Pope Francis: the human permission slip

was my Trade Tripper column in the 23 January 2015 issue of BusinessWorld:

As he so eagerly awaited, CNN, local liberal news and social media, and the “progressive” Left academics and commentators couldn’t hide their giddiness at the arrival of the man who would finally put the Filipino bishops in their place, announce changes to Catholic doctrine, demand that the Church get with the times to “retain its relevance,” and proclaim that to judge another is so 1980s-2000s. Unfortunately, for them, for some reason (my guess is that it had something to do with “reality being superior to ideas”), Pope Francis threw away their script.

Admittedly, though, the papal visit started off on a quite humdrum note. After the obligatory “North Korean-ish” reception at the airport (at least according to one commentator; I myself wished the dancing kids spent more time with the Pope rather than the politicians) and the waving at crowds, the Pope spent a relatively quiet evening at the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila. But the next day and the days after, it would be different. For this we probably have to thank President Benigno Aquino.

Jesuit-trained and Ateneo-educated (which, according to one online writer, “preached a faith that was more relatable, more grounded and more rational... not centered on the Catholic traditions”), he welcomed the Pope next morning in Malacañang with a speech. And it was probably a very good speech (I haven’t read it myself) because from that point on the papal visit zoomed from 0 to 100.

Speaking after the President, Pope Francis declared that now, more than ever, it is “necessary that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good.”

After that would be profound, relentless pleas to care for the poor and fight against the evils of corruption. This was a theme that would be repeated again and again at the Manila Cathedral and in Tacloban.

Even then, it needs to be said that Pope Francis is not a liberation theologian of the Marxist or socialist kind. In essence, he was reiterating fairly established Church teachings, particularly in relation to charity.

It must be remembered that the Church is not an economic policy think tank. Nor is the Pope an expert on the environment. Any teaching he makes is always through the prism of morality, from the viewpoint of faith and the supernatural.

As one commentator puts it, Pope Francis’ “theology is defined by the question of how to speak good news to the poor.” Anything else will just minimize the Church into an activist organization or NGO.

However, while the Church can indeed talk about economic or environmental issues (albeit within the aspects of morality and faith), nevertheless, it is on far surer footing (scriptural, human experience, and reason-wise) on social issues such as the family or sexual ethics. And it is on this subject that Pope Francis spoke the words that will be and should be remembered for quite some time.

Because, to be honest, many of the Catholic faithful have been asking what Pope Francis’ actual stand is on contraception, divorce, same-sex “marriage,” and euthanasia. So it was just stunning and overwhelming to realize that Pope Francis chose the Philippines to say what many in the world have so longed to hear:

“Every threat to the family is a threat to society itself” and the family is “threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.” All therefore must do their best “to overcome these threats.”

This was said at the Mall of Asia on Jan. 17. Before that, at the Manila Cathedral, was a quiet, almost unnoticed but significant rebuke to those who thought that Pope Francis’ “who am I to judge?” was a call for a “if it feels good, do it” return to 1960s self-indulgence: “The Gospel is also a summons to conversion,” which “means being the first to examine our consciences, to acknowledge our failings and sins, and to embrace the path of constant conversion.”

Pope Francis even took the time to say something about women: “Women have much to tell us in today’s society. Sometimes we’re too macho and we don’t leave enough room for women. Women are able to see things with different eyes than us. Women are able to ask questions that men can’t understand.”

This was received well in the media. But really, why are people surprised? This has always been the Church’s teaching: the greatest human was the one that gave birth to God, the only one hailed, blessed, and full of grace. The only human whose requests Christ could not refuse. And when Christ was crucified and all the men ran away scattered and scared, only the women were brave enough to be with Him till the very end. And it was to women whom He appeared first upon resurrection. Oh, and we do refer to the Church as our “mother.”

And then there was the homily during Sunday Mass at the Luneta. Closing my eyes, I really couldn’t tell anymore if it was Pope Francis or his brilliant predecessor Pope Benedict XVI or Saint John Paul the Great speaking. And what was said showed a Church ever united and one in teaching:

“Sometimes, when we see the troubles, difficulties and wrongs all around us, we are tempted to give up. It seems that the promises of the Gospel do not apply; they are unreal. But the Bible tells us that the great threat to God’s plan for us is, and always has been, the lie. The devil is the father of lies. Often he hides his snares behind the appearance of sophistication, the allure of being ‘modern’, ‘like everyone else.’”

This call against modernity’s “allure” does not only refer to technology (as some local news anchors tried to spin it) but rather to all passing fads and fancies, of socio-political theories that are detached from reality, of governmental measures that disconnect us from faith and values.

But most of all, it is against a modernity that portrays the Church as out of touch and tempts us with “confusing presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family.”

This, Pope Francis reiterates: “Sadly, in our day, the family all too often needs to be protected against insidious attacks and programs contrary to all that we hold true and sacred, all that is most beautiful and noble in our culture.” One has to love how Pope Francis inserted the word “program.” I don’t think this was a show of support for the RH Law.

In the end, the man the media painted as surprising and “progressive” proved to be just that: a surprise and a progressive (albeit in the best and true sense of the word: a defender of the faith, an upholder of the truth).

But perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. It was ultimately unfair and naïve to look at Pope Francis not as he is but as one that “progressives” wanted to create and mold as their will dictated: a walking talking permission slip who would say “there there” and “whatever you do is fine” and “so long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”

Instead, Pope Francis turned out to be someone far far better: the Bishop of Rome, the Pope of the Catholic Church, the Vicar of Christ preaching mercy with justice, forgiveness with conversion, and of truth, reason, and faith.