- - Tuesday, September 15, 2015


Lunch with the homeless. A visit to a community center with a heart for immigrants. Sunday morning spent with inmates at a correctional facility.

Pope Francis is a man who knows how to speak through profound gestures. These stops on his agenda will be powerful, unprecedented moments that remind millions of our duty to build a society that is more welcoming, inclusive and just. But the lasting legacy of his visit to the United States may very well be his public addresses in Philadelphia as part of the World Meeting of Families.

Throughout his time as successor to St. Peter, Francis has garnered international headlines for his ever-present care for the vulnerable and his “wish for a church that is poor and for the poor.” But embedded in that fundamental concern for those in need is a message that could help end the divide between so-called “social justice Catholics” and “pro-life Catholics.”

These two supposed “wings” of the American church are often pitted against each other — one said to have an overriding concern for issues of hunger and homelessness to the exclusion of hot-button topics such as abortion or gay marriage, the other accused of completely focusing on sexual morality and ignoring the needs of children after they leave the womb.

These crude caricatures describe an unfortunately common mentality of “us versus them” that goes directly against Christ’s fervent wish “that they all may be one.” These internecine battles create a false impression that to truly care about the poor, one must give up fights on abortion or same-sex marriage, or that a focus on moral issues enables us to put Christ’s (and Pope Francis’) summons to feed the hungry and care for the oppressed and refugees on the back burner.

The truth that Pope Francis will undoubtedly speak to at the World Meeting of Families is the fact that contemporary challenges to the family require a “both/and” approach. They require us to understand both the economic and social stressors that threaten healthy family formation for the 45 million Americans living in poverty today, and help lead to the 1 million abortions that occur every year in the United States. These are all issues of social justice, human life and the common good. We must care for all of God’s gifts, beginning with and most especially human life. And it doesn’t end there.

What indication has Francis given of being able to bring together the pro-life and social justice strands of American Catholicism to fight these social ills? Only his entire pontificate.

Francis has called for an end to an “economy of exclusion,” and never misses an opportunity to talk about the stresses facing families, whether they are migrants en route to Europe, farm workers in Southeast Asia, favela dwellers in Rio de Janeiro or minimum-wage workers on a single paycheck in Newark.

His words and example should be a particular encouragement to pro-life Catholics to look past the partisan politics of abortion, and push politicians and corporations to truly support families in their material need.

At the same time, Francis has not shied away from addressing issues of sexual morality, calling abortion an “unspeakable crime” and speaking openly how “the family is threatened by growing efforts to redefine the very institution of marriage.”

Even before he was elected pope, Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio said a government-led effort to institute same-sex marriage would “seriously damage the family.” A document he helped draft for the bishops of Latin America spoke eloquently about the threats to the family posed “by poverty, by social instability and by civil legislation opposed to marriage.”

Now as Francis, he understands the interconnectedness of the moral and economic challenges to the family and, indeed, all of society. For him, a vivid and committed fight against poverty must be grounded in a compassionate yet firm defense of authentic human dignity. Everyone, but especially those who gravitate toward the poverty efforts in the Church, yet struggle with its moral teachings on marriage and the family, should be challenged and inspired by this vision.

His upcoming visit to the United States, with its focus on families and the challenges facing them, is an opportunity for Catholics to tear down the fences that often divide. The Catholic Church is a Church where people serve meals in soup kitchens and offer support to women facing crisis pregnancies. Francis’ words about the threats to strong families should inspire Catholics to do more of both, helping heal the divisions that mar the Church’s prophetic witness.

Francis knows that a house divided against itself cannot stand. As Catholics prepare for this historic visit, will we accept the invitation to pursue a “both/and” approach to supporting all people in the family that is the Body of Christ?

Patrick T. Brown is a nonprofit communications professional in Princeton, N.J., and a Catholic Voices USA associate.

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