My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
It is no coincidence that Pope Benedict XVI chose to step down from the office of Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church two days before Ash Wednesday last month. It is also no coincidence that Pope Francis is beginning his pontificate as we approach Easter, the celebration of Our Lord's rising to new life.
This past week also marked the beginning of spring, the season that brings new life to the world. So it is that the election of Pope Francis brings with it the hope for the blossoming of new life in the church.
By new life in the church I mean the revitalization of the Christian life in places where religious observance has waned, such as in Western Europe, in North America and even in some parts of South America, the homeland of Pope Francis. The rapid growth of the Catholic Church in Africa should be bolstered by the election of a pope so dedicated to the poor. Yet there are billions of people in Asia, especially in India, China and Japan, who have not yet embraced the Catholic faith. Perhaps Pope Francis can reap some successful fruits from the missionary seeds of the Catholic faith planted in the Far East centuries ago by one of the first Jesuit missionaries, St. Francis Xavier.
This hope for new life does not mean abandoning or altering the true faith in favor of some mutated form of Catholicism. Already there are people wondering if the election of Pope Francis will mean that somehow things will be different. The answer is: in style, yes, in substance, no. Pope Francis may prefer black shoes over red slippers, but that is simply a matter of style, not substance. No pope ever has or ever will change the substance of the faith. The Holy Spirit protects the church against that.
Some people are expecting that Pope Francis will change church teaching on abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women. Yet even The New York Times acknowledged that "Francis has been — and remains — a staunch supporter of the Vatican's positions on abortion, the ordination of women, same-sex marriage, adoption by gay couples and other major issues."
One reporter asked me if I thought Pope Francis would be "softer on gays." There are some problematic assumptions behind that question. One is that the church somehow makes life difficult for gays. In fact, the church has great love and compassion for everyone, including those who experience same-sex attraction. The church's teachings aim to make people happy, not miserable, and the ultimate happiness is found in God's grace.
Moreover, those who expect Pope Francis to change church teaching ignore his record as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Primate of Argentina. As a bill to redefine marriage is still pending in the Illinois House, it would be good to recall what then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, said in 2010, when his native Argentina was considering a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage. According to an article in L'Osservatore Romano, he wrote: "In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family. ... At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God's law engraved in our hearts."
The cardinal continued: "Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God's plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a 'move' of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God."
That is pretty clear, so it will be unfortunate if those who support Pope Francis' love for the poor see it as somehow leading to a weakening of his defense of church teaching. I saw this happen when I was Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's chancellor in the Archdiocese of Chicago. There were those who sought to exploit Cardinal Bernardin's "consistent ethic of life" as somehow watering down his opposition to abortion. To these people, Cardinal Bernardin responded, "I know that some people on the left, if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should just be against abortion in a general way but there are more important issues, so don't hold anybody's feet to the fire just on abortion. That's a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it."
Similarly, it would be deplorable if people misread Pope Francis' advocacy for the poor as softening his opposition to abortion. On the contrary, I pray that Pope Francis will be a successful pontiff (a word that means "bridge") by bridging the gap between so-called "social justice" Catholics and "pro-life" Catholics. Caring for the poor and being pro-life should never be seen as opposed to each other, but as interwoven threads of the same fabric.
May God give us this grace. Amen.