Though many have tried to paint Francis as a “liberal” pope—not least because of his deep embrace of the consistent ethic of life—in his 2017 homily for the feast of Pentecost, he explicitly calls out commitments to either liberal or conservative Christianity as problematic. When the pope visited the United States, he declared that we must “confront every form of polarization which would divide [us] into these two camps.” Although the media often distort his record, Francis’ actual positions follow what I call the “consistent life ethic” (hereafter C.L.E.), as do those of his predecessors, church tradition and the Gospel.
While Pope Francis has given special consideration to what some may consider liberal (to use the problematic binary) life issues, like protecting God’s creation and welcoming undocumented immigrants and refugees, he has also spoken up strongly and clearly for the more traditional prolife issues. In short, he is quite solidly within the tradition of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But at the same time, his pontificate represents the leading edge of this tradition, and he uses new lenses and metaphors to speak to a new generation. In what follows I highlight what are, in my view, his two most significant contributions to the C.L.E—first, a negative: resisting the throwaway culture; second, a positive: promoting a culture of encounter.
Human beings have inherent, irreducible value, but when a throwaway culture finds them inconvenient, it deems them “inefficient” or “burdensome”; and they are ignored, rejected or even disposed of.
Resisting Throwaway Culture
Pope Francis uses “throwaway culture” to name the opposite of what the C.L.E. seeks to affirm. This culture fosters “a mentality in which everything has a price, everything can be bought, everything is negotiable. This way of thinking has room only for a select few, while it discards all those who are unproductive.” Human beings have inherent, irreducible value, but when a throwaway culture finds them inconvenient, it deems them “inefficient” or “burdensome”; and they are ignored, rejected or even disposed of. In reducing the person to a mere product in a marketplace—one that can be used and then thrown away—our culture makes what philosophers call a category mistake. Persons are ends in themselves, with inherent and irreducible value, and must never be put into the category of things that can be merely discarded as so much trash.
Pope Francis resists a throwaway culture that employs violent and (often) state-sponsored practices like war, genocide, terrorism and the death penalty. But he also argues that this same violent culture includes practices like abortion (which discards a child as inconvenient) and euthanasia (which treats the elderly like “baggage” to be discarded).
But the C.L.E. is concerned not only with explicit violence, like killing, but also violence within the structure of our societies. In “Amoris Laetitia,” Francis echoes St. John Paul II that the dignity of the person “has an inherent social dimension.” That is, respecting life cannot be about simply resisting the aggressive violence of throwaway culture but also confronting the violence within its social structures. Francis insists that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” clearly applies to our culture’s “economy of exclusion.”
The exclusion with which Francis is concerned need not be conscious exploitation and oppression. It can be unconscious practices that lead to certain people becoming “outcasts” or “leftovers.” The pope uses particularly harsh language in condemning theories of economic growth that ignore or discard human beings if they are deemed a net drag on such growth: the homeless person who dies of exposure, the child without adequate health care who dies of an easily treatable disease, island-dwelling peoples threatened by climate change. What Francis calls “a globalization of indifference” considers such people as mere afterthoughts.
Respecting life cannot be about simply resisting the aggressive violence of throwaway culture but also confronting the violence within its social structures.
A primary value in throwaway culture is maintaining a consumerist lifestyle; but to cease caring about who is being discarded, most of us must find a way to no longer acknowledge their inherent dignity. Rehumanize International, a C.L.E. activist group, has researched how this works (both historically and today) with different populations, including racial minorities, the elderly and disabled, prenatal children, immigrants and refugees, enemy combatants and the incarcerated. Patterns develop whereby these populations have been or are named as nonpersons, subhumans, defective humans, parasites and objects, things or products.
Although technology has helped connect those who wish to be connected, it has also helped facilitate the detachment by which the throwaway culture can flourish. For instance, I can now press two buttons on my smartphone and hours later a product will arrive at my door. I have no idea who procured the materials, who assembled the product, who shipped the product, nor do I know who delivered it. I do not now how much profit the corporation that sold me the product is making. I do not know if the people involved in bringing the product to me were paid a wage fair in their social circumstances. I do not know the effect that this product’s manufacture has had on their local economies. I have little to no idea about the ecological impact associated with making this product. In short, consumer culture has detached us so totally from encounter and connection that—barring some unusual circumstance—we are not inclined to think about how we are contributing to a culture in which people are used and thrown away.
Critiquing throwaway culture, Francis insists, also means critiquing our culture’s focus on autonomy, privacy and moral relativism. In the face of a throwaway culture’s violence and injustice, it is simply not appropriate that we retreat into our private spaces and “live and let live.” When autonomy becomes our primary value, Pope Francis says that we succumb to “blind forces” of “self-interest” and “violence.” In the spaces abandoned by our appeals to autonomy, privacy and moral relativism, throwaway culture uses and discards the most vulnerable with impunity.
Although technology has helped connect those who wish to be connected, it has also helped facilitate the detachment by which the throwaway culture can flourish.
Promoting a Culture of Encounter
Although Pope Francis wishes that we resist throwaway culture, he is well aware that merely offering the negative message “Don’t do this” is not enough. Admonitions may convict us of our complicit role in violence and injustice and perhaps push us to seek alternatives to our current practices, but we also need a new imagination or framework for doing things differently. Francis’ positive message, the antidote to throwaway culture, is what he calls a “culture of encounter.”
Well before Francis, the C.L.E. focused on the most vulnerable by reflecting the “sheep and goats” parable in Matthew 25. Jesus insists that we have a fundamental duty to encounter him in the least among us. Every supporter of the C.L.E. is called to give particular care to those without power on the margins—to those who find it difficult or impossible to speak up on their own behalf. We owe special concern for the least among us, Francis says, “no matter how troublesome or inconvenient they may be.”
Such concern, however, transcends enacting laws or donating money. While these are good and often morally essential things to do, Pope Francis summons us to go beyond them, get our hands dirty and move out of our safe spaces to the peripheries, where we can encounter the excluded and marginalized.
Contemporary consumer culture pushes us to have our experiences mediated “by screens and systems that can be turned on and off on command,” but the culture of encounter to which Francis calls us insists on a “face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.”
The culture of encounter to which Francis calls us insists on a “face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.”
In this regard the pope—like Christ himself—seems to focus particularly on children, a focus at the core of the C.L.E. Today’s most vulnerable children, the pope says, are found hiding underground to escape bombardment, on the pavements of a large city, at the bottom of a boat overladen with immigrants. Let us allow ourselves to be challenged, he says, by the children who are not allowed to be born, by those who cry because no one satisfies their hunger, by those who do have not toys in their hands but rather weapons: victims of war, abortion and poverty.
Such encounters are necessary not only for Christians, who are called to find Jesus in these relationships and be evangelized by them, but for anyone who wants to avoid the trap of deciding in advance what people need before getting to know and love them. The wealthy and privileged often determine the problems and solutions without having a single conversation with those who need the help. Not only does this disrespect the very people we are called to prioritize and honor, but its ignorant posture often gets the proposed solutions tragically wrong.
Pope Francis also insists that we work to build a culture of encounter even if there are “no tangible and immediate benefits.” Genuine encounter requires a posture of hospitality—and such encounters will be understood as good and fitting even if there seems to be no utilitarian reason for engaging. It is an inherently good thing that people, previously strangers, encounter each other in the setting of hospitality. He insisted, for instance, that Catholic parishes house 500,000 refugees displaced by conflicts with ISIS. And who can argue with him? While it is possible that doing so involves some danger, it is shameful that countries that waged the wars that allowed ISIS to come about have not shown hospitality to the people those wars have displaced.
Significantly, taking the side of the vulnerable, as Pope Francis suggests, is not mere pacifism. Surely, if an unjust aggressor threatens the marginalized, deadly violence may be necessary to protect them. Though he does not think that individual nations should decide when such violence may be required (especially given the long history of cloaking wars of conquest under the mantle of protecting the vulnerable) he did give what some have called a “cautious yellow light” to airstrikes against ISIS. Such violence, surely, should be a last resort and must achieve a good greater than the harm that is caused—but Pope Francis does envision a C.L.E. that leaves room for rare cases in which deadly violence is necessary to defend the vulnerable.
It may be easy to judge and dismiss those we are called to encounter and support and who, therefore, are difficult to love. But this is often the reason they find themselves on the margins of our culture. This is especially important in public discourse within today’s culture. A culture of encounter, characterized by mercy for those we are tempted to judge, means being in intellectual solidarity with those who hold different opinions than we do. It means listening first, presuming goodwill and tolerating views that we find uncomfortable.
Francis provided an example of this in his opening of the controversial Synod of Bishops on the family on Oct. 3, 2015. Having heard through the grapevine that some might be afraid to speak up against the pope’s point of view, he urged his fellow bishops to offer their disagreements with him and others in honest and direct ways but always with “humility” and an “open heart.” This stands in marked contrast to much public discourse. Far too often, students and others demand “safe spaces” and that those with different points of view be marginalized. But a commitment to encounter those on the margins in the spirit of mercy means resisting these understandable impulses and, like Pope Francis, welcoming and engaging those with different points of view.
In “Laudato Si’,” Francis highlights the fact that nonhuman creation belongs not to us but to God. Creation has an intrinsic value independent of human beings.
Pope Francis’ culture of encounter also recognizes the mutuality of all creation. In “Laudato Si’,” Francis highlights the fact that nonhuman creation belongs not to us but to God. Creation has an intrinsic value independent of human beings. In this remarkable passage, the pope connects the sufferings of human beings to the sufferings of God’s other creatures:
Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power.
Francis takes nonhuman suffering so seriously that he believes even Jesus’ mother makes it a priority. And who—if not deadened to their cries and detached from their dignity—can not be moved by the sufferings of elephants poached for their ivory or pigs made to live most of their lives in gestation crates? They are subject to terrible violence, the result of a consumerist culture that cannot think of them except as things to be bought and sold. Especially those in urban or suburban cultures, who are almost totally removed from the tangible reality of God’s creation, struggle to establish a genuine culture of encounter between human and vulnerable nonhuman animals. But if we take the mutuality of all creation seriously, we need to face the hard truths about our relationships with other animals.
Finally, a culture of encounter asks Christians, in particular, to resist the temptation to be ruled by right-versus-left arguments over the policies of nation-states. An undue focus on such arguments impedes authentic participation in the culture of encounter to which Pope Francis calls us. Participating in this binary political culture requires us to define ourselves by our opposition to the political “other.” Furthermore, as Pope Francis says in “The Joy of the Gospel”:
In her dialogue with the State and with society, the Church does not have solutions for every particular issue. Together with the various sectors of society, she supports those programs which best respond to the dignity of each person and the common good. In doing this, she proposes in a clear way the fundamental values of human life and convictions which can then find expression in political activity.
For those who disagree (at least for the moment) on politics and policy, a focus on value and convictions can provide common ground and the basis for fruitful encounters that may, down the road, lead to a different outcome.