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Silence is not much evidence of anything, so why suggest otherwise?

January 24, 2016

The following are not thoughts on Pope Francis but rather about a recent report by John Allen on Pope Francis.

Allen, associate editor of the on-line news site Crux, recently argued that “Francis pioneers a merciful way to oppose abortion, gay marriage”. Setting aside questions as to what the ubiquitous and apparently infinitely malleable adjective “merciful” means here, I take from his headline Allen’s claim that Francis recently did or said some things to “pioneer” new ways to oppose abortion and so-called gay marriage. That claim gets my attention, naturally, but should it not be proven by what Allen includes in his article? Allen offers four points.

2016 March for Life. Allen writes “As to the March for Life, Francis didn’t offer any direct endorsement, but US leaders in the anti-abortion movement say they’re convinced he’s got their backs.” Sorry? This sentence says that Francis said and did nothing in regard to the March for Life, reporting only that some pro-lifers feel that the pope supports them. If it is anything, that sentence is not a claim about Francis, it’s a claim about pro-lifers.

Francis need not, of course, have attended the March for Life (no pope has); he need not have sent it a supportive message (though other popes have); he need not even mention the March for Life if he does not wish to. But, if he did not attend, did not greet, and did not even mention the March, how exactly is this series of non-actions evidence that the pope is ‘pioneering’ a new way to oppose abortion? If eisegesis is reading one’s opinions into another’s words, what is it when there literally are no words to read one’s opinions into, but a message is divined from them anyway?

Italy’s Family Day. Per Allen, “With regard to Italy’s Family Day, Francis used an address to judges of the main Vatican [sic] court on Friday to insist that ‘there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,’ which was taken locally as a green light for resistance to the civil unions measure.” Sorry, but, as above, Francis did not mention Family Day, he did not mention Italian parliament members or its proposed legislation, and he said nothing about marriage or family that any Catholic could not have said in casual conversation. How, then, do Francis’ remarks to the Roman Rota ‘pioneer’ a new way to oppose ‘gay-marriage’ in Italy or anywhere else?

Absolution from abortion. Allen recalls the pope’s September extension of faculties to remit the sin/crime of abortion. This papal act, though it was awkwardly announced and in some ways was probably canonically redundant, was a papal initiative in regard to abortion. So far, so good. But Allen’s claim is, apparently, that forgiveness for abortion is a ‘pioneering’ new way to oppose abortion. If that logic is not evident to you, reader, well, it is not clear to me, either. I need an explanation or argument to understand the connection that Allen thinks the pope sees between “forgiving offenses” and “opposing offenses”.

Korean abortion memorial. Allen writes “During a trip to South Korea, the pontiff added an impromptu visit to a symbolic ‘cemetery’ for the victims of abortion at a Catholic health care facility outside Seoul, formed by a rolling grassy hillside dotted with small white crosses and topped with a statue of the Holy Family … Notably, Francis didn’t say anything at all during that visit.” Once again, Francis’s non-comments are offered as evidence of what he must have meant.

Granted, visiting a memorial is usually an expression about what is memorialized there, but in the Catholic tradition, we usually rely on words to give meaning to actions. A piece of bread is not silently blessed by a priest, but consecratory words are said over it so that the people know what the Eucharistic gesture means. In Allen’s view, the pope need not have said anything about abortion because the pope’s “haunted, anguished visage told the whole tale.” Maybe so, I wasn’t there. Maybe a look of papal grief is a ‘pioneering’ new way to oppose abortion. But Allen has already drawn more meaning from papal silences than I think can be prudently gleaned, so I may be forgiven, I hope, some reluctance to take this silence as ‘pioneering’ a new way to oppose abortion.

I conclude as I began. These remarks are not a criticism of Francis—there is no doubt whatsoever where he stands on the gravity of abortion and on the impossibility of ‘gay-marriage’ (even if his manner sometimes muffs his message) and he is not obligated to engage in any specific acts of opposition to either. But my remarks are a criticism of reporters who, with some proclivity these days, seem to offer the pope’s silence on various matters as evidence for what they think he means on various matters. May I suggest, instead, that silence is usually, pretty much, just silence.

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