’s advice echoes many of the strategies I outlined in a special report for the Heritage Foundation, Protecting Your Right to Serve: How Religious Ministries Can Meet New Challenges without Changing Their Witness. Taking these practical steps is a time-intensive and resource-intensive process, but as Goodrich shows, such planning is an increasingly important part of stewardship and prudent leadership.

But religious liberty is not just a concern for the institutional Church and those who agree with the Church’s teachings on culture war issues. That is because religious liberty, first and foremost is about liberty, freedom from government coercion. The USCCB calls religious liberty our “First Freedom” not just because it is listed first in the Bill of Rights, but because it is foundational to our other freedoms. To put it another way, if government can force Catholic nuns to buy contraceptives, what can’t it do?

The increasing legal and cultural pressures on religious institutions make the Supreme Court’s religious liberty decisions more important than ever. Catholic leaders need to take advantage of good religious liberty decisions by taking concrete steps before conflicts arise. All Catholics should pray for our leaders, and that our nation will continue to honor our First Freedom.

Eric Kniffin is an attorney in Lewis Roca Rotherberger Christie’s Religious Institutions Practice Group.

Image caption: Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, of the Little Sisters of the Poor, speaks to the media after aruments at the US Supreme Court, March 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. Today the high court heard arguments in Little Sisters v. Burwell, which will examine whether the governments new health care regulation will require the Little Sisters to change their healthcare plan, to other services that violate Catholic teaching. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)