Pope Francis is coming. If you've been living under a rock the past few weeks, then this is news to you, but if you are living in Washington, DC, New York City, or Philadelphia then you are well aware of his near arrival and the chaos this will throw your city into. I'm a confirmed Presbyterian, but even I'm excited (and am going to try to sneak a peek, if possible).
Part of the reason for the hubbub is that Pope Francis shows us how the spiritual and the political are interconnected and cannot be disentangled without doing harm to one or the other. He is a powerful and charismatic spiritual leader of billions, but this spiritual leadership is naturally accompanied with teaching on issues like the environment, poverty, and sexual ethics.
Pope Francis has a powerful message, but his teaching is particularly irenic and powerful because of his presentation. He has become beloved, hated, and influential because of how he does what he does. We ought to learn from his methods of teaching, even those of us who don't recognize him as Vicar of Christ.
Along with traditional Catholic social ethics, Pope Francis is consistent in a way that is often rare in our modern world. When he propounds a particular ethical principle he is careful to trace out all of its logical implications, not just the ones that make him comfortable.
We can see this most clearly in Pope Francis' promotion of what John Paul II originally labeled the culture of life in contrast with our culture of death. This means much more than merely avoiding birth control and condemning abortion. Fostering a culture of life, to Pope Francis, extends to issues of poverty and the environment that threaten the weak and marginalized as much as issues of sexual ethics do. Confronting one while ignoring the other only sidesteps what he sees as the issue: that vulnerable are under attack on many fronts. He wants to see all humans flourish and is committed to using the power of the Roman Catholic Church to help accomplish that - primarily through the preaching of the gospel, but also through things like welcoming refugees fleeing violence.
This consistency means that Pope Francis doesn't make any particular ideological side happy - either he irritates progressives by denouncing gender ideology or he angers conservatives with his desire to fight climate change and to streamline the marriage annulment process. His focus on grace and protecting the marginal remains the same, but the areas in which these issues apply differs.
However this consistency strengthens Pope Francis' credibility and makes it possible for his strong moral voice to make a difference. This moral voice can be seen in his work on diplomacy between the US and Cuba, which have been moving towards a restored relationship in part due to his advocacy. Without that credibility, those in power and ordinary Catholics would have no reason to listen to him when he pushed them beyond their typical inclinations.
The time that I've spent studying Catholic social teaching in seminary has caused me to appreciate what Pope Francis has to say about economics and society. But even if we disagree with his ethical teaching, he has things to teach us about winsomely communicating with the public. We cannot be afraid of principled consistency as we attempt to speak into a public space, even when it loses us particular fights or certain allies.
There is great value in a consistent, thought-out political theo-philosophy and the Pope’s appeal is due, in part, to his ability to breathe charisma into that consistent ethical teaching. I hope that Pope Francis' visit to the United States is more than an exercise in celebrity-spotting for the power elite in DC, New York, and Philadelphia and that he serves as an example of a consistent, vibrant Christian witness which we will follow.
-Greg Williams, a communications assistant at a Christian advocacy organization in DC, tweets @gwilliamsster and bakes entirely more bread than he can eat.