He notes that the word “sin” does not appear anywhere in the entire encyclical – at least, not in the English translation. However, he does note that Francis talks about “idolatry” quite extensively. Like talk of “the devil” (which has been popping up regularly in the papal discourse of late), talk of “idolatry” is surely significant. It is, after all, the primordial sin, the sin against the first commandment “you shall have no other gods”.
So, where’s the sin? It’s there, but not by name. And this reminds me of something I have been meaning to write about for some time. Sandro Magister (while not spreading rumours about the director of the Vatican’s IOR), has written that “It cannot be an accident that after 120 days of pontificate Pope Francis has not yet spoken the words abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage.”
Although William Donio Jr in First Things has taken him to task on this, Magister is certainly correct. It isn’t that he hasn’t addressed the issues – it is simply that he hasn’t used these words. He has avoided all the “short-hand” terms that we use day by day to speak of the killing of the unborn, the killing of the terminally ill, and marriage which does not conform to the paradigm of one man, one woman, exclusive of all others, for life, for love and for children.
Which causes me to stop and think: is there not some tactical advantage in adopting such a “positive” rhetoric? Just to take abortion for example. If we were never to use the word again, but instead proclaim positively the value of all human life from the moment of conception, if we were to preach against the killing of unborn babies – who could argue with that? Who want’s to say “I’m pro killing babies”? Abortion is a slippery word, because there is disagreement about what it actually is (although one would think it is blindingly obvious). Preaching against same-sex marriage sounds homophobic – speaking of the beauty of sexual differentiation in marriage (as Francis does in his encyclical) is simply that: beautiful.
Francis is not a cafeteria catholic (in fact, he actually speaks against such a “pick and choose” approach to faith in Lumen Fidei). He is not “avoiding hard questions”. He is simply finding a new way of addressing the world. That’s important right now, because right now the world is listening to him.
To return to Peter’s observation that the Pope does not mention “sin” by name in the Encyclical, perhaps this is part of the same tactic. “Sin” itself has come to be one of those cypher words: we pack it full of meaning and never unpack it. By focusing instead on idolatry, Francis actually gets to the heart of what “sin” is. In one passage he speaks about people who are focused on themselves “going around in circles” rather than travelling the path to the goal of communion with God. That’s a pretty good definition of sin itself, especially if you think of the classical term for the effect of sin “incurvatus in se” (roughly translated “belly-gazing”).
Let’s pay close attention to what Francis is doing, because I think there is something we may be able to learn here.