Pope Francis just made news — but it wasn't about abortion

A pope criticizing abortion? How's that news? Now, endorsing breastfeeding in church....

Pope Francis
(Image credit: (TONY GENTILE/Reuters/Corbis))

On Monday, Pope Francis had some tough words about abortion. Terminating pregnancies is another manifestation of our "throwaway culture," but "unfortunately, what is thrown away is not only food or disposable objects, but often human beings themselves, who are discarded as if they were unnecessary," he told foreign diplomats in his first annual "State of the World" address. "It is horrific even to think that there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day."

AFP says that was Pope Francis' "strongest condemnation yet of abortion." They were certainly "his toughest remarks to date on abortion," agrees Reuters, suggesting that Francis was railroaded by restive Catholic conservatives into strengthening his public statements against abortion. The Associated Press concurs with the conservative strong-arming, explaining that unlike his recent predecessors, this pope "prefers to speak less about the church's moralizing rules and more about its positive, welcoming message."

That last part is true. But a pope criticizing abortion? That's not news. It's not even the first time this pope has spoken out against abortion; he said in his first papal manifesto in November that it "is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life."

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And in his remarks to the Vatican diplomatic corps on Monday, Pope Francis also strongly backed more humane immigration policies, criticized the persecution of Christians in Africa and Asia, and encouraged greater respect for the elderly and stronger efforts to protect children from slavery and starvation — points that most articles noted near the bottom, if they included them at all.

The pope's remarks on abortion aren't all that remarkable, but Francis has been doing some newsworthy things.

On Sunday, he drew heavily from Latin America and Africa when he named 19 new cardinals, 16 of whom will be eligible to vote on his replacement. In characteristic fashion, he told the 19 new "princes" of the church to not consider this a promotion and urged them not to celebrate with lavish parties. He has also been slowly and deliberately upending the entrenched Vatican bureaucratic power structure.

That's all very important and interesting, but it's not directly relevant to most Catholic churchgoers. The real recent news coming from Pope Francis came from a group baptism he performed in the Sistine Chapel on Sunday.

In an improvised sermon after baptizing 32 babies — including one born to a couple married in a civil ceremony, not a Catholic service — Pope Francis endorsed breastfeeding in church. "Today the choir will sing but the most beautiful choir of all is the choir of the infants who will make a noise," the pope said. "Some will cry because they are not comfortable or because they are hungry.... If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice. Because they are the most important people here."

Pope Francis spoke in favor of breastfeeding last month, in the context of ending hunger. But "breastfeeding in public, particularly in sacred sites such as churches, remains a sensitive issue for families," says CNN's Daniel Burke.

After his December remarks, "breastfeeding advocates delighted in the pope's acceptance of breastfeeding as a natural act appropriate in a sacred place," said Lauren Markoe at Religion News Service, in an article published before Pope Francis' sermon at Sunday's baptism. Christian breastfeeding advocates have a good point — "Jesus was breastfed" — but in many churches nursing mothers "know others would prefer that they retreat to the nursery, or find an out-of-the-way bench."

Now Catholic mothers have at least the pope's blessing to breastfeed their child when needed, right in the pew. In the Sistine Chapel on Sunday, Vatican Radio reporter Emer McCarthy discreetly breastfed her to-be-baptized daughter before the sermon. "Who would have thought the pope would be this great proponent," she tells Catholic News Service. Pope Francis' comments "underline how natural it is, how motherhood and maternity are natural and have a place, even in church, even in the Sistine Chapel."

It's likely that many parish priests and plenty of their congregants will not agree with the pope's views on nursing in the sanctuary — or with his exhortation to let young children "sing" during mass. But Pope Francis has endorsed both propositions. And that's newsworthy.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.