Pope Francis takes his critics to the woodshed

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Pope Francis washes the feet of inmates on March 29, 2018, during his visit to the Regina Coeli detention center in Rome, where he celebrated the "Missa in Coena Domini." Francis' visit to a prison on Holy Thursday to wash the feet of some inmates stresses a pre-Easter ritual that a pope must serve society's marginalized and give them hope. (Vatican Media via AP)

(RNS) — “Rejoice and Exult!” is the title of the latest apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis, but it will elicit no rejoicing or exultation from the Catholic right in this country. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “seamless garment” — aka “the consistent ethic of life” — is back, big time.

At the heart of the pope’s relatively short document, released earlier this week, are several trenchant paragraphs (101-103) rebuking the “ideological error” of those “who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend.”

Francis’ case in point is nothing less than the anti-abortion cause. “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate,” he writes. But their lives do not have ethical priority over the “equally sacred” lives of the destitute, the infirm, the victims of human trafficking and (especially, these days) the migrant.

We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.

This is a sharply pointed version of the speech Bernardin gave at Fordham University 35 years ago, the purpose of which was to argue that the American bishops’ recent pastoral letter on nuclear war, “The Challenge of Peace,” needed to be seen as of a piece with the church’s teaching on abortion. Catholic social teaching was, on this account, a “seamless garment,” a “consistent ethic of life.”

Bernardin’s integrated approach came under sustained attack from Catholic conservatives, who were anxious to move the church away from progressive causes toward a culture wars agenda with abortion receiving pride of place.

In the course of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, they mostly had their way. In 2011, John Paul biographer George Weigel could write an article for the journal First Things titled “The End of the Bernardin Era.” The subtitle? “The Rise, Dominance, and Decline of a Culturally Accommodating Catholicism.”

Since the election of Francis, leading conservative prelates have sought to hold the anti-Bernardin line. Cardinal Raymond Burke, whom Francis removed as head of the Vatican’s highest court, takes the position that “questions regarding immigration and poverty” have a lower priority than “the question of human life itself.”

Similarly, Archbishop Charles Chaput, while paying lip service to the seamless garment, asserts, “Humanity’s priority right — the one that undergirds all other rights— is the right to life.”

“Rejoice and Exult” is magisterial teaching from the church’s highest authority that says otherwise. The ball is now in the anti-Francis court.