Why doesn’t Pope Francis name the sin?

There is an interesting article in First Things about Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, by Nathaniel Peters “Where’s the sin?”.

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.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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5 Responses to Why doesn’t Pope Francis name the sin?

  1. maryh says:

    That explains something. I saw someone complain that Pope Francis hadn’t come out strongly against abortion, and I couldn’t understand what that person meant. Hadn’t he actually joined the Italian March for Life shortly after he became Pope? How much clearer do you get than that?

    At the time, I didn’t realize that he probably hadn’t actually said “abortion is wrong” since he became Pope.

    I think you’re right about Pope Francis stressing the goodness of God’s way rather than the evil of the sin. It seems to me that the sinners already know the sin makes them feel bad – they’ve been taught by the culture that leaving the sin is even worse. The Pope is saying, no, leaving the sin isn’t just the negative of stopping something bad – it actually brings you to something good, that will bring you joy.

  2. maryh says:

    I like your way of putting it: “He has avoided all the “short-hand” terms … “

  3. “If we were never to use the word[ ‘abortion’] 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”?”

    But pro-abortion people already don’t identify as ‘anti-life’, and they don’t even like to be called ‘pro-abortion’; and as Anne Summers recently reported, they’re even moving away from the label ‘pro-choice’:

    “… Planned Parenthood has made the momentous decision to drop the language of ”pro-choice” after research that shows most Americans feels the pro-choice/pro-life polarity fails to represent the actual complications of what it’s like to find yourself with an unwanted pregnancy. Women complained that the word ”choice” made the decision seem frivolous.”

    They’ll just keep coming up with whatever euphemisms best evade the ugliness of what they stand for.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, and this has been awfully frustrating for those of us who have been trying to speak the truth in love for some decades now. It’s that old Orwellian double speak, the trick of calling a thing everything except what it is.

      It seems to me that Francis has so far succeeded in defusing that sort of duplicity with his simplicity. I’m not quite sure what the trick is, and whether, in the long run, it will actually work. But it seems worth a go.

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