Since Pope Francis’s election in 2013, a feeling has emerged that Catholic discussions about moral issues are essentially now being spoken in two different languages. There is a “Franciscan” language focusing on broad issues of what social philosophers call the Good Society, such as immigration and the environment. There is also a “pre-Franciscan” language focusing on issues of personal virtue, especially sexuality and family life. This is, in part, simply incorrect; previous Popes taught extensively on broad social issues. Francis has, for his part, spoken on abortion in every single one of his encyclicals and exhortations since becoming Pope. He has also spoken frequently against efforts to spread Western liberal ideas about gender and sexuality to the Global South, characterizing them as neo-colonial impositions. However, different ideological factions within the Church have (for varying reasons) put forth a narrative that sets the priorities and areas of emphasis in Francis’s papacy against those of his predecessors.
Fortunately for those of us who understand Catholic moral teaching as a coherent whole–one unified language–Francis exemplified this during his recent visit to East Asia. Moreover, Francis and his spokespeople in Thailand and Japan often combined the two “languages” in discussions of the same issue. That is, in several cases Francis or other prelates spoke of an issue facing the Church and society in Thailand or Japan as both a social and a personal matter.
The most forceful, and most important, moral statement that Francis made on his trip was a full-throated condemnation of nuclear weapons given in a speech he delivered near the site of the bombing of Nagasaki. The use of nuclear weapons in combat has been condemned by the Church ever since their first and only use in 1945, but Francis went further. He condemned even the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent, saying that “fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation” are incompatible with true peace. (Notably, Francis demurred from completely condemning nuclear power generation, currently a hot-button issue in Japan and one favored by the country’s pacifist left. The anti-nuclear movement in Japan exists largely in response to the Fukushima disaster of 2011 and enjoys the support of Japan’s bishops’ conference. It has had the unintended effect of damaging Japan’s leadership on climate change by causing the country to begin moving back to coal. A full papal endorsement of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement might thus have called the Church’s leadership on climate change into question as well.) The language used here, especially “incompatibility” with a virtue (as opposed to “intrinsic evil”), is clearly “Franciscan,” the purported “new” language of Catholic moral thought. However, it should be observed that already at the World Day of Peace in 2006 Pope Benedict XVI was calling for “all—whether those governments which openly or secretly possess nuclear arms, or those planning to acquire them—[to] agree to change their course by clear and firm decisions, and strive for a progressive and concerted nuclear disarmament”—and that Benedict connected this to “the truth of peace.” The new language here thus had a preexisting pedigree.
Francis’s moral statements in Thailand, meanwhile, dealt with many of his most famous concerns, such as migrants’ rights. He thanked Thailand for its (relative?) openness to migrants and refugees, saying that this was “a sign of character” on the part of Thai society and the Thai people. He also spent time with the Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism, Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong, making his characteristic call for interfaith cooperation and praising the effects of Buddhism on Thai society. This is another key aspect of the “Franciscan” language on issues of sociopolitical ethics and seeing it brought to the fore was not surprising. Once again, however, the language is in fact older than the Francis era; it goes back at least to John Paul II and arguably to the first half of the twentieth century.
What, however, of the second language that was spoken over the course of Francis’s trip, the “small-t” traditional Catholic language of personal morality? The first inkling of this in connection to the trip actually came from a Francis surrogate rather than from Francis himself. Before the trip began, Tokyo Archbishop Isao Kikuchi (a Francis appointee) described the Church in Japan as facing a “collapse of the traditional family.” Kikuchi specifically named Japan’s low birthrate and aging population crisis, or (in the inimitable style of Japanese compound words) 少子高齢化, shōshi-kōrei-ka. This issue is a little like the two-faced Roman god Janus in terms of how a Catholic concerned with personal morality might look at it. One on hand, Japan has an extremely high abortion rate; on the other hand, young adults in Japan simply do not have as much premarital sex as young adults in the West. (On yet another hand, young Japanese women interviewed in the linked article connect this to the proliferation of internet pornography.) What Kikuchi meant by “collapse of the traditional family,” as the National Catholic Register article linked above specifies, refers partially to these issues and partially to the decline of the Japanese family unit’s traditional place in Japan’s sociological structure. Thus, in advance of Francis’s visit, one of Japan’s foremost Catholic prelates was already linking issues of morality to broader social trends.
Upon arriving in Thailand, Pope Francis took aim at the sex trade in a country with a sinister reputation as a magnet for Western sex tourism. He honored those fighting against sex trafficking there as emblems of personal and social virtue, citing “private individuals and organizations working to uproot this evil.” In Japan, he twice turned his sights on the impact of suicide in Japanese culture, articulating a pro-life ethic that again accounted for both individual and social virtue. In the homily at his final Mass in the Tokyo Dome he declared that God “invites us to re-evaluate our daily decisions”; that “Worldly attitudes that look only to one’s own profit or gain in this world and a selfishness that pursues only individual happiness, in reality, leave us profoundly unhappy and enslaved.” The message in both cases was that the Good Society is made up of virtuous people, and that the consciences of virtuous people are formed in the Good Society. Private and public, individual and sociological, go hand in hand. The Franciscan language predominated–obviously, since Francis was speaking–but the language of personal morality was also present. Personal moral choices were honored or, in some cases, condemned.
Much more about Francis’s trip to Thailand and Japan can be said, from the political implications of his speeches and meetings in both countries to the fact that his stint in Japan fulfilled a dream of preaching the Gospel in that country that he had for his entire adult life. The purpose of the trip was primarily missionary rather than moral; Francis has been clear throughout his pontificate that a response to the fundamental message of the Gospel precedes efforts to fully adopt Catholic moral standards. Nevertheless, Francis used the opportunity to develop and proclaim moral teachings, speaking a moral language that made clear the essential harmony of private and public virtue.
Image: The official logos for Francis’s stints in Thailand and Japan. From Vatican Media.
Nathan Turowsky went to elementary school in Vermont, high school in New Jersey, and college in Massachusetts, where he now lives. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and has a classically Millennial patchwork employment history.