In recent decades, those looking into the Catholic world have been conditioned to think that the only really important papal statements are those having to do with sexual ethics. All other teachings came wrapped in endless possibilities for "prudential judgment," an inflated way of saying that other matters -- war, poverty, exploitation of the poor and of the Earth -- were of secondary importance and easily negotiated away.
Pope Francis has changed the calculation by insisting that if we are intimately linked to the minutest suggestions of life, we are equally linked in the other direction to humans everywhere and to the creation that sustains all of life. Catholic identity becomes far more complex and encompassing than a thin tick list of orthodoxies. Francis vastly expands the previously narrow conception of what it means to be a countercultural Catholic in the United States and as a citizen of the world.
The expanded focus comes none too soon. Humans have become far too capable of destroying each other and creation to keep compartmentalizing the moral agenda, as if there is a way to excuse ourselves from the atrocities.
What Francis is saying may be new in emphasis, but not in content. His words ring with the same urgency as those of his immediate predecessors, who were themselves echoing the plea of Pope Paul VI at the United Nations: "No more war, war never again!"
Pope John Paul II spoke passionately against the wars the United States led in the Middle East from 1990 onward. Even as Parkinson's disease was visibly wasting his body, John Paul stood foursquare against the invasion of Iraq, speaking numerous times in the three months before the war with conviction and vigor. "No to war!" he said in 2003 to a gathering of diplomats, during general audiences and even at Wednesday angelus. "War is ... is always a defeat for humanity."
It was not just the terror of war that John Paul warned against but also "the tremendous consequences that an international military operation would have for the population of Iraq and for the balance of the Middle East region, already sorely tried, and for the extremisms that could stem from it."
He ordered a full-court diplomat push against the invasion. He and Vatican diplomats foresaw, beyond the immediate and awful destruction of war, the "extremisms" we are dealing with today.
Would but the world had listened.
The wave of migrants and refugees storming the shores and railway stations of Europe today is a direct result of 25 years of failed Western foreign policy in the Middle East and endless and unnecessary war.
A year ago, as western Iraq disintegrated into chaos, Francis sent Cardinal Fernando Filoni there with a papal donation to help refugees. Filoni, now prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, is no stranger to Iraq, having spent years there during the violent aftermath of the 2003 invasion.
"From that time, the situation has never improved," he said last year. "On the contrary, you can say so many aspects are worse."
Writing about the European migrant crisis, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently observed, "The world is being redivided into regions of 'order' and 'disorder,' and for the first time in a long time, we don't have an answer for all the people flocking to get out of the world of disorder and into the world of order."
"And this is just the beginning," Friedman continued, quoting Michael Mandelbaum, author of the forthcoming Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era: "There is nothing in our experience that has prepared us for what is going on now: the meltdown of an increasing number of states all at the same time in a globalized world."
That's a theme Francis picked up on in his recent encyclical, "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home." He wrote, "What is needed is a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach. ... If politics shows itself incapable of breaking such a perverse logic, and remains caught up in inconsequential discussions, we will continue to avoid facing the major problems of humanity."
It is no secret that a distinct level of discontent with this pope exists among many of those who, in previous eras, were bedrock papal loyalists, confident and comfortable in their Catholic identity. Francis dares intrude into those areas previously shielded from any serious magisterial interference with some new non-negotiables. His unbending words on economics, the disparities between rich and poor, the rapacious conduct of global markets, and the lack of concern for the common good that has characterized so much of our politics of late inject a charge of dissonance in unexpected places.
Suddenly, a pope is with us in our boardrooms and global planning sessions, puncturing the illusion that whatever is done in the advancement of economic interests is somehow also doing good for humankind.
And "prudential judgment" seems to be a weak defense. Francis calls the powerful to account for encouraging an insatiable appetite for the world's resources, for the use of marginalized populations as new slave labor forces, for tolerating human rights abuses in the advancement of economic interests, for doing whatever is necessary in the pursuit of wealth without regard for the consequences to creation.
Francis has not taken anything off the table of essential Catholic concerns. He's pointing out, rather insistently, that there's a lot more on the table that demands our attention.
If, as Friedman suggests, environmental degradation is a greater threat than the compelling conflicts that capture most of our attention, Francis understands it as symptom of even deeper disorders that ultimately affect everyone.
He sees the "weakening of the power of nation states," a power often now conceded to economic interests, and he calls for nothing less than a new level of global cooperation and statecraft that might "uphold high principles" and consider "the long-term common good." For Catholics in the developed world, it is an unsettling message.