Pope Francis and the life issues

Pope Francis’s tendency to use colorful expressions and abrasive adjectives in commenting on ideas, habits, and practices of which he disapproves have puzzled Catholics for over eight years now. Is this how popes talk? From my own study of papal history, I can easily believe that Pope Pius XI had a few choice (even brutal) words to say on occasion. But his verbal smackdowns were always delivered behind closed doors, while many of Pope Francis’s most memorably deprecatory locutions have been quite public. 

There is one thing to be said for this current papal habit, though, especially in light of the endless media effort to spin the Pope into a softie on the life issues — most recently in light of the U.S. bishops’ efforts to address the incoherence of self-professed Catholics who reject a fundamental truth of Catholic faith by facilitating the slaughter of the innocent unborn. Thus it’s worth remembering the quite robust terms in which Pope Francis has condemned abortion, most memorably at a Vatican conference in 2019. There, the Holy Father asked, “Is it legitimate to take a human life to solve a problem? Is it permissible to hire a hitman to solve a problem?” So-called “therapeutic” abortions that willfully destroy unborn children who suffer from some illness or deformity were, the pontiff insisted, a matter of “inhuman eugenics.” He added that “human life is sacred and inviolable and the use of prenatal diagnosis for selective [i.e., abortive] purposes should be discouraged with strength.”

All of which seemed a bit odd to the New York Times reporter covering the conference, for, as he wrote, the Pope had previously downplayed issues like abortion “in order to promote his pastoral and inclusive vision of the Church.” The assumption here, of course, is that doctrinal and moral clarity, on the one hand, and pastoral sensitivity and inclusiveness, on the other, are mutually exclusive. That has been nonsense since Jesus’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery, in John 8:1-11; it remains a gross falsehood today; and indulging it demeans the inclusive and sensitive work done by thousands of religiously-inspired crisis pregnancy centers throughout the country, which offer women something better than a lethal “procedure” that often causes long-term emotional damage. 

Media imagery, alas, is like bamboo; once it’s implanted, it’s virtually impossible to root it out. Thus early in his pontificate, Pope Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” comment, addressed to the particular case of a repentant priest who was trying to live an upright life, was stripped of all context and turned into media bamboo, the endlessly repeated claim being that this pope is not a moral hardliner (subtext: unlike his predecessors). 

I submit, however, that anyone who compares an abortionist to a Mafia hitman — and who in January 2014 deplored a “throwaway culture” in which aborted children are “discarded as unnecessary,” declaring it “horrific even to think that there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day” — is no moral relativist. Typically, however, the BBC reporter covering that papal address found this denunciation in contrast to “the Pope’s stance favoring mercy over condemnation.” (Memo to the BBC: It was John Paul II, author of the passionately pro-life encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), who spread the Divine Mercy devotion throughout the world Church, who wrote an encyclical on God the Father entitled Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), and who made the Octave of Easter “Divine Mercy Sunday.”)  

Media distortions are not simply annoying; they can have serious public effects. Just before the bishops voted overwhelmingly to address the question of the Church’s eucharistic integrity (immediately spun by most reports into merely an attack on President Biden and other pro-abortion public officials), the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the religious freedom right of Catholic Social Services (CSS) of Philadelphia to decline to place foster children with same-sex couples. In his lengthy addendum to the Court’s opinion, Justice Samuel Alito noted that a Philadelphia public official had derided “the Archdiocese’s position as out of step with Pope Francis’s teaching and 21st-century moral views,” suggesting that it “would be great” if CSS “followed…Pope Francis.” 

I seriously doubt that the Philadelphia Department of Human Services commissioner who got Pope Francis so spectacularly wrong is a regular reader of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. He got the nonsense with which he badgered CSS from American media sources. I hope the fourth estate gets its act together as the bishops develop their statement on the meaning of the Eucharist. But I’m not sanguine about that. Bamboo is bamboo.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”